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1. My Week with Marilyn (2011), dir. Simon Curtis

Sophia Loren lipstick
I saw this, my first film of 2012, today with ms_siobhan and planet_andy at the Hyde Park Picture House, and we all really enjoyed it.

I'm by no means an expert on Marilyn Monroe, so can't judge how accurate this portrayal of either the week in question or her character more generally was, but I am particularly interested in biopics at the moment because of an article which I am writing about screen portrayals of the emperor Augustus, so I watched it partly from that angle. I've been reading a rather good book by Dennis Bingham on the biopic as a genre, which emphasises how very much the biopic intersects and overlaps with other genres, and also argues that the lives of men and women are treated so differently in biopics that they virtually need to be understood as different genres themselves. Bingham suggests that biopics of women frequently view their lives in terms of suffering or victimhood, and particularly portray them as struggling (usually unsuccessfully) to negotiate an irresolvable tension between their public role and their personal life. All of this is easily identifiable in My Week with Marilyn - hardly surprisingly since it is central to her life-story anyway, at least in the mythologised version which most of us know.

The decision to focus on a short snapshot of her life was more interesting and innovative. Obviously, from the point of view of Colin Clark this was determined by the circumstances of his encounter with her, but the success of his memoirs and the decision to make it into a film say a lot about how effective this format can be for a biopic. It dispenses with the expectation of a comprehensive coverage, allowing the story to allude to earlier events and point the way to future ones as much or as little as suits it, while concentrating instead on drawing a rich and vivid character. I felt this worked very well here, especially combined with the use of Colin Clark as a point-of-view character who begins with a highly idealised view of Marilyn, and gradually moves to a much more real and intimate knowledge of her.

The cast was a veritable feast of British character-actors, many familiar from the small screen (My Family, Downton Abbey, Poirot), and they all deliver - but perhaps especially Kenneth Branagh as a wonderfully irritable Laurence Olivier. The script is sharp, and does a good job of exploring relevant issues such as the objectificaton of women, the effects of ageing, and the tension between the British theatrical acting tradition and the Hollywood screen equivalent. Colin Clark is very obviously a privileged posh-boy who gets where he does thanks to family money and connections, despite his protestations to the contrary, but that's not glossed over, and nor does he get away entirely without being criticised for it.

If you like biopics, Marilyn Monroe, portraits of the film production business, pretty scenery or British character actors, this one's for you.

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Comments

( 14 comments — Leave a comment )
la_guapita
Jan. 11th, 2012 08:55 am (UTC)
Marilyn Fan Comments!
Hey. As someone who has watched most of Miss Monroe's films and read not an inconsiderable amount on her, I can only add that it seemed very accurate - that is the public scenes and Marilyn's character. Marilyn and Laurence Olivier really did clash over this film and she was incredibly intimidated by him. I agree with your remark about that snapshot approach being particularly effective. I found it a refreshing approach which allowed the audience to get so much more out than a rushed job trying to cover her whole life (which is an over-done theme anyway). I am surprised how much Michelle Williams' performance has been under-stated. Having watched hours of Marilyn footage and seen some other actresses try to portray her, I was overwhelmed by how incredible her portrayal was - down to the facial expressions, eye movements, everything. Even the interviews with the press were very realistic. Obviously we don't know how accurate the account of what happened between Marilyn and Colin Clark in private was, but in a way that didn't matter as memoirs are notoriously subjective. For me (and I was a very harsh judge, expecting to be terribly disappointed), it was a brilliant representation of a week with all of the details perfectly constructed into a thoughtful film.
strange_complex
Jan. 11th, 2012 09:41 am (UTC)
Re: Marilyn Fan Comments!
You're right about Michelle Williams - she was extremely good in the role. Perhaps she has ended up in that paradoxical situation where it was so good that people forget it's a performance at all and take it for granted? I'm glad you enjoyed it, anyway, especially after fearing that you wouldn't. Have you read Colin Clark's memoirs, by the way?
la_guapita
Jan. 11th, 2012 04:13 pm (UTC)
Re: Marilyn Fan Comments!
Hey. No, I haven't read his Memoirs. Could be interesting but I have such a mountain of 18th century related books to read that I really want to read that I am shelving pretty much any other type of reading (apart from the obligatory baby guilt-inducing books!). I think you're probably right about Michelle Williams. It's no small irony is it that the film is about the male actor getting the prestige and the female one not being so respected as an actor and it seems, to a degree,(although I am exaggerating wildly here) that this is being reflected in reality. I am making huge generalisations and assumptions though as I haven't really read any reviews properly so she may well be recognised! Just fun to rant sometimes! x
la_guapita
Jan. 11th, 2012 04:15 pm (UTC)
The Iron Lady
Oh and just back from baby cinema (The Big Scream club) where I saw The Iron Lady. It has "Oscar worthiness" written all over it but I really enjoyed it actually and, rather predicatably, Meryl Streep's performance was brilliant. It's come in for a lot of criticism as a film, etc but I really liked it and didn't think it was a particularly unsympathetic portrayal. It was all about memory and subjectivity as well. You might enjoy it x
strange_complex
Jan. 11th, 2012 04:53 pm (UTC)
Re: The Iron Lady
Hee - I find the idea of a cinema full of babies watching The Iron Lady extremely amusing! I'm sure it doesn't matter very much to them what is on the screen, but Mrs. Thatcher does seem a particularly long way away from fluffy bunnies and colourful flowers and other stereotypically-babyish things. I am certainly planning to see it, though, as I think it will help my thinking about what biopics can do considerably - especially as regards presenting the story of a controversial figure, which is also a major issue with Augustus.

