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November 29, 2011

My Week with Marilyn and The Artist

Two meta-movies about the making of movies, with no bigger agenda than to delight & entertain, have Oscar written all over them

By Nancy Staab

Michelle Williams as Marilyn Monroe and Jean Dujardin as a vintage matinee idol in the style of Valentino carry these captivating flicks for cinephiles.




















Filling the shoes of an icon like Marilyn Monroe, not to mention her slinky beaded gowns (filled out with hip padding to get the trademark hour glass shape), is a daunting task for any actress. But it’s doubtful any thespian could have filled those shoes better than Michelle Williams—not so much due to her platinum blonde looks, but in her ability to capture the combination of combustible sexuality and childlike innocence, Marilyn’s “dumb blonde” acts and reserves of sly wit, fragility and power. The cast may be stocked with lots of A-listers, Kenneth Branagh as Sir Laurence Olivier, Julia Ormond as an aging and equally vulnerable Vivian Leigh, Dame Judy Dench underused as a sympathetic fellow actress, Dougray Scott as Arthur Miller, Dominic Cooper as one of Marilyn’s handlers, and Emma Watson as a costume and props gal and extremely weak and unnecessary love rival to Michelle’s Marilyn; but let’s face it, like Marilyn, Michelle takes up all the oxygen when she’s on the screen. Her breathy voice and liquid eyes, her va-va-voom “Heatwave” dance routine in the opening sequence and comic timing are all on full display. If this doesn’t garner Williams an Oscar nomination, she might as well hang it up.

There’s depth to William’s portrayal of Marilyn too. The dumb blonde bon mots like “Let’s say I only sleep in Yardley’s Lavender,” when asked by a prying reporter whether she sleeps in the nude, were actually carefully thought out ahead of time by the clever, manipulative Marilyn, who had press and just about everyone else eating out of her hand. Likewise, Williams obsessively studied Marilyn’s movies and mannerisms down to her signature wink, and devoured photos, books and documentaries on the tragic actress before assuming the role. It takes a smart actress to play dumb and both Monroe and Williams know just how to play to their audiences. (To further underscore Monroe’s intellectual ability instead of stereotyping her as dumb blonde and merely victim, when the movie camera pans over her cluttered dressing room, we are shown a glimpse of perhaps the most challenging piece of 20th century literature on her table—James Joyce’s Ulysses).  

Poor Olivier is pretty much rendered as a pouting, pancake makeup-wearing fop and aging thespian full of vanities and insecurities in this depiction of Marilyn’s troubled filming of The Prince and The Show Girl in London in 1957. Never was there a more oddball romantic pairing for this “light romantic comedy” than the august Shakespearean theater actor Olivier and all his gravitas versus the light, cream puff comedic stylings of a doe-eyed and virtually untrained Monroe. Well, untrained is not quite the word. Seriously under the spell of the new method acting technique and the Strasberg family who created it, Marilyn’s approach is shown to be at odds with Oliver’s more classical theater training. Olivier is even more exasperated when she fails to fall for his charms and repeatedly shows up late to the film set. Booze and pills are clearly shown to have their influence on the starlet, but more than that, the movie portrays her deep insecurities about her acting ability and her desperate need for love in light of her orphaned childhood. No new revelations here, but the film, (produced by Weinstein Company, who are on a roll this year with period pieces like this, The Artist, and the Feb. 2012 release of W.E., Madonna’s Wallace Simpson biopic)  does provide a nuanced glimpse of Marilyn.

At one point Marilyn’s new hubby Arthur Miller explains that he deserted Marilyn in England during the filming because she was “devouring” him with all her needs. Enter third assistant to the director Colin Clark, ably played by Eddie Redmayne, as a temporary stand-in for her distant paramour. The wide-eyed 23-year-old film assistant, who with his freckled face looks like he just stepped out of a Norman Rockwell painting, soon goes from on-set go-for to unlikely, off-set confidante of the movie star. At thirty she is quite the cougar to Clark’s school-boyish assistant, but Clark’s friendly ministrations and admiration of her talents win her over. Soon they are off on an idyllic road trip to Windsor Castle, where Marilyn is at last footloose and carefree, wows the castle staff with her primping and blowing-air-kisses Marilyn “impersonation” (she thought of her movie persona as a character)  and later skinny dips with Clark in one of the ponds.

