Marilyn Monroe, born Norma Jeane Baker, died at the age of 36 in 1962 having achieved both critical and commercial success. Today she remains one of the biggest movie stars and an indisputable symbol of blonde bombshell beauty. Yet, essentially she is still enigmatic. How exactly did little old Norma Jeane transform herself into the definitive Marilyn, and who was she really?
Simon Curtis's adaptation of Colin Clark's memoir (of the same name) is a fascinating portrait of the erratic behaviour of Ms. Monroe during the shooting of The Prince and I, a feature directed by and starring Lawrence Olivier and Marilyn Monroe and intended as a star vehicle for both.
A newly married Marilyn Monroe (Michelle Williams) arrives in England with her husband, the famous playwright, Arthur Miller (Dougray Scott) to start filming The Prince and I. She is cossetted and tip-toed around by everyone including Sir Lawrence Olivier (Kenneth Branagh) who, of course, wants to both sleep with her and make an amazing film. Colin Clark (Eddie Redmayne), an earnest young gentleman determined to join show business, is deployed by a team of anxious producers to make sure that everything is as it ought to be. Clark proves himself to be both intrepid, and attractive enough to catch Marilyn's eye and hence our glimpse into some very private and protected moments in the life of this troubled star.
Marilyn's behaviour is both fascinating and infuriating during the production. Determined to make her mark as a serious actor, she employs Paula Strasberg to coach her in the Strasberg method of acting. Strasberg both coddles and coaches Monroe, never leaving her side and invariably makes the star a few hours late for every scene. As Olivier becomes more and more exasperated with her, Monroe begins to withdraw, flubbing her lines and becoming increasingly agitated on the sets. It is when Arthur Miller leaves to return to America and his children citing "She's eating me alive," that Marilyn starts to really decline.
It is clear from the film that all those around the star, bodyguard, acting coach, producer/former lover etc. are complicit with her pill and alcohol habit. They medicate and facilitate her whenever they feel she is becoming unmanageable and they spy on her whenever they can. It is no wonder that an already emotionally vulnerable Monroe (she had an incredibly unstable childhood, moved from foster home to foster home) turns to Clark, the ready, eager, infatuated, young third assistant director, to make herself feel better. He is the one person who is available and adoring enough to assuage her extraordinary neediness, and for one blissful week, the pair play hooky from the production, driven in a chauffeur driven limousine all over a luminous, pastoral England.
What is truly extraordinary about this film is that it conveys the incredible power a real star can have over us ordinary people. Yes, Marilyn is famous, but she is also, when she wants to be, a truly glorious, charismatic, bright star. One can't take one's eyes off of her, and one does feel a little sorry for the competent Michelle Williams who plays her fairly well. Everytime Williams is on screen, one is seeing the real Marilyn in the mind's eye: her hourglass figure, her pouty mouth, her breathy "Oh gee, I'm so sorry" - and one is spell-bound. Boy, did she know how to work it – and in the end, perhaps that was her down-fall. A telling line in the film goes "They want Marilyn all the time" and, indeed, it does seem that people were willing to lay themselves at her feet. She loved that, and she hated that.
In the end, no one knows what really killed Marilyn Monroe, drugs, or her extraordinary vulnerability that was also her greatest charm.
DVDs reviewed in this column are available at Music and Expression, Thamel, 01-4700092.