Liz Smith: She Tries Hard, But Michelle Williams Falls Flat in “My Week With Marilyn”

And more from our Liz: Christie Brinkley and Beverly Johnson dazzle at MM screening … Broadway blooms with “Venus In Furs” and “Chinglish”

“WHEN I was growing up I wanted to be either Mickey Mantle or Bert Stern. But later, when I thought about it, I preferred Stern. Mickey Mantle hit a lot of balls and got drunk a lot. But Bert Stern got to meet all of the world’s most beautiful women!”

That was Harvey Weinstein’s introduction of photographer Bert Stern, at a special screening of The Weinstein Company’s feature, “My Week With Marilyn.”

The screening was held downtown at the Milk Gallery, which is currently exhibiting a collection of photos of Monroe, “Picturing Marilyn.” These run the gamut from fresh-scrubbed Norma Jeane in 1945 to the weary but still lovely goddess of 1962. One of Mr. Stern’s most beautiful shots of Marilyn, in a backless, black Dior gown dominates the entrance to the exhibit. The flamboyant sex-symbol is elegance personified.

Dior was one of the sponsors of the event. Indeed fashion model Dree Hemingway — daughter of Mariel Hemingway and the great-granddaughter of Ernest, was on hand, swanning around in what was said to be the very same Dior gown Monroe had worn in the Stern photos. Or at least it was an excellent copy. Dree looked lovely, though it was bittersweet imagining how gorgeous Monroe herself must have looked in this dress.

* * *

THE SCREENING also attracted, as co-hosts, Celeste Holm (she was one of the big stars of “All About Eve” in which Marilyn had a small but showy role) and actress Joan Copeland, Arthur Miller’s sister. Also peering closely at the pictures of Marilyn were Ben ShenkmanDan AbramsBruce WeberMatt StoneCalvin Klein and his Nick GruberSimon Curtis, director of “My Week With Marilyn” and one of the film’s stars, Dominic Cooper who plays Milton Greene) … Beverly Johnson and — giving Marilyn a run as the most gorgeous blonde in the room, Christie Brinkley — in head-to-toe shades of caramel.

Miss Brinkley is jaw-droppingly beautiful — so statuesque, so shapely, so radiant it’s almost scary. But she doesn’t have that scary look. If she has employed methods other than good clean living to stop the clock, it’s been done with an expert touch. She is still beaming from her adventures in London with the production of “Chicago.” She had been a big hit on Broadway in the long-running revival. And she is super-excited about a line of beauty products she is launching online. Christie is certainly her own best advertisement! At one point, Christie and Beverly Johnson embraced and posed for photos together. The sight of these two great beauties, supermodels of decades past, but still looking in their prime, stopped the room cold. Or hot.

* * *

AH, YES — the movie. Much has been said — mostly by the film’s star, Michelle Williams — about the difficulty of portraying the many sides of Marilyn, her variety of voices and personas. Miss Williams is a wonderful actress and no doubt she means every word she utters, but the Marilyn of her creation is a dreary, depressed, dim creature. In fact, it is the Marilyn of Arthur Miller’s “The Misfits.” (Marilyn hated her role in that film, complaining endlessly of the girl’s passivity.)

This movie is based on the highly suspect memoirs of Colin Clark, a lowly go-fer on the set of “The Prince and the Showgirl,” which was filmed in London, in 1956.  Colin and Monroe became “close”  he averred. The characterization offers nothing of Monroe’s wit, humor, intelligence or — and this is vital — her anger. Her reactions to events were not always a depressed collapse. She was capable of intense, extraordinary rages. She had a sharp tongue. She could fight back, and she did. But “My Week With Marilyn” presents nothing but her fears. Or a perceived stupidity. Williams has to utter lines like, “Gee, I wish I could read all these books” when entering a library, or, “I met the Queen. She said my dress was pretty.”

