Interview: Simon Curtis on the indelible Marilyn Monroe and the role as Hamlet for an actress
Next August marks the 50th anniversary of Marilyn Monroe’s death. Half a century after her passing we find that Monroe remains an enduring figure in our collective consciousness. Director Simon Curtis hopes that the release of his film, “My Week with Marilyn,” will provide audiences with fresh insights into the complex nature of the cinematic icon. Indeed the film's star, Michelle Williams, is receiving consistent Oscar buzz for what many feel is a revelatory, nuanced portrayal of Monroe.
Marilyn Monroe represents both more, and less, than an actress of repute or a captivating movie star in our cultural lexicon. Marilyn, Norma Jean, the human being is often distilled to an image, a representation of an ideal, a desire, or a figurehead. Monroe herself quipped about her status as a sex symbol in her final interview: “A symbol? I always thought those were the things you clashed together.” She laughed with the journalist but went on to explore essential quagmire of being Marilyn Monroe. “See that’s the trouble is a sex symbol becomes a thing," she said. "And you just hate to be a thing.”
And yet that is exactly what the screen legend was, and in many ways still is. “That’s what’s interesting,” Curtis says of Monroe’s enduring mystique. “What’s exciting for our film is that there’s such a tremendous interest about Marilyn, and at the same time people don’t know that much about her.”
For some, Monroe’s appeal can be distilled down to “the x-factor,” that indefinable quality that makes it impossible to look away from her. “She just had something that was special and unique,” Curtis said. “Her personality was what made ‘Some Like It Hot' work, because with another woman playing that part, with a different sort of aura, it would have been harder to buy into her believing that these men were women. And I think with Marilyn, whether it was deliberate or unconscious, the way her life became a sort of talking point in a soap opera. Her marriages, her affairs, of course her awful death, all of these things contributed to the mythology of it.”
There is also the matter of her incredible physical appeal. “It’s that face,” Curtis says. “It’s everywhere you go. The Warhol face, the Madonna version of it, Lady Gaga’s version of it.” Yet there have certainly been other starlets that were as captivating and scandalous.
Jayne Mansfield, who followed in Monroe’s blonde bombshell wake, also faced a tragic end. There’s something about the essential dichotomy of Monroe, the darkness of her life experience and her interior landscape as opposed to the light that she projected on the world, that we cannot get enough of. What is interesting to think about is what that says about our own fundamental nature.
Perhaps we relate to Marilyn’s endless need to be loved and approved of, as well as her inability to truly feel either. She become an unfillable void. As much as she desired affection, as much the world desired to give it to her, Monroe was an emotional sieve. In an attempt to prove that she was worthy to an ephemeral public she built a private prison in the form of her persona where true affection could not reach her.
For Curtis, “it’s not so much that everyone wants attention; it’s that everyone wants to look after somebody. And certainly, I think it was Peter Bogdanovich’s quote that she was in ‘bad trouble from the moment she was born.’ Michelle and I and everyone working on it grew to have a lot of admiration and sympathy for Marilyn.
“This not a biopic, however. It’s a moment in time.” A moment in time taken, not from Monroe, but from the life of the author of the memoir the film is based on, Colin Clark. Clark was hired as the 3rd AD on “The Prince and the Showgirl” as his first job in show business, a job he pursued with dogged persistence and unsinkable enthusiasm, as most who are bitten with the cinema bug do.
“The starting point for me was the visceral excitement, this young man with a passion to be in this business,” Curtis says. “It’s his golden ticket, not only to get to meet Marilyn but to work on this extraordinary film with this extraordinary collection of people.”
Said “collection of people” include Laurence Olivier, Vivien Leigh, the cast and crew of “The Prince and the Showgirl,” Monroe’s new husband Arthur Miller and, of course, Monroe herself. Clark (played by Eddie Redmayne) represents everything that Monroe projects, but does not ultimately posses – innocence, hope, healthy passion. The film is not so much about revealing heretofore unexamined dimensions of Monroe’s personality, but more about witnessing a vision of her through the eyes of a love-struck boy. He is in some ways representative of the trajectory of Marilyn’s relationship with her public and visa versa.
