Is there really nothing in Simon Curtis’ film My Week with Marilyn (2011) that we did not know already about Marilyn Monroe? Apart from Michelle Williams fine acting, apart from historical and biographical accuracy regarding Monroe’s life, her private nature, her movie-star allure, her dresses and body movements –which Michelle Williams according to some rendered beautifully, according to others clumsily, which Adrian Hodges’s script prepared insightfully or shallowly, which Curtis’s direction masterfully or amateurishly – what else is there?
The film clearly reproduces and serves the spectator’s voyeurism and attraction to a well-known screen icon: a backstage look on the suffering and self-destructive Monroe, shy, tear-stained with smeared make-up and addicted to pills on the one hand, and Marilyn the glamorous super star and diva on the other. These are two well-known and canonized and mutually exclusive poles with Marilyn Monroe oscillating between them.
At first, the film establishes Monroe as an icon that oscillates between two meanings: glamour and wreckage – and is hence dysfunctional. What lies behind her glittering surface is but a trembling bundle of anxieties. Curtis shows how the world around Monroe becomes impractical and inefficient: the film production of The Prince and the Showgirl stagnates, Laurence Olivier (Kenneth Branagh) as the film’s director is behind schedule, and her husband Arthur Miller (Dougray Scott) suffers from writers’ block (in a late night conversation the latter tells Olivier about the confusion and loss of control he undergoes in his wife’s presence). Marilyn Monroe also disrupts the besotted Colin (Eddie Redmayne). “Whose side are you on?” she asks him, lying in her room on the set, after having fallen out with Sir Laurence and being, once again, late. With his response that he is on her side, Colin positions himself against his bosses, and thwarts his aspirations of becoming himself a director one day.
Above all, Marilyn finds herself in constant disruption in the face of her own double-bound iconicity. Being fully aware that she is a highly sought after star, she on the one hand wants to dedicate herself to the production of the film, on the other hand, however, she wants to escape her image through constant procrastination. Thus, Curtis re-creates Marilyn as a cliché by both presenting her as a “goddess” who has become flesh and blood, and highlights the cult centered around her person (the platonic and boundless adoration of Colin who at one point even calls her a “Greek goddess” to which Marilyn replies “I just want to be loved like a regular girl.”), and as a wrecked, helpless, infantile simpleton, respectively. Both in the face of an infant and in the face of a goddess the world becomes inefficient and hamstrung. Curtis re-establishes this cliché by means of an antagonistic displacement: As opposed to Laurence Olivier, Marilyn Monroe cannot act, but is a star, as opposed to Arthur Miller she is not an intellectual, as opposed to Colin she is not innocent, as opposed to Lucy (Emma Watson) she is beautiful.
What “functions” however is praise. Not only Colin and Sybil Thorndike (Judi Dench) praise her acting qualities, Paula Strasberg (Zoë Wanamaker), especially, is shown in constant laudation of Marilyn – at one point she even (ironically?) bends down on her knees in front of her calling her the greatest actress that has ever lived – which suggests that appraisal is the only effective measure in order to make the actress work and make money (according to her business partner Milton H. Greene (Dominic Cooper) Marilyn pays Strasberg $2500 per week). Capitalism’s ulterior motives are also present in Arthur Miller, whose initial depiction as a communist, or in Arthur Jacobs’s (Toby Jones) words, a “red”, is ironized as he tells Lawrence Olivier that he cannot write in Marilyn’s presence and therefore will have to take a few days off and fly to New York, officially to visit his children.
The myth of Marilyn, then, is her being a simple girl, compassionate and with a strong sense of the human (an image which John Huston in Monroe’s last film The Misfits (1961) plays upon), who has lost control over herself and is in need of constant sedation. This opposition of fragility and world aloofness is precisely the condition of her fame. In the film, Monroe reflects this contrast also on a corporeal level: the hair on the back of her head frequently looks crumpled while seen from the front her hairstyle is nearly always immaculate.
In My Week with Marilyn, Monroe is shown relying on her gaze and her body’s expressivity more than on her words – in this context, the character constellation between prince and showgirl gains momentum. The “real” constellation of Marilyn and Sir Laurence Olivier, Baron of Brighton, is repeated by the “fictitious” constellation of the prince and showgirl. Whereas Olivier even knows Marilyn’s own lines by heart, she herself cannot master her script but finds herself excluded from language and communication: she frequently forgets even the simplest lines, instead of confronting Lawrence Olivier, she runs out of the room crying. Dance – bodily gestures – on the other hand, is the only mode of expression that, in the film, Marilyn seems to be able to perform “fluently” and expressively. The film begins by showing a clip in which she is dancing, the first line that she is shown rehearsing as the showgirl she states that she is a dancer at the Coconut Club. When she is shown rehearsing a dance scene for The Prince and the Showgirl, her lips only mutely accompany the song. Marilyn is moreover frequently shown performing shushing gestures. As when, for example, in Windsor Castel, surrounded by the kitchen staff, she holds her index finger over her mouth in a hushing gesture while performing mute, short dance steps. One “language” that she masters, however, is telling jokes that seem both spontaneous and studied – another moment of ambiguity.
