Cannonball Read IV

A bunch of Pajibans reading and reviewing and honoring AlabamaPink.

xoxoxoe’s #CBR4 Review #41 & 42: My Week with Marilyn & The Prince, the Showgirl, and Me, by Colin Clark

“For five months, whether she turned up or not, she dominated our every waking thought.”

My Week with Marilyn by Colin Clark actually contains two books, The Prince, the Showgirl, and Me, a diary that Clark published in 1995 based on his time on the set and detailing the  making of the film The Prince and the Showgirl, and My Week With Marilyn, from 2000, his revisionist view of the “lost week” he left out of the first volume and that he allegedly spent with the biggest star in the world at the time,Marilyn Monroe.

It’s interesting to read his intimate (fantasist?) diary first, and then read the more reporter-like journal of his days working on the film and catch clues to his possibly more intimate interactions with Marilyn. His dates don’t match up exactly, which doesn’t help with his credibility. In My Week with Marilyn he is present in her home on the night of September 18 when she suffered a miscarriage. He plays a very active, even take-charge role in getting a doctor, managing her entourage, etc. during the crisis (newlywed husband Arthur Miller was absent in New York at the time). In The Prince, the Showgirl, and Me he hears about Marilyn losing a baby while gossiping with her bodyguard, after the fact, on September 8. Does one of these scenarios sound more realistic than the other?

Olivier trying to direct Marilyn on the set of The Prince and the Showgirl
Williams as Marilyn and Branagh as Olivier in My Week with Marilyn

In a way, whether his memories are accurate or not don’t really matter. Both books capture what life on a film set was like, and how Marilyn’s erratic behavior affected all of the people around her. This factual ambivalence did not escape the makers of the film version, which adheres pretty closely to the second book. Director Simon Curtis cast My Week with Marilyn with the cream of British and American acting. The fact that none of them really resemble the people they are supposed to be portraying ultimately doesn’t matter. Michelle Williams, for me, did not look for one moment like Marilyn Monroe. Even with padding, she is not voluptuous, and lacks Monroe’s amazing hourglass silhouette. But she does, in her confusion and flickering moods, capture the behavior that we have come to believe was Marilyn’s. Likewise Kenneth Branagh does not immediately bring Laurence Olivier to mind, or Zoe Wanamaker Paula Strasberg, but they both ably convey the frustrations of their very different positions in Marilyn’s orbit.

The double-edition is structured so that one reads Clark’s lost diary first and then his more day-to-day account of the making of The Prince and the ShowgirlMy Week with Marilyn is probably as much fantasy as fact, but the reader still comes away with a sense of what Marilyn must have been going through during her time in London, such a fish out of water, endlessly pampered but also abandoned. It’s highly unlikely that Clark could remember verbatim so many conversations so long after the fact, but there is still a ring of truth in his exchanges with Marilyn. On an excursion the pair take to Windsor Great Park he has Marilyn say, “Why do I take all those pills? Why do I worry about what all those men think? Why do I let myself get pushed around? This is how I ought to feel, every day of my life. This is the real me … ” Maybe he writes her as he wishes she had been. But he somehow does manage to capture some essence of Marilyn.

Where the book is at its most observant and entertaining is in his (frequently catty) observations of the other key players. He has no use for Marilyn’s husband of a few weeks, playwright Arthur Miller, “… Arthur Miller takes it all for granted — his house, his servants, his driver, his wife’s bodyguard, and even, so it seems to me, his wife. That is what makes me so angry. How can you take Marilyn Monroe for granted?”

He is incredibly sympathetic to Marilyn, and frequently criticizes his boss (and family friend) Olivier for his callous treatment of her. “The rest of Olivier’s circle, including Olivier himself, actually welcomed reports of her deteriorating condition as evidence that their opinion of her had been right all along. It was only toward the end of his life that Olivier was able to relent.” He repeatedly describes her ill treatment on the set and wishes that Olivier and others could be more kind, patient, and understanding with her. “[Lighting cinematographer Jack Cardiff] is the only person on the set who treats Marilyn like a chum. As a result he is the one crew member to whom she can relate, and certainly the only Englishman she trusts. In return he uses all his artistry to bring out her beauty. He clearly adores her, and because he’s an artist, with no ulterior motive, she responds to him very well.”

My Week with Marilyn, ultimately, is a bit of fluffy wish-fulfillment romance, with the two unrequited lovers parting amicably, never to see one another again. Clark’s earlier book, The Prince, the Showgirl, and Me, is a much more straightforward account of Clark’s experience during the making of the film. Although the focus is squarely on Clark, including some accounts of youthful, fumbling, sexual encounters, it gives the reader a good sense of life on a movie set; all the drama and romance, as well as describing how shots are set up and what the crew does, including lighting, sets, and make-up.

