My Week with Marilyn/The Prince and the Showgirl

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.

Michelle Williams and Eddie Redmayne

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.

Kenneth Branagh as Olivier

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.

Oliver and Monroe in 'The Prince and the Showgirl'

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11 thoughts on “My Week with Marilyn/The Prince and the Showgirl

  1. Judy, I like the approach you took in your post of discussing both “My Week with Marilyn” and “The Prince and the Showgirl” and drawing parallels between the plots of the two films. I’ve read reviews of the new film but none that talked about it in the light of the movie it’s about.

    I did see “The Prince and the Showgirl” a few months ago (it was shown in the US last week on TCM as part of their tribute to cinematographer Jack Cardiff too) and although I didn’t find it a great film, I still enjoyed it a great deal. Whatever the problems Marilyn had making the film, it has one of her most relaxed and charming performances. She’s childlike without being dumb and sexy in a very innocent way. A few weeks later I watched Olivier’s film version of Chekhov’s “Three Sisters” and noticed that in a sequence where Olivier’s elderly character recounts a ball he attended when he was younger, the ball scene from “The Prince and the Showgirl” was shown in the background.

    In any event, you offered some interesting commentary about the personalities of the main characters in “My Week,” and I’ll certainly be mindful of this when I watch it (after it’s out on DVD).

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    • Thanks very much, R.D. I was trying to find a different way into talking about ‘My Week with Marilyn’, as there are so many good reviews of it which already cover a lot of what I wanted to say. I should have mentioned Jack Cardiff, whose colour cinematography is wonderful in ‘The Prince and the Showgirl’ – the print on the DVD I bought looks pristine. Must agree that this is one of Monroe’s best performances and that the problems behind the scenes didn’t affect the finished film. I haven’t seen Olivier’s film version of ‘Three Sisters’ but it is one I would like to see – and I will watch out for the scene from ‘The Prince and the Showgirl’.

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  3. Judy wow this is a great piece from you and thanks also for the very kind mention. That means a lot to me. I really like how you mentioned that the characters are seen through the eyes of Colin and that’s exactly I think the point of the film. We are at a remove, just like Colin is for the most part and this is how the film succeeds so well. Needless to say this is one of my favorite films from the last year. I don’t care that it’s not getting all the critical claim, as this is more a personal film for me and I found a lot of depth to it, despite the “glossy” look of it. I read the memoir and also saw Prince and the Showgirl. I found the original film to be kind of a confection of sorts, but it is rather sweet and certainly helped my appreciation of both films having seen them both. Again great stuff here Judy. My hat’s off to you. :)

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    • Thanks very much, Jon – I haven’t read Colin Clark’s memoir, but did have a quick peek into it. Would you recommend it? I’ve got a lot of books lined up to read, but might get to it in a little while. I agree the film goes deeper than its glossy surface might suggest, something which I think is also true of ‘The Prince and the Showgirl’. Thanks again.

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    • Judy, I think you would have to read both memoirs. Neither one alone makes for the complete story, but I found them rather interesting, if not complete page turners. I like the film more though, let’s put it that way.

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  4. First thing’s first. I feel I should mention from the start that I have adored Marilyn Monroe for a very long time. Probably since I first watched Gentlemen Prefer Blondes round the time I was five. I remember playing it over and over again, getting frustrated at how long it took the video player to rewind the tape. She seems so vibrant and lively, it’s like she comes out of the screen into your living room. Apart from her curvaceous body and pouting lips, which I was too young to understand, I still think it’s her smile and shine that make her irresistible to audiences. Because of my admiration towards her, I have watched a lot of films and TV movies about her life and, even though they were informative, they all seem to fade from your memory after a while since they somehow try to humanise a woman who has lasted so many years in the conscience of popular culture exactly because of her iconic status. People are always intrigued by her personal troubles, her love life, her dramatic childhood years and this image of a woman so powerful and vulnerable at the same time. It makes sense that most films about her, since we are used to seeing her on the screen as well, will feel like they are not be able to fully explore such a woman in depth and do her justice.

    And right when you think I would be disappointed in My Week with Marilyn, I’m going to declare that I liked it a lot. Mainly because the film is not parading as a truthful, biographical account of Marilyn’s life. First of all, it revolves around a week of her life. More significantly, though, Marilyn is not the main character. Colin, portrayed by Eddie Redmayne, is a young inexperienced man thirsty to live and is given the opportunity to do just that as he gets a job as a gofer in the production of The Prince and the Showgirl. His story is a coming of age tale, about that time when you break away from what was until then familiar and ‘join the circus’. It’s about his first love but, as it usually happens with first loves, it’s monumental, exciting and, ultimately, heart breaking. And it is Colin’s story we are watching.