Worse, all the other characters in the film — Kenneth Branagh as Laurence Olivier, Judi Dench as Dame Sybil Thorndike, Julia Ormond as Vivien Leigh, Eddie Redmayne as Colin — are compelled to say how “extraordinary” Monroe is, despite her neurotic behavior. Then we see Miss Williams enacting various scenes from “The Prince and the Showgirl.” Problem? She is not Marilyn Monroe. And so, she does not seem extraordinary at all. I admire Miss Williams for her efforts and sincerity, but in the end, she has given one more imperfect impersonation of Marilyn.

* * *

HOWEVER, the worst served by “My Week With Marilyn” is the late photographer Milton Greene. This man admired and loved Marilyn, encouraged her ambitions, supported her financially during her year-long strike against 20th Century Fox. He co-produced “The Prince and the Showgirl.” Their partnership ended badly, but he never spoke ill of her, never exploited their relationship or her image. Dominic Cooper plays Milton like a foul-mouthed NYC gangster, just another user. One wonders what Amy Greene, Milton’s ex-wife, who lived through The Marilyn Years with Milton, would think of this portrayal. (I ran into Amy Greene by chance, just last year. Still razor-sharp, she spoke lovingly of both Marilyn and Milton, “That was their golden time,” she said.)

You know what? Just check out “The Prince and the Showgirl” the next time Turner Classic Movies runs it. It is a testament to the talents of Monroe and Milton Greene.

No more pretty blonde ladies playing dress up, pretending to be Marilyn. It just doesn’t work. Sorry, Michelle.

* * *

BROADWAY is not only in full bud, but about to bloom like no season in a decade. Most recently is the once in a lifetime performance of “Hugh Jackman, Back On Broadway.” But I will write more about this incredible performance tomorrow.

David Ives’ “Venus in Fur” opened a few days ago, and it is without a doubt one of the most intriguing shows ever. It’s all about an actress struggling to make it big and a director who thinks he can be her reason. Tony nominations for its stars, Nina Arianda and Hugh Dancy, must be a sure thing. But it is Arianda who is merely marvelous. It’s been a long time since a relatively unknown actress has knocked out an audience as she does on stage at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre. wowOwow! Walter Bobbie’s direction of this sado-sexy but almost masochistic play is hilarious, touching, light-headed and sinisterly dark and threatening. But it’s Nina Arianda, who, while just changing her dress on stage, will knock your socks off.

And then there’s “Chinglish,” a fascinating experience in cultures and languages. The intriguing “Other Desert Cities,” by Jon Robin Baitz with a master cast including Stockard Channing, Rachel Griffiths, Stacy Keach, Judith Light and Thomas Sadoski. And don’t forget the wonderful recent revivals of “Follies” and “Godspell.” Broadway is bright!

24 comments so far.

  1. avatar rick gould says:

    Hey Hollywood–
    Enough of the Marilyn movies…
    You never did right by her, and you never get her right
    There was only one…
    and she’s long-gone,
    So, get over it…
    and quit dishing up fictitious shit!

    Liz is right. Watch the real thing on Turner Classics and be grateful Monroe’s magic is preserved on film!

  2. avatar Baby Snooks says:

    I suspect everyone who knew her had a different recollection of “Marilyn Monroe” and I also suspect the reason why is because she had so many sides, so many personalities, so many personas. All of which she tried, desperately, to roll into one. She unlike anyone else before her or after her moved beyond the legend and became the myth. I cannot imagine anyone being able to portray the myth. So we are stuck with portrayals of the legend as it evolved. A side here, a personality, there, a persona somewhere else. 

    • avatar Mr. Wow says:

      Dear Baby…

      I prefer the stronger aspect of her personality, which is rarely examined.  Her friend, the photographer Sam Shaw, said “She could be a tough, tough tomato.  She had to be, to survive.” 

      I believe both sides of her–the hard and the soft.  But a few years back I spoke with Pat Newcomb, who knew MM in the final, frantic era–after “The Misfits” and up till her death.   “Oh, please.  She was so much smarter than people imagined.  She was nobody’s fool.” 

