We get the escapism we deserve, I guess: Just as 1930s Hollywood distracted Depression-era audiences with glitzy Fred and Ginger musicals, Harvey Weinstein is answering our Occupy-preoccupied times by releasing two Oscar hopeful fantasies in the same week. Both present the sad lives of Old Hollywood stars, but the soft stunt of The Artist—Michel Hazanavicius's nearly silent tale of the last days of the silent-movie era—seems avant-garde compared to the TV-movie-quality impersonation that is Simon Curtis’s My Week With Marilyn.
It’s 1956, and Marilyn Monroe (Michelle Williams) has arrived in London to star in The Prince and the Showgirl, directed by and co-starring Laurence Olivier. The pill-addled peroxide blonde sweeps onto Olivier’s set with an entourage, including new husband Arthur Miller (Dougray Scott), shifty personal “producer” Milton Greene (Dominic Cooper), and acting coach Paula Strasberg (Zoë Wanamaker). Marilyn’s part was originated onstage by Olivier’s wife, Vivien Leigh (Julia Ormond). But at 44, Leigh is too old to play a ditzy ingenue, so she hangs around set portentously reminding everyone that all women have a shelf life.
Under the influence and protection of Strasberg, the Method-drunk Marilyn habitually misses call times, holing up in her dressing room and searching for the character in a vanity mirror while emptying bottles of champagne. As scripted by Adrian Hodges and performed by Kenneth Branagh, the character of Olivier is a reductive comic sketch of the man, his acting philosophy and condescending self-importance both seemingly inspired by the real Olivier’s mythic quip to Dustin Hoffman on the set of Marathon Man: “Try acting, dear boy.”
Production is soon at an impasse, as Monroe and Olivier, both surrounded by sycophants, throw knee-jerk tantrums when they don’t immediately get their way. This bad behavior is seen through the hardly impartial eyes of a poor little rich boy, romantic, third assistant director Colin (Eddie Redmayne), a role based on Colin Clark, whose two memoirs about his relationship with Monroe on the Showgirl shoot inspired this movie. Although he’s warned early on that the first rule of filmmaking is “Don’t shit on your doorstep,” Colin begins an affair with a wardrobe girl, only to abandon her when lonely Marilyn starts taking advantage of Colin’s starstruck willingness to attend to her every need.
Filmed through the Vaseline-smeared gaze of a schoolboy deluded by his crush, My Week With Marilyn is an oddly chaste movie about a sex goddess that not only shies away from depicting sex, but also from examining its titular character's own sexuality as it manifested itself in her real life and as a consumer product. Every man Marilyn meets greets her with bugged-out paralysis, and occasionally, she makes a faux-naïve joke about her wealth of experience. (“There are a lot of older guys in Hollywood,” she tells Colin, by way of explaining why he’s her youngest conquest.) But the film doesn’t dare make Marilyn sexy, perhaps because it can’t deal with the thornier issue of what it means to elevate a severely damaged woman into the greatest pinup icon of her time. Or all time.
Shimmying stiffly in too-tight dresses, exaggerated belly padding protruding awkwardly off her modern waif frame, Williams’s voice and movements reflect study but not feeling. She can intellectually connect the dots between Marilyn’s contradictions—crippling insecurity versus effortless seductive power; an understanding of her own objectification paired with total emotional retardation—but hitting those beats isn't enough to animate the character. You never forget that you’re watching a talented living actress laboring to mimic a long-gone movie star who—on-screen, at least—never seemed to be acting at all.