The entire movie is based on Colin’s nostalgic, frothy account of his time on the film set, and while the relationship never evolves beyond cuddling and a young boy’s first crush, he is witness to her use of pills and booze, her miscarriage, the misguided help of her many handlers, and her troubles with her new playwright husband Arthur Miller.  The privileged son of famed art historian Sir Kenneth Clark, and depicted as living in a small castle, Colin ably adjusts to the bare bones lifestyle of a third assistant to a movie director, bunking up at the humble local tavern, where Marilyn shows up for a final drink in the film’s culminating scene. Following The Prince and the Show Girl, Colin, in real life went on to assist Laurence Oliver and later became a well-known documentary film maker. This film itself is a feast for film lovers-- from the gorgeous period cars and crisp costumes--to the scenic set pieces like the pastoral trip to Windsor. Movie making may be depicted as fraught with fragile egos, but the results, as in this case, are magical. As William’s Monroe drives off into the sunset there is practically a nimbus behind her golden hair.

Preview of My Week with Marilyn:


Michelle Williams performing Heatwave in the film:




It takes real bravado to dare to make a black-and-white, full-length, silent film in this age of multi-media overload, white noise, exaggerated special effects and A.D.D. Then go and try to sell it to actors, talk a studio in to financing it (Weinstein Company) and market it to skeptical audiences.  But French director Michel Hazanavicus has done just that with his latest film The Artist. Already hailed by critics, the picture is sure to be an Oscar contender. The film is nothing less than a Valentine to the movies and specifically the early era of silent films. In fact, the main character, played by swooningly handsome French actor Jean Dujardin, who picked up the best actor award at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, is named George Valentin. (Valentin seems to be a play on Valentine and film star Valentino, whose appearance he faintly resembles with his slick backed hair, whereas his pencil-thin mustache recalls matinee idols of yore Errol Flynn or Douglas Fairbanks) Likewise, the movie was shot in L.A. on stage lots and old Hollywood streets.

The story revolves around the ill-fated love affair between the dapper silent film star Valentin and the spunky young starlet, aptly named Peppy Miller (played by Berenice Bejo), whose stardom will soon supercede Valentin’s own as silent movies are replaced by talkies in Hollywood circa 1927. If that sounds like a tough plot to sustain in silent film format, with little to no spoken dialogue, think again. From the first song and dance number with Valentin’s other peppy sidekick, his little Jack Russell terrier, to the first movie reel flickers, this movie about movies has its audience enraptured in the nimble, light-on-its-feet love story, the broad comedy and later, overtones of dark tragedy.

The fact that the movie is silent is all but forgotten as the deft actors use physical movement and a wide range of facial expressions to carry the story. At times, the actors, especially Bejo, do mug a little too much for the cameras, but even this seems characteristic of authentic silent films of the period. More often than not, an actor like Dujardin can convey volumes with one slightly arched brow. He has said in interviews that he studied the greats like Fairbanks to perfect his role. James Cromwell plays Dujardin’s loyal chauffeur with dignity, while great character actor John Goodman embodies the cigar-chomping, back-slapping movie studio head honcho.

Along the way the movie references all kinds of iconic film moments such as Citizen Kane, Marlene Dietrich’s “I just want to be alone” moment (with a rain-soaked and love-stricken Peppy staring out of her car), Errol Flynn’s swashbuckling routines, Douglas Fairbank’s canon of silent film work, and, in the end, the effervescent song and dance numbers of a Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. Effervescent is the operative word for this, at heart, light, cynicism-free and utterly charming film that merely seeks to entertain. There are perhaps parallels between the impending economic doom of the Great Depression in this film and our own troubled economic times, and in each case, disappearing into the escapist fantasies of film seem to be necessary salves. The final, happy ending with Bejo and Dujardin’s tap dance duet is a true marvel. One would think that Dujardin, in particular, had glided across ballroom floors in his tailcoats all his life, rather than taken up the discipline recently for this little movie. The film is also gorgeous to look at, with glistening vintage cars, theater marquees ablaze, an Escher-like multiple staircase sequence, and even Mary Pickford’s manse (filling in as Peppy’s estate) in the film. It’s a truism that everything looks better in black and white and that holds true for this movie. Last but certainly not least, the gorgeous orchestral music  by Ludovic Bource also carries the day and much of the story line, throughout the entire film. Possibly another Oscar nomination will go to musical scoring.

The actors and director have all collaborated before, including two James Bond spoofs, and Bejo is actually the partner of director Hazanvicus in real life, so perhaps this intimacy allowed them to take such a risk with this ambitious silent film. Either way, I am voting for the trio to reprise their collaboration yet again with an extravagant MGM style musical next time around that will make even further use of the actors' graceful hoofing. And, hey, why not reprise the Esther Williams synchronized swim routines while they are at it? If anyone can pull it off, it’s these Gallic performers.

Link to The Artist preview: