I was barnswoggled when, upon checking the release date of this film I learned that it had come out in the year 2011. That was 8 freakin years ago! If you had held a gun to my head and asked when it was released, I would have sworn it was just 2 or 3 years ago and that I vividly remember quite recently all the fevered discussion over Michelle Williams’ portrayal of Marilyn Monroe. But, alas, memory is merely a slave to the unkind passage of time and it has actually been almost a decade since this film toddled into our collective consciousness, in a younger, more innocent time before Barack Obama had even finished his first term in office.
It stars Michelle Williams as Marilyn Monroe, a turn as an icon that won her a Golden Globe. It also features Eddie Redmayne in an understated role playing the kind of part he is most suited for - a kind of wispy dweeb. He would later take a hard turn away from this type of role, plunging headlong into maniacal over-acting that really seemed like it was flirting with mental illness (review of Jupiter Ascending forthcoming). Kenneth Branagh is also delightful as Laurence Olivier because, well, it’s Kenneth Branagh so what else would you expect?
I enjoyed this film, on the whole. I especially love the bouncy opening act, which wastes no time setting up the world of 1950s Pinewood Studios and the stakes - a collab production produced and directed by English acting titan Laurence Olivier and starring American sexpot Marilyn Monroe, then just freshly into her marriage to Arthur Miller. The film they were making, a throwaway romantic comedy, was intended to maybe serve as a star vehicle for Olivier and maybe give Marilyn a shot at burnishing her acting cred by starring next to one of the all-time greats. Instead, no one remembers this film and Marilyn Monroe’s diva antics apparently made the production a hellish affair.
The movie is great in its breathless opening act at establishing the casual egotism and cut-throat nature of the movie biz, the way it chews people up and crushes them. This is pretty cleverly framed from the perspective of eager newb Colin Clark, a kid from a well-off upper class British family who wants to make it in the movie business so badly you can practically feel it dripping off of him. That desperation becomes a kind of pathetic liability as he falls hard for Marilyn, whose deep ocean of emotional and psychological trauma of course ends up wounding him in the end.
Although the relationship between the two of them is meant to be the heart of the story, for me it was the least interesting. The world the film created was so much more vibrant and interesting, and it told a more subtle and compelling story of the tragedy of Hollywood and the emotional and mental scars these famous, highly-paid basket cases all carried around with them. When the film tried to underscore Marilyn’s vulnerability, it was a bit too on the nose - like in one of the final scenes where after shooting wraps she declares to the assembled cast in a barely there whisper that she tried her best.
The film works much better when all of that is subtext, such as how Marilyn has employed a ridiculously expensive acting coach to guide her through the Method. This is ridiculous because a) Marilyn Monroe was not ever going to be taken seriously as an actress in Hollywood b) this film was a light romantic comedy, and therefore the application of Method acting to find her character’s motivation is patently absurd; and c) the fact that all anybody wanted was to exploit her natural sex appeal while leaving all the rest out of it is the obvious tragedy about her career and life and something as simple as all the dynamics in the production of this film working at cross purposes highlighted that tragedy beautifully and cleverly without the need to draw a line under it.
Michelle Williams is pretty great in the part. She’s not really doing an impression, but does a good job of showing the two sides of Marilyn - the vulnerable, insecure side, and the movie star persona. And Williams excels at showing us the real work that goes into turning that on and off, the shifting of the gears. Maybe it would be hard to do a Marilyn Monroe pic without flirting with melodrama, but I think most of the time - when the narrative isn’t being weighed down by Colin’s googly eyed teenage hard-on - it comes down on the right side of it.
Ultimately, it was a nice little trip down memory lane that does a great job of skewering Hollywood. And I guess the real giveaway that it was made in 2011 should have been that Carson from Downton Abbey had a bit part in it.