Sunday, October 09, 2011

My Week with Marilyn at the NY Film Festival

The Weinstein Company is back with another mid 20th century story set in England about a British royal and a commoner to rival last year's The King's Speech. The new film My Week with Marilyn tells the story of Sir Laurence Olivier, the greatest British actor of the first half of the twentieth century, and Marilyn Monroe, the most sought after actress-sex symbol of the time, and how their paths met when the classically trained, soon to be Lord Olivier invited the Stanislavsky Method American actress to come to England to be his co-star on the film The Prince and the Showgirl. The battle of wits between them, which led to one of the stormiest shoots in the history of the cinema, is told through the eyes of young, wide-eyed innocent Colin Clark who starts as third assistant director on the set, and ends up becoming Monroe's true friend and confidant.

If all of this sounds a bit familiar, it's because it's more or less the same territory covered in the 1982 hit comedy My Favorite Year. The locale has changed from the Sid Caesar show in New York City to Pinewood Studios in England, but the premise feels essentially the same. In My Favorite Year young intern Mark Linn-Baker is hired to make sure that his movie idol, the alcoholic devil-may-care Peter O'Toole, stays out of trouble for a week and shows up for a live TV broadcast. In My Week with Marilyn, Eddie Redmayne's Colin Clark, an underling who works for Olivier (Kenneth Branagh), ends up becoming the only person on the set who can reach out to pill-addicted Marilyn (Michelle Williams) and ends up becoming her one true friend.

Despite the fact that we've all seen this before, the casting is quite inspired making the movie a sheer pleasure to watch. Gathered here are the very best American and British actors, sometimes in tiny blink-and-you-miss them roles. There's the remarkable Dame Judi Dench playing Dame Sybil Thorndyke, as well as Simon Russell Beale, Toby Jones, Emma Watson, and Derek Jacobi in relatively miniscule roles. Zoë Wannamaker as Marilyn's acting coach/guru Paula Strasberg, and Dominic Cooper as Marilyn's photographer/Svengali Milton Greene have more screen time and are quite memorable in their roles.

But the film is all about Eddie Redmayne's Colin Clark in the middle of the Olivier/Monroe storm. Mr. Redmayne, who was wonderful in London and New York in the play Red playing Mark Rothko's assistant (and incidentally winning the Olivier Award for his performance), is totally believable as the ingenue who in a week matures into a man. His fresh, freckled face and full lips contrasts well with Mr. Branagh's airbrushed thin lipped near-caricature of Olivier. Branagh plays the great actor/director as a lion in winter who mistakenly thought that hiring Monroe would make him feel young again. Soon he realizes that her natural qualities sharply accentuate how much he is aging and how dated his technique can seem. This Olivier detests method acting but longs to be relevant to a young audience. Ms. Williams gives a memorable performance as the troubled and needy Marilyn Monroe. Beautifully photographed in vibrant 1950s style by Ben Smithard, she plays her as a child who might have grown up way too soon without having had a childhood at all. Now, caught up in the whirlwind of fame, photographers, fans, and the pills that her entourage keeps feeding her, she longs for somebody real, and that's where Mr. Redmayne's Colin comes in. The scenes where they both leave the set and visit the English countryside have an idyllic, warm quality. Forget about Marilyn the sex symbol, this is the Marilyn anyone would have loved to have hung around with -- vivacious, fun, naughty, but always with a complex center that was hard to reach.

Despite all the backstage and personal drama, director Simon Curtis manages to keep things sunny throughout. We are even reminded at the end of the film that following the Sturm und Drang of the Prince and the Showgirl, Olivier went on to score one of his biggest successes playing Archie Rice in John Osborne's angry young man play The Entertainer, and Marilyn went on to do Billy Wilder's Some Like it Hot, one of the most beloved comedies of all time. Sir Larry got to be relevant with the young crowd, and Marilyn went back home to prove to everyone that she was a great actress. One leaves a showing of My Week with Marilyn with the feeling that everything is right with the world.

As The King's Speech proved last year, this is the kind of film that Hollywood adores. American audiences love British drama, and in this one you have one of the best loved American icons in the center of it all. I expect that My Week with Marilyn will do very well at the box office, and especially well come Oscar time.

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