Clark initially display’s a distant sense of awe, followed by an understanding of Monroe as a wounded bird wherein the desire to rescue her comes into play. He has the arrogance to believe that he has the ability to make her see what she is in relentless pursuit of an empty well, to shake her out of her emotional addiction to fame, but he never fully reaches her. The real woman, the woman who has the self-awareness to wonder, “Shall I be her?” when she enters a crowd, never truly reveals herself to Colin.
For as Michelle Williams discovered, the greatest role Monroe ever played, was Monroe. “She herself had clearly adopted a lot of the body language and these attributes,” Curtis mused. The discovery of Monroe ’s affectations gave both Curtis and Williams a sense of comfort in pursuing the project. “If Marilyn could adopt them, so can we,” Curtis reasoned.
There are layers of self-reflexivity in “My Week with Marilyn.” It is, most notably, a film about the making of a film. But it is also a film about being in love with filmmaking and about how that love can tear at you, destroy you, madden you and ultimately renew you. Colin’s naïveté is set against Monroe’s savvy. Monroe’s astonishing beauty is set against the agony that an aging Vivien Leigh (once called the most beautiful woman in the world) must endure. Monroe’s madness is set against her seemingly effortless (in reality effortful) genius.
Yet perhaps the most interesting pairing is that of Monroe and Olivier. They were notoriously at odds during the course of production. He ridged, demanding, unforgiving and cruel, she unreliable, spoiled and inconsiderate. There is a moment in the film in which Colin sums the whole matter up as impossible to reconcile in that Olivier’s aim is to become a movie star, while Monroe’s is to be a respected actress and they find themselves in a film which will accomplish neither goal.
“The Prince and the Showgirl” features Olivier as a stodgy old Prince Regent well past his political time and Monroe as a fresh, invigorating woman he finds frustratingly attractive, childish and deeply inconsiderate. There are pieces of dialog in the film where one would swear Sir Laurence is referring to Monroe. “It’s amazing,” Curtis said of the connection. “And also, Olivier, age 50 in 1956, is emblematic of fading England. And Marilyn, age 30, is emblematic of exciting, complicated new America.”
A particular point of contention between Olivier and Monroe was her commitment to Stanislavski's the method as opposed to his traditional approach to acting. In a poetic marriage of the two, Williams initiated her work on the role by crafting the voice and movement she would use to portray Monroe. She began by focusing on the choreography for a pivotal dance number and as such, in a sense, worked form the outside in. Curtis’s method on set was to provide Williams with as much space as possible for, “Marilyn to pop,” as he puts it.
“We wanted to have the opportunity to sort of splice together moment by moment,” he said. “And Michelle is a great one for just wanting to keep going and offering as many different things as possible. When you’re doing something like this, obviously like any film, you’re helping an actor deliver a scene, or make that journey in that scene work. But on this, there was another thing where you could do that and not be particularly Marilyn-like. So it was about finding the moments that were the most Marilyn-like within that.
But that left a question. What is Marilyn like in from moment to moment? "There were so many different versions of Marilyn," Curtis says. "There was the bipolar thing, and mood swings. So I think it is a sort of Hamlet of a part for an actress, because there’s just so much at stake. In a way you think of Hamlet, and being compared to everyone who’s already played Hamlet, now she’s being compared to Marilyn. But the part offers so much texture and complexity, and I think that’s what really paid off.”
For Curtis, "My Week with Marilyn" represents a “love letter” to the films of the past. “It’s a film about human beings," he says. "It’s not a special effects movie. ’The Prince and the Showgirl’ was about people. Films are made very differently now."
“My Week with Marilyn” opens in theaters Wednesday, November 23.
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