Marilyn vs. Marilyn: What The Prince and the Showgirl Says About Monroe’s Biopic
Publié le 9/12/2011,
par Bruce Handy,
en ligne sur vanityfair.com
In November’s Vanity Fair, I wrote a short piece about Michelle Williams’s performance as Marilyn Monroe in My Week with Marilyn, the film about the making of 1957’s The Prince and the Showgirl, in which Monroe starred opposite Laurence Olivier, who also directed. For an actress, I explained in my best cinema-studies voice, playing a woman who is arguably the most famous of all movie stars “is like an excruciatingly difficult platform dive, a win-gold-or-eat-ice figure-skating jump; Michelle Williams is the daredevil who executes the move flawlessly, brilliantly, exhilaratingly.”
Hmmm. With the film—and the deadline—having receded a bit in memory, that blurb now feels a tad . . . gushy. But the performance really is terrific (the movie itself is entertaining, if pat), and as I also wrote, with, I hope, a more level head:
“That Williams—a first-rank actress who presumably wouldn’t be caught dead in, say, a TV movie about a moth-eaten, overly mythologized sex symbol—had the nerve to take this on is impressive. That she has the talent to pull it off is maybe unprecedented. I can’t think of a better performance (not even Tina Fey’s Sarah Palin) in the role of an icon whose face, voice, and mannerisms are known by millions or even billions of people. Williams doesn’t quite capture the on-screen Marilyn—no one could—but she comes very close. And as off-screen Marilyn, she’s as funny and tragic, as sexy and pathetic and manipulative, as you cold ask for.”
(Advice for budding writers: never go back and read something you published a couple of months ago. “Overly mythologized sex symbol” is fair, but “moth-eaten”? That seems a bit gratuitous, in hindsight.)
But enough about me! As a point of comparison, I thought it would be fun and interesting to watch The Prince and the Showgirl and see what all the fuss had been about. The film is a classic example of Hollywood’s most prevalent genre: the awful movie made by talented people. The culprit isn’t Monroe’s neuroses, but rather a creaky, silly screenplay (adapted from what must have been a creaky, silly play). I wasn’t expecting it to be good, anyway, but I was hoping it would serve as a tutorial in opposing acting styles—Monroe’s intuitive emotional truths vs. Olivier’s precision-tooled affect. A clash of the titans, to reference another lousy Olivier movie.
The best parts of My Week with Marilyn coax comedy, and some drama, from this opposition—from the real-life, on-set conflict between Monroe’s Method acting and Olivier’s classical training. She needed to find her motivation for every scene; he just wanted her to hit her marks and get the lines out as written. This philosophical difference is perhaps best illustrated in a famous, probably apocryphal anecdote from the set of 1976’s Marathon Man, in which Olivier starred opposite Dustin Hoffman. The younger American actor showed up on set exhausted and disheveled one morning, and when Olivier asked why, Hoffman said he’d stayed up all night—as preparation for a scene in which his character was supposed to be exhausted and disheveled. “Try acting, dear boy,” Olivier reportedly responded. “It’s much easier.”
Back in The Prince and the Showgirl, a scene about halfway through the film perfectly captures this tension. Monroe’s and Olivier’s characters are riding opposite each other in a carriage. This is the moment when the two, who have been at loggerheads, first notice the early stirrings of genuine attraction. A close-up on Olivier shows his monocled, tightly wound prince seemingly glaring at her; the shot holds for seconds, to the point where you start to think, O.K., Larry, I get it already (and maybe there’s something to be said for Michael Bay movies after all). Then, almost imperceptibly, he begins to smile—a thin-lipped, begrudging smile, but a genuine thaw. Olivier knows exactly what he’s doing: the shot is all about toying with the audience and building to a specific moment. It is a scene in itself.
The camera then cuts to a parallel close-up of Monroe. Her character doesn’t quite know how to respond, and neither does the actress: she smiles, looks away, looks back, giggles, blushes, and is finally pleased. Those are all appropriate responses for the character, but in aggregate, you sense Monroe is searching for a true moment, trying to connect to the scene, but ultimately flailing. Who knows—I may be reading into the performance, and seeing what I expected to see. But the difference with Olivier’s shot is stark, and he and his editor don’t seem to have helped her by letting the shot go on so long, even if they perhaps felt it needed equal time, equal weight, to his.
The rest of the film reveals a more complicated actress. Its best scene is a long would-be seduction, in which Olivier has invited Monroe to his apartment for a late-night repast. He then mostly ignores her, tending to business and assuming she’ll get drunk on his champagne and perforce go to bed with him. She, naturally, is onto him—she knows all the tricks—and here, Monroe is wonderful. Given a chance to show off her flair for comedy, she demonstrates that she too is capable of precise effects. She has a nice bit of business wherein she eats some caviar on toast while Olivier talks on the phone. You can see her growing more irritated with each bite, but also thinking, What the hell—caviar! Another bit has her drinking champagne while he reads the paper, talking to herself as she slowly gets drunk, registering each degree of inebriation in a way that echoes Lucille Ball touting Vitameatavegamin. Don’t let anyone tell you that Monroe lacked technical chops.
Near the end of My Week with Marilyn, Olivier (Kenneth Branagh) is seen watching rushes and coming to the realization that, however much she vexes him, Monroe is a much greater screen actor than he’ll ever be. Nice scene, but it’s romantic baloney. Olivier is a great on-screen, even in junk like this. For one thing, as the carriage scene shows, he understood stillness, and how to let the audience come to him, in a way that Monroe never did. She was more of a heat-seeking missile.
But it’s not a contest. When given the right scaffolding of dialogue and stage business, she too is great. Her greatest shortcoming as an actress, if it is a shortcoming, is that she didn’t know how to fake it. The second half of the film, where the story turns loopy and improbable—her character is forced into being a go-between for silly political intrigue—leaves her looking lost. Judy Holiday or Betty Hutton might have made it work, but that’s no knock on Monroe. The Prince and the Showgirl didn’t deserve to work. And when Monroe had real material—like with Some Like It Hot—she soared.
(The Prince and the Showgirl is out of print on DVD, but seems to be findable on YouTube. Some Like It Hot is widely available and if you've never seen it, shame on you.)