Films about classic cinema are proving very popular at the moment. There’s The Artist, a tribute to silent cinema – and My Week with Marilyn, starring Michelle Williams, Eddie Redmayne and Kenneth Branagh, which goes behind the scenes of the making of The Prince and the Showgirl in 1957. After watching this alternately amusing and bitter-sweet slice of nostalgia, I saw the earlier film (yes, I know it would have made more sense to do this the other way round!), and was struck not only by how well the new movie captures its mood at times, but also, to my surprise, by the similarities in theme between the two.
Each of these two movies is a period piece – with the new film being directed by Simon Curtis, who also helmed the BBC’s costume drama Cranford. (He brings the same loving attention to detail to this film as he did in that mini-series, both in re-creating the 1950s and in showing the 1950s’ version of 1911 in the restaged movie scenes.) Each is set against the background of a major event – a royal wedding in one, the making of a great film in the other. Also, each film is about a couple temporarily thrown together by circumstances, although they are from different worlds. And each shows a younger person who isn’t famous seduced by the fame and glamour surrounding an older, damaged stranger, but having to come back down to earth and return to real life at the end.
Michelle Williams plays Monroe in My Week with Marilyn, but it is actually young actor Eddie Redmayne who takes the role most similar to the one Monroe herself plays in The Prince and the Showgirl. He plays fresh-faced young third assistant director Colin Clark, whose diary and memoirs were the inspiration for Adrian Hodges’ script. Colin is drawn to the troubled actress, several years older than him, and builds an unlikely bond with her, which turns into a tentative, probably chaste love affair. Similarly, in the earlier film, Monroe’s character, clumsy understudy Elsie from the Coconut Club with her one white dress, is drawn to Grandduke Charles (Olivier) the Regent of the fictional Balkan country Carpatha, who is older than her, and weighed down both by his present responsibilities and by his past.
In each film, the celebrity/royal is unbearably autocratic and calls all the shots. Monroe and Charles both send cars or carriages for their latest love interests when they want to see them, but ignore and send them away when they are busy with something or someone else. However, with both the Prince and the actress, there is a feeling that, beneath the spoilt surface and demanding behaviour, there is an inner loneliness. Both of them need someone they can talk to and trust, and nobody in their paid entourage really fits the bill. Elsie and Colin are partly seduced by the glamour of all this, as I said earlier, and flattered to be chosen by someone who could have anyone they want. But they also see and respond to the real person behind the mask.
Having said all this, I wouldn’t want to push the similarities between the two films’ characters too far. There are also important differences. Elsie in The Prince and the Showgirl is less ambitious and rather more likeable than her 1950s male counterpart, partly because of Terence Rattigan’s great script, adapted from his own play The Sleeping Prince, and partly because Monroe herself gives the character so much warmth. You never feel that Elsie is on the make, trying to work out whether the Prince could help her career – whereas I do think there is this feeling occasionally in My Week with Marilyn. Colin had appeared to be falling in love with costume assistant Liz (Emma Watson), but he quickly drops her when it becomes apparent that Marilyn Monroe might be interested. Liz herself suggests to him that he sees a possibility of trading up, and he doesn’t deny this. I suppose another way of seeing this is that Elsie is really falling in love with her Prince, even if their hoped-for reunion in 18 months’ time seems likely to be just a dream – but Colin’s flirtation with Marilyn will just be one week out of his life, something for him to remember, and trade on, later. Redmayne is excellent at making Colin genuine and kind, but at times showing a hint of calculation below the charm.
Taking on the role of a film legend must be a daunting challenge for any actor – because anyone watching their take will be so familiar with the original, and constantly making comparisons. I’d say both Williams and Branagh walk this tightrope successfully, however. Most of the time they both channel the great actors they are portraying rather than imitating them, bringing out the fears and insecurities behind the image. It helps that they are almost always seen at one remove. I don’t know how accurate the film is in factual terms, but after all they are not just playing Monroe and Olivier, but playing those actors as they are seen through the star-struck eyes of Colin.
Williams is especially good at getting the two different sides of Monroe, and showing how she switches from one to the other when the cameras start rolling or adoring fans move into sight. Suddenly she is Marilyn, and striking her famous poses. At times Branagh’s re-creation of Olivier’s mannered way of speaking might border on caricature, but I think he just about gets away with it, as one great Shakespearean actor/director paying homage to another. And he also has scenes suggesting the insecurity beneath the brilliance, especially one where he looks into the mirror at his face, and says one or two lines anticipating a later film, The Entertainer. Writer Adrian Hodges portrays Olivier as quite similar to the Grandduke – he too is determined and demanding and wants to get his own way, with constant clashes between him and Monroe. As I’m a big fan of Olivier, I found I was automatically more sympathetic to his character than I should really have been in terms of the script!
I’ll stop here as I don’t want to write too much, but will just say there is a great deal more to both films than this, above all the humour - and also they both have wonderful supporting casts. I especially enjoyed Dame Sybil Thorndike’s performance in The Prince and the Showgirl, and Dame Judi Dench playing Dame Sybil in My Week with Marilyn, as well as Zoe Wanamaker as Monroe’s Method acting coach, Paula Strasberg.
For further reading, here’s a link to Jon’s review of My Week with Marilyn at his blog Films Worth Watching, and another to a piece from the Kitty Packard Pictorial blog on The Year Classic Film Made a Comeback, looking at The Artist, My Week with Marilyn, Hugo and Midnight in Paris.