Clark comes off as a bit of a cad as he boasts of his dealings with the “wdg,” his nickname for a nameless wardrobe girl. He is a rich kid, who got the job through his connections with the Oliviers (Laurence and actress Vivien Leigh), friends with his parents. His father was Kenneth Clark, the famous art historian. He is a snob, too, sharing all of his superior attitudes about extras and frequent name-dropping of his parents’ friends. But he does bring to life the chaos and management of all of the minute details that go into making a movie. He outlines how difficult it was to wrangle extras for the coronation scene in the film (from the pool of extras as well as a ballroom dancing club) as well as the ridiculous but long-standing power of film unions. He recounts how he wasn’t allowed to fetch or move a chair so that elderly actress Dame Sybil Thorndike (who played the Queen dowager in the film) could sit down (a scene included in the film version, with Judi Dench as Thorndike) while they waited for Marilyn to appear on the set — a prop mover insisted that only he or one of his fellow union members could do it, so everybody stood around for ten minutes while that was accomplished.

Even with all of his upper class and film world connections, Clark had to fight to get work on the film. He is quickly blown off by the head of Laurence Olivier Productions when he shows up for a job, but he perseveres, showing up every day, and tries to make himself useful. After a week or so his persistence pays off as he is tasked with finding a suitable house for Marilyn to stay in while filming. He comes up with a clever solution, by securing two houses for the company, but it is also undeniable that his family connections also came in handy, as he travels in the circles where securing an available manor house is a regular occurrence. His success leads to a job as a third assistant director, or gofer, on the film set.

In The Prince, the Showgirl, and Me Clark seems less impressed and sympathetic about Marilyn, “She has got a cute smile, but so far she only turns it on for the cameras. Her figure — and especially her bust — is fantastic but a little on the plump side. Problems — too much fakery: peroxide hair, dead white make-up, heavy lipstick, but that is her image. She looks confused too, lost, troubled.”

One interesting anecdote: for some reason they filmed tests with Marilyn first without make-up, and then after in full make-up, wig, and costume. Clark is amazed by her transformation. “The film was magical, and there’s no other way to describe it. Stuff we shot in the morning, although it resembled a police lineup mug shot, was quite heartbreaking. MM looked like a young delinquent girl, helpless and vulnerable under the harsh lights. The afternoon footage was even more extraordinary. What an incredible transformation. Now MM looks like an angel — smooth, glowing, eyes shining with joy (Jack [Cardiff]’s lights), perfect lips slightly parted, irresistible.”

He is much less understanding of her personal problems and vulnerability in this book. “It’s true that MM doesn’t notice much of what is going on around her, but the knowledge that 60 actors and technicians are waiting for you, and at enormous cost to you personally, it’s hardly one to induce calm in anyone, let alone someone with such a fragile grip on stability as MM. … MM is so difficult to work with that even hardened technicians are driven crazy. But when she doesn’t show up, we miss her! What a paradox.”

Amusingly and consistently, he hates Arthur Miller, and never hesitates to say so, in both books, “AM seems big headed, insensitive, and super selfish. I never saw him look tenderly at MM, only with what looks like a sort of boasting self-satisfaction. What bad luck on MM. Why couldn’t she have found what she really needs — someone sympathetic to support her? She doesn’t move around with those sort of people I suppose.”

He doesn’t just reserve his criticisms for the Americans. He can be just as tough on his boss, Olivier. Clark may love and respect his old family friend, but he never stints on honesty where he is concerned. “[Olivier] has made many films — some great and some mouldy. Only on stage, to a very limited audience, can he be seen as the great actor he is.”

Both books offer a kaleidoscopic view of the difficulties behind making the film. Although Marilyn most definitely added another layer of mayhem, Clark’s recounting reminds us that most film sets are chaotic worlds, and that it is a miracle that with so many disparate and opposing elements that any movie gets completed at all. One of the volumes may be more fiction than fact, but together they offer a glimpse behind-the-scenes of the only film produced by Marilyn Monroe Productions. As Clark frequently reminds the reader, none of the tensions, bickering, or even all-out hatred that may have been felt by the parties involved is evident on screen. Marilyn is fresh and lovely and walks away with the picture from a stiff and old-fashioned Olivier. Movie magic.

You can read more of my pop culture reviews on my blog, xoxoxo e
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