Nightmares On The Set: 'Prince and The Show Girl'

In 1956, two icons — Marilyn Monroe and Sir Laurence Olivier — got together in London to make a movie, The Prince and the Showgirl. It was a comedy about the lonely Prince Regent of Carpathia, who meets a flirty American showgirl. The film was a royal flop. Now a film, My Week With Marilyn, recounts the miserable time had by all on the set. It's the story of one week during the film shoot, with behind-the-scenes clashes, misaligned acting styles, and the pursuit of personal ambitions. Michelle Williams plays Monroe and Kenneth Branagh plays Olivier.

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LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

In 1956, two major stars, Marilyn Monroe and Sir Laurence Olivier, got together in London to make a movie. It was a comedy called "The Prince and the Showgirl," about the lonely Prince Regent of Carpathia, who meets a flirty American showgirl.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "THE PRINCE AND THE SHOWGIRL")

MARILYN MONROE: (as Elsie Marina) Marina, Elsie Marina. That's my name.

LAURENCE OLIVIER: (as The Regent) Of course, how stupid of me.

MONROE: (as Elsie Marina) It's just my stage name, Elsie Marina. My dad was a Marine, see? My real name is Elsie Stoltzenberg.

OLIVIER: (as The Regent) Indeed.

MONROE: I decided to change it when I decided to stay in England. You see, the company I came over with from the States, they got stranded in York.

OLIVIER: (as The Regent) In The Strand, really? Let's all go on The Strand, have a banana.

WERTHEIMER: Never heard of that movie? Well, there's a very good reason for it. It was a huge flop. This week, a new movie about the making of that movie opens nationwide. Michelle Williams plays Marilyn Monroe, and Kenneth Branagh plays Olivier. "My Week With Marilyn" tells the story of one week during the film shoot - the behind-the-scenes clashes, the misaligned acting styles, and the pursuit of personal ambitions.

NPR's Elizabeth Blair has more.

ELIZABETH BLAIR, BYLINE: Marilyn Monroe, Laurence Olivier - huge stars, worlds apart. In 1956, Monroe's career as a sexy starlet was taking off. She'd recently made "Seven Year Itch," the movie that created one of the most iconic images of all time: Monroe in a white dress, standing on a subway grate.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "SEVEN YEAR ITCH")

MONROE: (as The Girl) Oh, do you feel the breeze from the subway? Isn't it delicious?

BLAIR: Laurence Olivier, on the other hand, was a king of the English stage and screen.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "RICHARD III")

OLIVIER: (as Richard III) Now is the winter of our discontent, made glorious summer by this sun of York.

BLAIR: Olivier, the serious thespian; Monroe, the charming sexpot. But she was hoping to change that image. In 1956, she married playwright Arthur Miller. She started her own company, Marilyn Monroe Productions. She was headed to London to work with Olivier.

SIMON CURTIS: All of these things sort of fed her aspiration, her dream of becoming a serious actress, an actress taken seriously.

BLAIR: Simon Curtis, director of "My Week With Marilyn," says Laurence Olivier had his own issues. His marriage to Vivien Leigh was in a rut. And at 49, he was worried about becoming a has-been, says Kenneth Branagh, who plays Olivier in the new movie.

KENNETH BRANAGH: He, I think, felt that although revered, respected and an institution in Britain, that he was perhaps regarded by some almost as a kind of dinosaur, as a sort of fossil.

BLAIR: Branagh says Olivier was hoping to renew himself by playing opposite the fresh, young Marilyn Monroe. Monroe was hoping the regal Olivier, who also directed "Prince and the Showgirl," would rub off on her. Instead, he intimidated her, and she exasperated him.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "MY WEEK WITH MARILYN")

BRANAGH: (as Laurence Olivier) Cut! What's the matter now?

BLAIR: Among other things, Branagh says, they did not share the same work ethic.

