The Fact, And Fiction, Of 'My Week With Marilyn'

The new bio-pic My Week with Marilyn chronicles the making of The Prince and the Showgirl, in which Laurence Olivier acted with and directed Marilyn Monroe. Sarah Churchwell, author of The Many Lives of Marilyn Monroe, talks to Robert Siegel about what elements of the film ring true.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.

The power of a biopic is immense. Scholars may write volumes about D.E. Lawrence, but a deluge of contrary facts could never dampen the image that millions have of Peter O'Toole portraying him in "Lawrence of Arabia." Put a historical figure in a movie, and make the movie a hit, and Russell Crowe becomes everyone's idea of John Nash with "The Beautiful Mind." The real life Woodward and Bernstein must bunk in, in the same neurons where Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman reside. So, with some new biographical films in the theatres this season, we thought we'd devote some time this week to a little truth squadding. Not just - did that happen in 1959; or was it 1961, but does that film given a truthful sense of that person or of that event? Today's movie: "My Week with Marilyn."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)

MICHELLE WILLIAMS: (as Marilyn Monroe) (Singing) Heat wave by letting my feet erase, in such a way that the councilman say that, (unintelligible) can, can, can.

SIEGEL: That is not Marilyn Monroe; it's Michelle Williams playing her. "My Week with Marilyn" is about Monroe making the "Prince and the Showgirl" with Laurence Olivier, who also directed that movie. Joining us from London is Sarah Churchwell, professor of literature at the University of East Anglia and author of "The Many Lives of Marilyn Monroe." Welcome to the program.

PROFESSOR SARAH CHURCHWELL: Thank you.

SIEGEL: And first, in general, you've read just about everything there is to read about Marilyn Monroe and written about all that. Does this movie ring true to you?

CHURCHWELL: Well, in one yes and in one way no. I suppose that's a very typical academic answer. Where it's truthful is I do think that Michelle Williams' performance is really quite extraordinary. And as you could hear even in the clip that you played there, she gets the voice unbelievably well. And she also gets Monroe's in trademark mannerisms. But she resists the temptation to fall into the stereotype of the breathy whisper. She lets her speak like a human being and yet, it sounds and looks like Marilyn. So, that part I think they do really well. Overall, however, the problem is, is what they've chosen to do is to film a story that is only very broadly based in fact. And a lot of its claims, I think most people who know about Marilyn's life and work are pretty skeptical of the claims of the author of this book to have had some kind of a fling with her.

SIEGEL: This Colin Clark, who is working, I gather, as third assistant director on Olivier's movie. He's the son of Kenneth Clark, of "Civilization" fame. Public television viewers may recall that from years ago. He wrote about his relationship with Monroe during the making of this film. And his memoir doesn't ring true to you?

CHURCHWELL: Well, you know, one is tempted to use words like alleged a fair amount when one's talking about this book. I mean, look, the basic facts of it are perfectly true. He was the third assistant director on "The Prince and the Showgirl," which was made in 1956. He certainly met Marilyn and worked with her. I think that there are certain very little moments in - he actually wrote two books - one in 1995 and one in 2000 - and this film is an amalgam of the two books. And certain little claims that he makes I think absolutely ring true.

For example, he says that there's a little joke the Marilyn made at his expense teasing him, where she says, oh, Colin, and you and old-tonian(ph), making a little joke about his having gone to Eaton. And that really rings true, because he said that he was surprised that she knew where he'd gone to school and what it meant. So, I think little throwaway moments like, there are little bits where you think, yeah, that probably happened. But the larger claim that he had this week where Arthur Miller had gone back to America and he had this week with Marilyn and that they basically had some kind of little quasi-affair, although he has the good taste not to claim that he actually slept with her, which is a relief for anybody who's read a lot of the kiss-and-tell memoirs about Marilyn. But he does claim that he was there on the night that she had a miscarriage. He does claim that she told him all kinds of intimate details, which coincidentally appear in virtually every biography of her.