Funnily enough, given what you've said above about Michelle Williams, Meryl Streep does seem to have been garnering a hell of a lot of praise for her performance as Thatcher - but maybe Streep is benefiting from a positive reputation which she has had to work for decades to achieve, and which Williams doesn't have access to yet? By which I mean, maybe Streep has eventually been able to transcend the media's usual reticence in praising female stars (which I think you are probably right about, actually), whereas Williams won't be in that position for a long time yet.
la_guapita
Jan. 11th, 2012 04:59 pm (UTC)
Re: The Iron Lady
Hey. I think it's to do with a number of things. One, the more attractive an actress is, the less critics/the public seem to believe she can also act (it can't be a coincidence that many beautiful actresses only get access to an actor by playing roles where they are "uglified" - think Charlize Theron in Monster, Nicole Kidman in The Hours and to some extent Julia Roberts in Erin Brokovich (alright - made "trashy" in that example). Also, in The Iron Lady, Meryl Streep isn't competing with a male lead whereas in My Week with Marilyn, Michelle Williams is. Though, I do agree with you that Kenneth Brannagh is very well-established as an actor as is Meryl Streep by now so that must definitely play a role. Yes - on a lighter note, it is so surreal watching these kind of films with tiny babies! I found it amusing watching Twilight where there are some very gruesome, bloody scenes bouncing little Eloise up and down in her baby carrier! x
strange_complex
Jan. 11th, 2012 06:22 pm (UTC)
Re: The Iron Lady
Yes, I think you're right about performances by attractive actresses - like if a woman is attractive, that must be all there is to her. There is certainly a long history of dismissing women on the grounds that there is nothing more to them than their looks (neatly combined with criticising them for the exact same thing!) to encourage that sort of behaviour. But I didn't know that there wasn't the same clear leading male role in The Iron Lady, not having seen it, and I'm sure you're right that that makes a big difference too.
la_guapita
Jan. 11th, 2012 05:00 pm (UTC)
Correction
By the way - I meant "access to an oscar", not "actor" in my post! Just noticed!
la_guapita
Jan. 11th, 2012 09:05 pm (UTC)
Controversial Historical Figures in Biopics
Hey. Two last comments! One - I just remembered a quote Clint Eastwood made about Angelina Jolie which summed up her predicament as a beautiful woman. After directing her in Changling, he described her as something like "a great actress trapped in a beautiful woman's body". So, I guess at least it's a recognised problem. Also, I am enjoying this thread as get to put in another of my obsessions but you mentioned about controversial historical figures such as Augustus in biopics and, of course, Marie Antoinette sprang to mind. I've seen quite a few films about her and the variation in the way in which she is portrayed is very interesting. The two most recent ones I saw which, interestingly, were not by French Directors portrayed her quite sympathetically and accurately (from what I have read about her - and again, this is quite a lot!!) but earlier ones I have seen all portray her as a greedy, shallow queen and show her supposed lesbian affairs as a terrible vice. Thought this might interet you x
strange_complex
Jan. 12th, 2012 02:52 pm (UTC)
Re: Controversial Historical Figures in Biopics
That's interesting about Marie Antoinette. It sounds like the trend with her has been to move away from stereotypical portrayals as a villainness, and towards something more nuanced and realistic. The Bingham book I'm reading has a detailed discussion of the 2006 film about her starring Kirsten Dunst, which I haven't read yet, so I'll take a look at that and see if he sees the same trend, or thinks it is part of a larger pattern. If it is, that could be interesting for my arguments about Augustus too.
la_guapita
Jan. 12th, 2012 03:22 pm (UTC)
Re: Controversial Historical Figures in Biopics
Oh do tell me what Bingham says. I'd be very interested. The 2006 film actually got booed at Cannes and I still can't understand why to this day. There were some anachronisms but they were only in terms of costume and music and I thought they made it a very post-modern look at a historical figure - ie. history is not necessarily an accurate art and can be as much about feelings as minute, accurate historical details. Anyway, apart from Kirsten Dunst's american accent, I loved it and it was pretty accurate in terms of its portrayal of her - I read the Biography by Antonia Fraser on which it was based. Yes, that does seem to be the trend with portrayals of her but I also wondered whether there was a Franco/Other nations dichotomy which is why the French booed it? She's still a controversial figure in France. Interestingly, Nicolas' Mother went to see a play recently about Marie Antoinette where the audience got to vote on 2 endings - one where she survived the Revolution and another where she was beheaded. It said in the programme that more often than not they choose the latter ending so she's still pretty unpopular. Interesting idea for a play though - serious power in the audience's hands! Anyway, I'll try to stop but I am very much enjoying this thread as get to talk about things I love! I always used to try to put Wizard of Oz references in my essays at University where possible (or Marilyn Monroe ones) so maybe you could squeeze in a Marie Antoinette comparison somewhere!!
strange_complex
Jan. 13th, 2012 09:08 pm (UTC)
Re: Controversial Historical Figures in Biopics
Hi! I have read that section of the book now, so can report on what it says. Bingham seems pretty impressed with the 2006 film of Marie Antoinette. According to him, it takes some important steps away from typical female biopics by a) portraying Marie Antoinette's life from her point of view, rather than the (more dehumanised) point of view of outside observers, and b) showing her as coming into conflict with whole systems (e.g. the expectations placed upon her in her role as Louis' wife), instead of simplifying those conflicts into melodramatic fallings-out with specific individuals (as earlier films have often done). He also thinks that the film places a very feminist emphasis on the way she is made into a scape-goat for economic problems and a system of rule which were not personally her fault. But I will have to let you comment on whether that's a fair assessment or not, as I haven't seen the film!