BRANAGH: Marilyn would show up late, sometimes as late as three days late, and that created, often, comic frustration for Olivier. I don't know how funny he found it at the time but in the movie, it allows us to perhaps sympathize or empathize for a bit with his plight. He doesn't always deal with it well.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "MY WEEK WITH MARILYN")

BRANAGH: (as Laurence Olivier) You wait. Marilyn, please. Please. Please, tell me how I can help you.

BLAIR: During the filming of "Prince and the Showgirl," Laurence Olivier also had to deal with Monroe's acting coach, Paula Strasberg.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "MY WEEK WITH MARILYN")

ZOE WANAMAKER: (as Paula Strasberg) The reason Marilyn can't remember the line is because she doesn't believe the situation her character is in.

BRANAGH: (as Laurence Olivier) Then she should pretend to believe it.

WANAMAKER: (as Paula Strasberg) Pretend? We're talking about the difference between the truth and artificial crap.

BRANAGH: (as Laurence Olivier) We're in absolute agreement. Acting is all about truth and if you can fake that, you'll have a jolly good career.

BLAIR: Here's the thing: "The Prince and the Showgirl" was meant to be a light comedy. Olivier plays a prince; Monroe plays a showgirl - nothing too deep as far as Olivier was concerned. But Monroe, and many other American actors at the time, were hooked on Strasberg's method acting.

CURTIS: They were sort of talking two different languages at this point.

BLAIR: Director Simon Curtis.

CURTIS: In 1956, much was made of the difference between English acting, theater-based external acting, which Olivier was a great advocate of - you know, false noses, accents, limps and so on - and American style of acting. Marilyn was a recent devotee of the Strasberg School, you know, the method - which meant that she loved to investigate inside the character - the interior life, the psychology of her character.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "MY WEEK WITH MARILYN")

MICHELLE WILLIAMS: (as Marilyn Monroe) I don't know who else is here, and I can't act her if I don't know who she is.

BRANAGH: (as Laurence Olivier) You have her precisely. You understand her inside - I mean all of your gifts - we all are.

WILLIAMS: (as Marilyn Monroe) She's not real.

BRANAGH: (as Laurence Olivier) Then why not simply rely on your natural talents?

WILLIAMS: (as Marilyn Monroe) So then are you saying you don't want me to act?

BRANAGH: (as Laurence Olivier) Marilyn, will you just try to be sexy - isn't that what you do?

BLAIR: That humiliation Marilyn Monroe faced from Olivier on the set of "Prince and the Showgirl" is legendary. And it happened at a time when Monroe was hoping to eventually distance herself from the dumb blonde persona - easier said than done for a woman in Hollywood in the 1950s.

In a press conference for "My Week With Marilyn," Michelle Williams, who plays her in the new movie, sympathized with Monroe.

WILLIAMS: I wish that she could experience what I've been able to, which is to work outside of a studio system, to not be bound to playing the same role, to not be a contract player, to not basically be on salary and to have to take what's given to you.

BLAIR: In "My Week With Marilyn," you get the sense both Monroe and Olivier felt there was a lot riding on this movie; that somehow, it would be the game-changer their images needed. In the end, "The Prince and the Showgirl" made them look like just that.

As one critic put it: Olivier looks like a stuffed shirt, and Monroe mainly has to giggle, wiggle and flirt.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "MY WEEK WITH MARILYN")

MONROE: (as Elsie Marina) No, no. No more, please.

OLIVIER: (as The Regent) Oh, one more will not hurt a fly.

MONROE: (as Elsie Marina) Maybe, but you know what they say: Drunk as a fly...

OLIVIER: (as The Regent) Oh, but that is really quite excellent. I can see you have a witty little tongue, Miss Marina.

MONROE: (as Elsie Marina) I have?

BLAIR: Fortunately for them, both of their next movies got nominated for Oscars. Marilyn Monroe went on to do "Some Like It Hot," and Laurence Olivier was nominated for Best Actor in "The Entertainer."

Elizabeth Blair, NPR News.

WERTHEIMER: "My Week With Marilyn" has generated its own Oscar buzz. You can see clips at our website, NPR.org.

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Linda Wertheimer.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

And I'm Steve Inskeep.

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