      But she was her own fool, trapped by her  great invention–Marilyn!   This is why I believe she was a suicide.  Both Jane Fonda and the late Natalie Wood told tales of Marilyn in that last year, desperate over growing older and very much aware her career could not survive middle-age.   In fact the career was already fading.  “It can’t happen to me!” Marilyn cried when Jane talked of becoming a character actress.  Natalie saw her just weeks before her death, at a party at Peter Lawford’s house.  MM was drunk and weeping:  “I’m 36, and it’s all over. It’s all over.” 

      Talk conspiracy if you like—this was a woman on the edge. 

      • avatar rick gould says:

        Mr W-
        In terms of talent, if MM had had the guts to ditch the studio persona, I think she would have been fascinating, say as Martha in “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” Seriously. But the image was MM’s security blanket, despite her growing too old for it, so to speak.

        But discipline wise, her insecurities prevented her from tackling tougher, complex roles… if she needed a kazillion takes to say one line in “Some Like it Hot,” no way could she have coped with Tennessee Williams or Edward Albee.

        But there was an innate great talent there…

      • avatar Mr. Wow says:

        Dear Rick…

        I agree had she lived and overcome some of her demons…yes. I’ve thought of her as Martha!  Or Mrs. Robinson.

        But there is this legand of her inabilty to speak even one line, when her films–”Prince and Showgirl” is a great example–show her fluidly in very long takes.   Billy Wilder admitted she could do scenes  which other actors would find challening–long scenes–but for some bizarre reason she could get hung up on one word in another.  (Or pretended she did.  The infamous “Where’s the bourbon” in “SLIH”  was probably a big power struggle, more than anything else.)

      • avatar Mr. Wow says:

        legend.

        This font IS SO TINY!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  3. avatar Rho says:

    Can’t we just let Marilyn rest in peace?

    • avatar Mr. Wow says:

      Dear Rho…

      Apparently not.  And honestly?  She’d be thrilled she is so well-remembered almost 50 years after her death. 
      Whether warranted or not, she moved beyond legend and myth into something else altogether–some other aspect of “celebrity” that doesn’t even have a name.  Others were more beautiful, talented or “sexy.”  Others died young.  What is the peculiar quality she had that still has this tidal pull on the culture.? I cannot say.  Only that I felt it as a child and still do.
      She was  quite brilliant in “the Prince and the Showgirl.”
       
       

      • avatar Rho says:

        Mr. Wow, I remember her of course, I thought she great in every thing she did.  Why try to copy her?  She was unique, and beautiful.  One in millions.

      • avatar Mr. Wow says:

        Rho,

        I agree.  But people can’t seem to stop themselves.  What a thankless task to try to imitate almost anyone famous who had a distinctive personality or “look.”   Think what we’re in for with Elizabeth Taylor. 

      • avatar Baby Snooks says:

        I think most were surprised there wasn’t the expected avalanche of scandalous tell-alls when Elizbeth Taylor died. In reality I guess there wasn’t that much left to tell. Much of it she told herself. She was not Dietrich retiring into the shadow of a Paris apartment leaving only her memory. Elizabeth Taylor got old before our eyes. And the legend in a way died before he did.  In the end she became almost ordinary. Just like everyone else. Any number of actresses will play her. If there are any number of movies. There may not be. People wonder about Doris Day. In reality, well, like Dietrich she has left us the memories.  Elizabeth Taylor was the “last star” but in a way the star faded as the years went by. Despite attempts to keep it shining.  Paparazzi followed her still to a degree. But hitting the gay bars in West Hollywood really was not the way to keep the star shining. Or remain a legend. And, well, she wasn’t kidnapped you know.

      • avatar Paul Smith says:

        Who would the other beautiful, talented, sexy, sucides be, whose deaths coincided with the advent of the dead celebrity cash cow industry that we now have? She has great handlers. She had the montrous Strasbergs. In truth, Gentleman and Niagara and Itch made her career. This profundity crap is good for the estate. I stand by Arthur Miller’s lucid accounts of her conflicts and terrors. The rest is good estate planning.