Meanwhile, the play which Nicolas' mother saw sounds excellent. What a fascinating approach, and I wonder whether the script is tries hard to ensure that she gets at least a reasonably favourable hearing? It must keep things more interesting for the actors, too, by giving them a little bit of variety each evening.
la_guapita
Jan. 14th, 2012 07:40 pm (UTC)
Re: Controversial Historical Figures in Biopics
Hello. I would entirely agree with what Bingham said. I hadn't thought about the film in such a sophisticated way but I am pleased to hear positive remarks about it and it all certainly rings true. However, I would argue that part of the credit really has to go to Antonia Fraser who wrote the book upon which it very heavily draws. I love her style of writing - she is truely objective whilst writing in a very readable, entertaining way. She gave Marie-Antoinette a very fair appraisal, pointing out for example that she hadn't actually spent any more from the royal coffers than any of her predecessors. All the same, Sophia Coppella also deserves credit for having chosen an excellent source. It's funny as I'm reading another historical biography of Boucher (court painter for Louis XV) and it's by an amateur historian from the 1960s. Without meaning to be scornful or patronising as I am learning a lot, I can't help but much prefer the moderm day historians I read like Antonia Fraser as she's so much more objective, seeing macro rather than micro issues (as you said in the film). This current author is too opinionated and relates too many tiny details (like historical figures FEELINGS) as though they are fact when he couldn't possibly know. Have you noticed that sort of difference in approaches over the past 50 years? I like your learned photo with your post of Christopher Lee!! Very intellectual. Anyway, you should come to Warwick one time and watch the film with me - it's one of my favourites and I have it on DVD. The other one I really enjoyed was a film made by a Quebecois team for French TV which documents her life based on her letters. It claims that everything in the film is based on either recorded documents or her letters and it does tie in with Antonia Fraser's book which also includes a quote from her at pretty much the beginning of every chapter. That's also showing things from her point of view isn't it but in a more direct way. Well, I could talk about this for hours but I had better go to have a nice meal and a well deserved glass of wine x
strange_complex
Jan. 16th, 2012 10:18 pm (UTC)
Re: Controversial Historical Figures in Biopics
Well, I'm glad to know that Bingham's opinion on that film seems right to you. I can tell that his thinking is sound from the way it chimes with my experience of the Augustus biopic I am writing about, and other biopics I have seen. But I have only actually seen one of the eighteen specific films which he treats as case studies, which is a bit of a handicap! And yes, I would certainly love to see the Marie Antoinette film with you in Warwick some time.

I also certainly recognise the criticisms you are making about the 1960s amateur historian whose book you are reading. Some people still write like that today of course, e.g. if they are aiming at a popular market, or are not scholarly historians themselves. And plenty of historians were also taking much more sophisticated approaches already at that time. But I think you are right that there has been a general shift amongst historians at all levels towards an awareness of what we can and cannot really know about the past.
( 14 comments — Leave a comment )

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