The moment Marilyn and Colin share a “secret” (one day Colin lies for her so that she does not have to come to the set), Marilyn for a short moment comes into possession of unambiguous meaning. She and Colin can now be, according to Marilyn, the prince and Elsie from The Prince and the Showgirl. When they, instead of going to the set, leave for a trip to Windsor Castle, they visit the library. But instead of looking at books – at letters or words – they look at images of women: an anonymous drawing of a lady that bears resemblance to Anne Boleyn drawn by Hohlbein and sketches by Leonardo da Vinci, and at a dollhouse family. The anonymity of the image resembles that of Marilyn as an “empty” icon that only an audience can fill with meaning. In this instance, Marilyn performs what normally her audience would when she identifies the dollhouse family of father, mother and child with Colin, herself, and their daughter – she assigns meaning to the front view of something seen. Here for a short moment the spectator takes the place of the empty signifier – of Marilyn herself –, since the viewer is placed behind the dollhouse family, looking outside of the dollhouse into the faces of the two spectators Colin and Marilyn.
A year before My Week with Marilyn was made, the publishing industry had already attempted to complexify the image of Marilyn Monroe as both diva and wreck, who had lost agency over herself as signifier, by unveiling her as a poet and intellectual. In 2010 the renowned publisher Farrar, Straus and Giroux published Marilyn’s Fragments, a collection of her notes and poems on various matters. Towards the end of the film Marilyn sadly states that all people see in her is “Marilyn Monroe. As soon as they see I’m not her, they run.” With this statement, together with the ambiguity as to who exactly she is apart from an anxiety ridden superstar, Curtis, against the background of her published book, hints at and even discreetly constructs another image: that of Marilyn as a cursed artist. Thus, Curtis presents a “modern” image of Marilyn as “poète maudit” and generator of meaning. Furthermore, a juxtaposition with Laurence Olivier reinforces this image. Compared to Olivier, whom Curtis portrays as an old and rational master actor to whom acting means following a calling, Marilyn is a “modern” actress: irrational, spontaneous, erratic and intuitive. Tellingly, Colin draws a similar conclusion when he calls Marilyn a superstar and Olivier a “great actor”. Compared to Marilyn, Laurence Olivier feels outdated – “my own inadequacy is reflected in her face,” he tells Colin at the end of the film.
The two posters that have prominently been used to advertise My Week With Marilyn both show Marilyn looking away from the camera. On the first, she is wearing sunglasses and is flanked by Eddie Redmayne, who shields her from a crowd of journalists. The other poster shows a close-up of her face against a black background. Her lips are resting on one finger while her gaze is looking up, towards something that lies beyond the space of the poster. We also find this upward gaze at the end of the film: one of the last scenes show Marilyn as Elsie looking up into Laurence Olivier’s face. When she tells him (as the prince) that she is falling in love with him, her gaze moves to the side away from his face and slightly downwards to the level of the horizon. In one of her poems she describes her gaze on the outside world as coming slightly from above the horizontal line:
“Stones on the walk
every colour there is
I stare down at you
like those the a horizon –
the space/the air is between us beckoning
and I am many stories besides up” (1)
And indeed, images of Marilyn Monroe looking upwards are rare; she is mostly cast as either looking straight into the camera or as slightly from above. By choosing two instances to advertise the film in which Marilyn looks away from the camera, Curtis underlines Marilyn Monroe’s self-empowerment over her own gaze and already pre-establishes the image of Marilyn Monroe as a generator and possessor of meaning and superior knowledge (a knowledge whose content will, unlike in the case of “Elsie”, remain a secret to the onlooker). On an aesthetic level, the two posters moreover seem to allude to the two images displayed on the front and back cover of Fragments. The front cover shows Marilyn against the darkened backdrop of a room and parts of a bookshelf, holding a book in her hand and looking slightly upwards and away from the camera. The backside of the book shows Marilyn surrounded by nature on what seems to be a warm summer day looking down and reading Ulysses.
Since the film does not show Marilyn actually reading Ulysses, or writing poetry, the real instance of self-empowerment is, paradoxically enough, her miscarriage. It represents much more than the vague “secret” she shares with Colin, it is the moment of Marilyn Monroe’s true agency in the film, in spite or precisely because of its ambiguity. Only after Marilyn seems to have suffered a miscarriage (the moment her body has acted beyond her control), she can finally act – she can speak the lines of her script fluently and without stuttering – and quickly bring the production of The Prince and the Showgirl to a successful end. Before, her attempt to better understand her role as Elsie had prevented her from acting and had caused a further moment of disfunctionality in the film. Her turn towards functionality thus occurs after an essential moment of invisibility: the suspected miscarriage takes place shut away from the audience’s voyeuristic gaze in the privacy of her bedroom. Maybe that is (one of) Marilyn’s hidden secrets: through her miscarriage, in psychoanalytic terms, through her shedding of the phallic mark, she can reassert herself as mastering the symbolic order, i.e. language, and hence the world.