I sprinted off to My Week with Marilyn virtually the second it opened, because there are few things that I relish more than a good old-fashioned show business biopic. Of course, as my companion on the day pointed out, this film is not actually a good old-fashioned show business biopic, given that it lacks the customary scenes of a bitter parent or crusty old aunt telling the subject that he or she will never make it as an entertainer; of the subject’s high-school sweetheart filing for divorce because of the ravages that fame and fortune have wrought; and the subject’s sordid death slash triumphant comeback, depicted, ideally, by means of a close-up of the subject’s hand clutching a microphone, followed by bold type specifying the nature of his or her demise. In fact, there’s a highly convincing argument to be mounted that My Week should be filed alongside the goblins and wizards in ‘Fantasy’. Nonetheless, the flick has an entertainment idol close to the heart of the action, meaning that it was likely I would derive from it quite as much enjoyment as I had from Summer Dreams: The Story of the Beach Boys, Daydream Believers: The Monkees’ Story, and certainly more than I had from the vile, and interminable, Selena.
I attended a session of My Week in genteel Camberwell, which was a guarantee that not only would Dame Judi Dench appear in this motion picture, she would appear in the Coming Attractions – in fact, I was surprised that the Rivoli hadn’t somehow crowbarred her likeness into the advertisement for Warner Bros Movie World. As I sat, yet again, through the trailer for that Slumdog Millionaire-cum-Cocoon film in which a group of English senior citizens goes on holiday to India and, if their vacation resembles those of anyone I know who has been to that subcontinent, will find that the whole rich carnival is interspersed with bucket flushes and luggage losses, I considered the contrasting fates of the men and women of Dawson’s Creek. Frankly, Michelle Williams isn’t the member of their party for whom I would have, soothsayer-like, predicted a massive career. However, my lack of faith in her was less her fault than that of the almost-unfeasibly annoying character she played: that is, the endlessly self-dramatising ex-Manhattaner high schooler Jen Lindley, who was always being led astray by a young blade called Drue Valentine, and who, somehow, managed to become more annoying than ever in the ‘college years’, even though, by then, she had a toe firmly in the water of fag haggery, meaning that I should have been drawn to her like a moth to a flame. The Dawson’s actor whom I used to champion to anyone who would listen – that is, no one – was Joshua Jackson, who played Pacey Witter, but he has, I am sorry to report, been confined to works with titles such as The Shadow Dancer, in which his character ‘learns about life and love from [an] irascible genius’.
At any rate, Williams actually, as everyone knows by this time, really weaves some magic as Monroe. I actually felt as though I were watching the woman herself, which I have never before experienced when I’ve been watching the quantities of other actresses who have played Monroe in various MM-themed miniseries, and other works, that I’ve wolfed down like a wolf. In fact, Williams has officially taken over from my, until now, favourite Monroe impersonator, the Australian Linda Kerridge, who went from Blankety Blanks to a Saturn-Award-nominated performance in homicidal-film-geek-centred slasher flick Fade to Black, a genre of which I would like to see many more examples. This is especially remarkable, considering that Williams, unlike Kerridge, doesn’t really look much like MM – yet, even as I was acknowledging this fact to myself while watching her, I still believed that she was the legendary platinum blonde.
Other than the revelation of Williams’ performance – and, despite the hype, it was still a revelation to me because I hadn’t really, truly thought that I was going to buy her in the role – the film was almost exactly as I expected it to be, restoring the faith in my soothsaying abilities that Joshua Jackson’s post-Dawson’s career had shaken. To wit, Marilyn turned up late to work all the time, and did a lot of bleating about her childhood, between popping ‘dolls’ and swigging booze; Kenneth Branagh wore a false chin and intoned, what I imagine were, quotations from Shakespeare; and Dame Judi wrestled like a man possessed with lines like ‘First love is such sweet despair, Colin.’ The only surprise was that Colin himself (Eddie Redmayne), the young hero, and third assistant director of The Prince and the Showgirl, the making of which is, of course, the subject of My Week, was being put up in a pub called The Dog and Duck, a term that I resolved, from that day forward, to use as rhyming slang for ‘fuck’.
The thing is, though, I find Marilyn Monroe, the human, less sympathetic than I once did, and this bothers me because I fear it is the result of my encroaching old age turning me into Miss Gulch in The Wizard of Oz. I started reading books about MM when I was quite junior. For example, I recall a happy summer’s holiday in a seaside town during which it rained incessantly, allowing me to devour, without interruption, a memoir by her maid, Lena Pepitone, which was entitled Marilyn Monroe Confidential. Pretty much all I can remember from this volume is that Marilyn used to stay in her bathrobe all day and not really do anything, a lifestyle that appealed to me no end, even at eleven years old. At any rate, back then I found MM completely adorable and I still think that, as a movie actress, she’s the – as the English, according to Wikipedia, say – ‘dog’s bollocks’ (with the exception of The Misfits, in which I feel that she let its brilliant team down by putting her booze-and-tranks habit firmly on display in front of the cameras). Furthermore, when appearing in comedies, Monroe had the very rare gift of being able to make pretty much anything she said funny – just think of her in All About Eve, in which, in a tiny role, she almost steals the thunder of Mr George Sanders; in addition, she is the only thing that stops the viewer sawing her arm off with combined boredom and disgust while watching Ethel Merman bellowing away in There’s No Business Like Show Business. Monroe’s magnetism was such that I ploughed through a full-length work of Norman Mailer’s hideous prose, just so that I could read even more words about her.
Aside from Monroe’s talent and physical beauty, I don’t doubt that a part of this magnetism came from the fact that she was slightly insane, which is, I believe, part of the reason why none of the would-be Monroes matched her. Kim Novak was even more beautiful than Monroe but too normal-seeming for maximum charisma; Jayne Mansfield managed the feat of beating out MM in the knockers department but, with her massive IQ, always seems to me like a sensible woman who was just acting like an idiot. However, being forced to work for a living has made me less in love with Monroe’s nutty personality, on the basis that if I’d had to deal with all her tardiness and incessant hoo-hah, I would have strangled her with a corset. As it happens, although entirely by design, and speaking of people whose names begin with ‘M’, shortly after seeing My Week, I saw Martha Marcy May Marlene. (Incidentally, did they really have to give this excellent film a name that makes requesting a ticket at the box office require a frenzied ‘I’m starring in summer stock next week’-level of rehearsal?) Martha is, of course, about a cult packed full of damaged humanity, and I sat there thinking that Monroe would have fit quite happily into this group, as they were pests too – that is, if she could have put up with all the labouring in the garden and peeling of root vegetables, which always seem to me to be, by far, the worst aspects of cult membership.
The thing is, though, that to feel love for Marilyn Monroe once more, you just have to watch the real The Prince and the Showgirl. This is because, despite all her nonsense, she’s about a thousand times better in the film than is anyone else, especially Laurence Olivier, despite, or because of, his punctuality. My lord, that must have made all her colleagues on the movie resent her more than ever, particularly as her legend has become so outsized with the passing of the years. It makes my heart break for everybody.