March 20, 2013

Examining "The Method" Of MY WEEK WITH MARILYN


"It's agony because he's a great actor who wants to be a film star, and you're a film star who wants to be a great actress.  This film won't help either of you."

Michelle Williams got plenty of attention for her work portraying Marilyn Monroe, and rightly so.  She is absolutely marvelous, both as the public persona of Marilyn and the sweet and simple Norma Jean hidden within.  In one of my favorite moments, she encounters a group of applauding fans while touring Windsor Castle, turns to her young admirer and asks, "Shall I be her?"  She instantly transforms before our eyes into the playful, flirting starlet that every man in America fell in love with.  Naomi Watts has also had a Marilyn biopic in development for a while but if that movie ever coalesces, as much as I love Watts, it'll be hard to watch her without secretly pining for Williams.  This might be the definitive portrayal for a generation.

The film actually feels pretty slight overall, a simple plot that's punctuated by some sharp performances by Williams, Eddie Redmayne and Kenneth Branagh as screen icon Lawrence Olivier.  Put simply, Marilyn traveled to England in 1956 to film a "light comedy" with Olivier, and while there she had a brief romance with a young crew member named Colin Clark (Redmayne).  It's not really a physical romance so much as an emotional one.  While they do kiss and go skinny dipping, Colin mostly served as an emotional confidante, someone who would speak honestly to her and to whom she could confess her personal fears and professional doubts.  When all is said and done, the movie itself feels much like Marilyn and Colin's relationship as well as the film we see her shooting: an enjoyable lark that's pleasant enough in the moment but doesn't really leave a lasting impression.  (The movie, The Prince And The Showgirl, was considered a minor hit that was eventually overshadowed by her next film, Some Like It Hot.)

The most interesting element to me is the conflict that drives so much of the tension on Oliver's set.  1956 sits at a kind of crossroads in the entertainment industry, a clash between two different schools of acting which are perfectly embodied by the two leads.  Olivier was a classically trained stage actor, and his performance style was very large and theatrical.  He relied on a mastery of accents and dialects as well as a precise control of both his body and has facial expression.  To Olivier, acting was simply a matter of adopting the correct physical and vocal mannerisms as the script demanded; it was essentially a learned set of skills.  On the other side of the coin was "The Method," to which Marilyn was an  enthusiastic devotee.  First made popular by Marlon Brando and legendary filmmaker Elia Kazan, The Method favored the actor's internal process over the external.  Utilizing tools like sense memory, the actor would try to find the emotional truth of the character in the given moment.  While the process was far more involved and complicated, the results spoke for themselves.  (Just watch Brando in On The Waterfront and compare it to most any movie from about ten years prior.  It's like night and day.)  Despite its name, The Method didn't rely on any one technique, and most of today's A-list actors utilize method acting in some form.

Needless to say the two schools didn't exactly play well together and if nothing else, My Week With Marilyn does a great job at exploring precisely why.  Olivier and his contemporaries arrive to set on time, don their wardrobe and makeup, and are in their place precisely on schedule.  Marilyn is the opposite.  She's frequently late to set, or holed up in her dressing room because she's not yet emotionally ready to perform.  She is constantly accompanied by her acting coach Paula Strasberg, whose husband Lee Strasberg created The Method in the first place.  While Marilyn depends on Paula to help her find the character's inner life, Olivier is beyond frustrated with her presence, as they can't even get through a simple table read without Paula stopping everything to pull Marilyn aside and get her to examine the character further.

That frustration certainly reminded me of much of my own early performing experiences.  Acting and directing was my major in college and the program I attended focused a lot on various incarnations of Meisner and Stanislavski's method.  Personally, I was never a strict follower of any one technique, approaching different roles and shows from different perspectives.  Sometimes I found it easy to identify with the character and could easily put myself in his shoes, whereas other times it was more about simply drawing on my own life to get in touch with the appropriate emotional state that the moment required.  But, like Olivier, I too would sometime grow frustrated with my classmates/castmates, some of whom would burst into tears at the drop of a hat and almost seemed to prize emotional instability as an asset.  Acting class became quasi-group therapy sessions and it all seemed rather besides the point to me.  Often times these emotional explorations resulted in a compelling performance, but it usually made for an exasperating work environment.

At one point Olivier laments that Marilyn should spend time doing stage work, as a theater company would never put up with such nonsense.  In a way, that speaks to the essential distinction between Olivier and Marilyn, between their differing performance styles, and between the theater and the film industries themselves.  Marilyn, Brando, Strasberg and their ilk understood something that Olivier did not: the camera will pick up all sorts of subtleties that do not come across on stage.  The arrival of the close up shot meant it was no longer simply about hitting your mark and articulating your lines clearly.  The actor needs to become a fully realized human character that reacts to the world honestly in the moment, because any falsity on camera becomes instantly obvious and pulls the audience out of the film entirely.  You can see it clearly whenever Marilyn and Olivier are in a scene together; she has a natural charm and charisma that is absolutely captivating and can't be replicated no matter what artificial pose, inflection or expression Olivier adopts.  There's a reason she was America's sweetheart.  When she's on camera, everything else simply fades into the background.  It's therefore easy to sympathize with Olivier when he tells Colin that he wanted to work with her in order to feel young again, but instead he feels even older.  Olivier can see the writing on the wall, that his revels now are ended and world he's dedicated his life to is about to leave him behind.

In the end, My Week With Marilyn is frustrating on a few levels.  Generally I applaud these sorts of biopic stories that choose a specific moment or era to examine a person instead of trying to cover an entire lifetime in two hours.  And Williams's performance is so great that I would gladly see a whole series of movies about her incarnation of Marilyn, but here it feels like her considerable talents are wasted on a story that never really goes anywhere.  A big part of the problem is that she's not the protagonist.  This tale belongs to Colin Clark, and therefore we only really see Marilyn through his eyes.  It's more about how Marilyn affected Colin than vice versa and ultimately I don't care about him nearly as much as I do about her.  It's not Redmayne's fault, as he does his best with the limited material, and while I found the conflict between Olivier and The Method to be far more fascinating, I'm not sure if it would really appeal to those without a performing background.

I wouldn't recommend you go out of your way for this one, but if the opportunity presents itself than it's worth watching just for Williams.  If nothing else, she made me excited to go find some old Marilyn movies and add them to my viewing list.

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Title: My Week With Marilyn
Director: Simon Curtis
Starring: Michelle Williams, Eddie Redmayne, Kenneth Branagh, Emma Watson
Year Of Release: 2011
Viewing Method: Showtime (DVR)