So, there's nothing in these books specifically about Marilyn that he couldn't had found out. And more importantly, he waited some 40 years after the fact to publish them, which does make one think, you know, having read all of these biographies, that he capitalized on her fame and her familiarity and wrote a couple of books claiming a little bit more than happened.

SIEGEL: Colin Clark, who wrote these memoirs, died in 2002, so we really can't have him come on to defend his memoirs at this point.

CHURCHWELL: Well, true enough, but he also did the same thing to everybody in his books, because the waited until they were all dead and couldn't comment.

SIEGEL: Now, the story that Colin Clark, the memoirist here, was watching unfold was the making of a film in which, as the movie tells it, Lawrence Olivier, the director and co-star, is terribly frustrated dealing with Monroe who has her coach from the Actor's Studio in New York with her. And I want to play you a little bit. This is Michelle Williams as Monroe and Eddie Redmayne playing Colin Clark.

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

WILLIAMS: (as Marilyn) Why is Sir Olivier so mean? He talks awful to me, like he's slumming.

EDDIE REDMAYNE: (as Colin) I'll tell you what's wrong - it's agony for him because he is a great actor that wants to be a film star. And it's agony for you because you're a film star who wants to be a great actress. And this film won't help either of you.

SIEGEL: It's the kind of epigram that remains with you whether it's true or not. It's a wonderful line. Is this movie a great moment in the career of either Monroe or Olivier?

CHURCHWELL: Well, again, I'm afraid I'm going to hedge and say yes and no. Look, the movie is not a particularly good movie. I don't know anybody who finishes "The Prince and the Showgirl" and says, wow, that's a classic or what a wonderful comedy. And certainly, I think most people agree that the best films that Marilyn was in were certainly "Some Like It Hot" and some would argue for "Gentlemen for Blondes." But she does, in my opinion, give one of her best performances in it, which is very ironic because Olivier was indeed frustrated by her. I would say that if anything, this film is understated in its presentation of their conflict. And it makes them both really rather more polite to each other than by all accounts they actually were.

So, it's ironic that out of all of this unhappiness, she actually produced a really funny and sensitive and charming little comedic role. Unfortunately, it's very funny, because Olivier, of course, is a great actor and I'd be the last person to dispute that. And you go to this film thinking, well, he's going to act her off the screen. But he's very wooden. He's very hammy. And I realized after watching this film after a couple of times that for all Olivier's greatness, one thing nobody ever said about his performances was that he was very funny. And he's actually not a very good comedian, I don't think. And she is a very fine comedian and that's what comes through in the film.

SIEGEL: He is played in the movie by Kenneth Branagh. And, yes, she can't get straight what he should be called. She keeps calling him Sir Olivier or...

CHURCHWELL: Yeah, I think that's a little bit of a cheap joke, to be honest. She wasn't that ignorant, you know. I mean, she was insecure about her lack of formal education and she called him Sir Olivier as a joke. She certainly wasn't, you know, quite the bimbo that that makes her sound.

SIEGEL: It's one of the best-looking Arthur Millers I've seen in a movie, in a fictional movie.

CHURCHWELL: Yeah, I think Arthur Miller could be flattered by that. And I do think that Branagh does a great job as Olivier. I think it's a very funny and very kind of bravura star turn. And as far as this sort of impersonations that go on throughout the film, I think, you know, a lot of them as performances do a very good job.

SIEGEL: Well, Sarah Churchwell, thanks a lot for talking with us.

CHURCHWELL: Thank you.

SIEGEL: Sarah Churchwell is professor of American literature and American studies at the University of East Anglia in England. She is the author of "The Many Lives of Marilyn Monroe," and she spoke to us from London.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HEAT WAVE")

WILLIAMS: (as Marilyn) (Singing) Having a heat wave, a tropical, tropical heat wave. The way that I move, that's (unintelligible). (She certainly, certainly, certainly can.) I certainly, certainly, certainly can. (Can, can.)

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