    So, the things we learn about Marilyn are through his memories. In this way, the film dodges the bullet of even trying to be a comprehensive biography and doesn’t pretend that what we get is the ultimate look deep inside her soul. Marilyn is never seen alone, her actions and words are always what Colin sees or hears, a fact which makes the audience aware of the fact that film is not claiming to know Marilyn, as the narrator doesn’t really know her himself. So, we know Marilyn only to the extent that others have known her. And while there are glimpses of a Marilyn audiences wouldn’t see at the time of her career, as she binge drinks and sees her media image as another part she can play, still there is nothing new that we learn that hasn’t been written and said about her already. There couldn’t be. That might sound like a waste of time, another story about Marilyn with no real insight of the woman herself. However, one must be aware that a real insight is impossible and all biographies that claim they know the artists they revolve around are subject to criticism precisely for this reason. If the film is not based on an autobiography, than no one can really communicate the inner truth of any other person. In this way, the focus of the film is not an objective view on her life but provides us with a perspective of her. Which, to me, is much more interesting.

    Which brings us to the object of the viewers’ gaze, Michelle Williams. Williams does a very good job at communicating exactly what it is that everyone loves about Marilyn. The fact that when she is happy, smiles and plays around, no one can look elsewhere. She understands Marilyn’s charismatic qualities and highlights them as much as she can, she adopts her mannerisms and facial expressions she had adopted for her films but doesn’t go overboard. She effortlessly portrays the fact that she was much more subdued and scared in real life and that the clueless and always happy blonde was a part she played in films and in front of the press. She is alluring and draws you in, makes you care for her, in the way Colin does for her too. Kenneth Branagh is very entertaining as a Laurence Olivier driven mad by Marilyn’s shenanigans, while he is portrayed as another man who was caught between admiring, envying and not being able to handle her.

    What is very interesting about this film is this notion of knowing Marilyn only through the media, either as an actress, or through photos or articles in the press, manifests itself in the film’s mise-en-scène as well. A great deal of Michelle Williams’ shots strongly allude to quite well known photos of her, from coming out of a shower and wrapping a towel around her to lying on her bed with her bathrobe, which always seemed to fascinate audiences as they were able to imagine how she might have been in her personal life. My Week with Marilyn not only recreates a lot of these shots but, also, a lot of these themes that had her at a relaxed, personal but always sexualized state. Some reviewers have interpreted that as a reinforcement of the stereotypes around her image. However, I would argue that this, once again, is done deliberately in order to imply that this is all we can know about her. The people who had met her, talked to her, photographed her, are the ones who can all give us a glimpse into her world, as much as she will let them. And they had preconceived notions about her as well. As it happens with Colin and the audience along with him.

    However, I do feel that, if this is what they were going for, they should have made it a bit clearer. While I recognized the referencing of her photos and films, someone with less knowledge about her may have not. Instead of the film being either a straight forward, obvious pastiche based on Marilyn, the persona ala Todd Haynes’ take on Bob Dylan in I’m Not There, or the biographical film which conceals the fact that all we know about her personal life and character is what she had let on and what other have mentioned, it ends up somewhere in the middle. However, the opening scene more than hints at that as it doesn’t recreate a particular film or performance but, rather, references Marilyn’s image as a whole, using intertextuality to do so, as several of her songs and elements of mise-en-scène allude to several films she has starred in. Throughout the film, Marilyn is the object of everyone’s gaze, from photographers, to Olivier who can’t take his eyes off of her during shooting or when watching the dailies. Ultimately this is a film about the effect Marilyn has had on others much more than the effect others had on her.
    http://www.unsungfilms.com, by Georgia Xanthopoulou

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    • Thanks very much for this detailed comment, Georgia. You clearly have a great knowledge of Marilyn Monroe’s work and her life – I was especially interested in what you say here about the referencing of famous shots, a lot of which I hadn’t really picked up on, and I like your point:

      “Some reviewers have interpreted that as a reinforcement of the stereotypes around her image. However, I would argue that this, once again, is done deliberately in order to imply that this is all we can know about her.”

      I also agree with your final point about the film looking more at her effect on others than on others’ effect on her. Thanks again for this, which has given me a lot of food for thought.

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