My Week With Marilyn – religion and class on screen

Directed by Simon Curtis

Written by Adrian Hodges

Starring Michelle Williams, Kenneth Branagh, Eddie Redmayne, Judi Dench, Emma Watson, Julia Ormond, Zoe Wanamaker, Dougray Scott and Dominic Cooper

My Week With Marilyn released in late November in both the USA and the UK, but is still relatively early in its third week of release here in Australia, where it has grossed more than Aus$1.5million – not bad for an art-house film.

The year was 1956.  She was one of the most famous women in the world.  He was one of the most acclaimed actors.  Thus Marilyn Monroe (Michelle Williams) and Lawrence Olivier Kenneth Branagh) began their collaboration on the film The Prince and The Showgirl, based on the stage play The Sleeping Prince by Terrence Rattigan  It was the first production of her company, Marilyn Monroe Productions, and was shot in England’s Pinewood Studios.  Olivier had previously acted in the stage play with his wife Vivien Leigh (Julia Ormond); when Monroe’s production company obtained the film rights, Olivier agreed to come on board as long as he could direct and co-produce, as well as co-star.

Colin Clark (1932-2002, played by Eddie Redmayne in the film) was 23 years old at the time, and his family was friends with Olivier/Leigh:  his father was Sir Kenneth Clark, the great art historian (and presented of the television series Civilisation). Colin’s two accounts of the making of the film – on which he was “third assistant director” – have become the source material for My Week With Marilyn, and which unashamedly tells the story of its difficult and strained production history during the period August to November 1956.

I am a sucker for films about historical films (and so, apparently are the Oscars: witness the recent success of The Artist in the recent Academy Awards).  There is something very delightful about showing the British film industry in the 1950s – truly an under-exposed slice of film history, at least to American audiences for most of whom non-American film production is simply unknown.  Michelle Williams is a delight as Monroe, and has proven to be a popular choice, receiving a Golden Globe for her performance, as well as being nominated for both an Oscar and BAFTA.

As My Week With Marilyn tells the story, Olivier was brutish, impatient and brusque with Monroe, who was a combination of delicate flower and sex goddess.   Monroe had recently married the Jewish playwright Arthur Miller (Dougray Scott), who accompanied her to England for the production and – only six weeks into their marriage – reportedly were already having relationship difficulties.  Monroe is accompanied by a number of other minders, acting coach Paula Strasberg the daughter of “Method” acting guru Lee Strasberg (played by Zoe Wanamaker), manager/production company executive Milton Greene (Dominic Cooper), and publicist Arthur Jacobs (Toby Jones).  Once Miller leaves England, as Clark tells it, Monroe’s insecurities, worries and drug problems started to become more significant, and she took him on as her support person in a romantic relationship that captivated him, despite the disapproval of almost everyone on the production.

It’s a wonderful young man’s fantasy, reinforced by the young Clark taking Monroe to his old school (Eton) and to Windsor Castle, where they are allowed in because Sir Owen Morshead (Derek Jacobi) – the Royal Librarian – is Clark’s godfather.  What a dream for every 23 year old!

And also what an odd view of celebrity.  Clark, as we know, is anything but an “everyman”.  He came not simply from the upper middle class, but from what I will call the “working” or “employed” upper class of England, with a “Baron” father and connections to the highest levels of British society.  This background inevitably colours Clark’s portrayals in the film (and presumably his original source materials):  Judi Dench’s Dame Agnes Sybil Thorndike comes across as intelligent, discreet and kind.  Perhaps she was.

But of greater concern are the portrayals of the Americans:  although the film does not specify it, all five of the American characters in this film are Jewish, including of course Monroe, who had converted to Judaism on 1 July 1956 to marry Miller.   At one point, Paula Strasberg calls Monroe “bubbaleh”, which is a Yiddish term of endearment like “pet” or “honey”, but aside from that, there is no indication of the Jewish characters.  In fact, other than Marilyn, the other four Jewish characters come across as crass and uncouth – a distinctly (shall we say) British upper class view of American Jews.  The very strong implication in this film is that the Colin Clark character somehow “saves” Monroe from both a nasty Olivier and the four grasping American Jews.  The idea here is that Monroe, as a blond, middle-American convert to Judaism, is not really Jewish at all, but has somehow been “taken in” (or manipulated) by Jews because of the Jewish “control” of Hollywood.  At one point, when Monroe kisses Colin in the film, she says “that’s the first time I have ever kissed anyone younger than me”, and then something about a lot of older (did she mean Jewish?) men in Hollywood.  Monroe’s conversion certificate is below:

And what happened to The Prince and the Showgirl, which was released in June 1957?  Despite its alleged production difficulties and mixed reviews, the film still came in under budget and became profitable, gaining five BAFTA nominations and won Italian and French film awards for Monroe.  Monroe made three more films in her lifetime: Some Like it Hot (1959, directed by Billy Wilder), Let’s Make Love (1960, George Cukor) and The Misfits (1961, John Huston).  Monroe was only thirty years old at the time of The Prince and the Showgirl, and died just five years after the film’s release in 1957.

Good sources: An archival site about Milton H Greene, Marilyn’s manager/production partner, who was particularly famous for his photography. A wonderful description by Elisa Jordan about the production history of The Prince and the Showgirl, on The Examiner.com.  And here is the original trailer for that film:

And of course the original trailer for My Week With Marilyn:

And finally, here is Marilyn Monroe’s imprints at Grauman’s Chinese Theater in Hollywood (photo credit: C Perlgut, Nov 2011):

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