      • avatar Mr. Wow says:

        Dear Paul…

        I aprreciate your admiration for Mr. Miller.  That is, I have the feeling you’re not terribly patient with women who have “problems” and no doubt consider Mr. Miller  to have “wasted” his talents during the MM years.  That he had already dried up by the time he met her…  And he had some hefty emotional baggage himself.  (I wonder what Monroe would have thought, had she to lived to see Miller lock away and abandon one of his children by Inge Morath.  The child was mentally handicapped.)

        In any case, a man who “acidentally” leaves his diary out, on his honeymoon, right where the wife can find it–a diary entry full of criticism.  They would done best to separate and divorce on the spot.    She never  recovered from this “act of betrayal” as she saw it.   He hung on until he got “The Misfits” out of her, and then waited a scant two years to “reveal” her in “After the Fall.”    People who really knew her, and admired her, such as James Baldwin, hissed and threw his program at the stage of the ugly Kazan/Miller collaboration/character assassination.

        I do agree on the Strasbergs, however.  No help to her at all. 

  4. avatar rick gould says:

    Aside from the previously mentioned qualities, I think Monroe was the first sex symbol to exude vulnerability. And like Garland, her pathetic beginnings were part of the legend from the beginning, inspiring sympathy.

    Taylor was vulnerable too, especially in her health travails, but she was Hollywood’s Scarlett O’ Hara. There was always tomorrow. Makes me sad Monroe didn’t have that.

    And trying to mimic the gorgeous exterior without possessing the unique interior just makes imitators look like they’re celebrating Halloween, not the star…

  5. avatar Charles Casillo says:

     
    As a Marilyn Monroe fan for many years, having seen her movies dozens of times over, read all the books, seen the documentaries…and finally having (unfortunately) watched all the “portrayals” of Monroe in movies, I have to say that no actress has ever come close to bringing the mystique and magic of Monroe to the role.  Part of the reason is it is difficult to get an actress who has both the acting chops needed to portray such a complex woman who also has a beauty and charisma that makes all the adoration that Monroe inspired in her lifetime believable.
     
    Frankly the failure of accurately portraying MM on stage or screen is to blame equally on the writers and the actress. My first bit of advice is DON’T look to her movies and use her screen image as a major source of research about Marilyn’s true personality or the way she acted in real life.  Too often we see the actress portray Marilyn in a normal conversation as if she were Lorelei Lee from “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes” or Sugar Kane from “Some Like it Hot.”  The writers too seem to think that the public wants to see Marilyn as a breathless, dimwitted,  Kewpie doll.  A little research will reveal that the Marilyn Monroe of the screen was a brilliant creation by Monroe.  If you were making a movie about Charlie Chaplin you wouldn’t show him during his off camera moments as “The Little Tramp.”  In reality (a little more research will show) Marilyn spoke in a normal voice.  She had her moments of depression but she was also capable of embracing life and enjoying the moment.  She had a true wit and a clever mind. Also, she didn’t go about her day to day activities dressed in full face makeup and sequins.  Actually she was very casual.
     
    There is yet to be made the perfect movie about Marilyn Monroe. It can be done.  It takes a sensitive writer who can write a layered character who honed and used many personas to deal with the chauvinistic, cold world of Hollywood.  It will take an actress who understand that the public Marilyn was very different from the private Monroe. That she was a creature of shifting moods and many conflicting contrasts.  And an actress who also has some sort of magic.  It doesn’t have to be Marilyn’s kind of magic, but something that explains WHY so many people–coworkers, fans, THE WORLD, were fascinated by her.

    • avatar Mr. Wow says:

      Dear Charles…

      Those who are interested should go to YOUTUBE  and find the great interview she did at the L.A. airport, returning to Hollywood to film “Bus Stop.”  Normal voice, in control, witty.  One wonders if in all her research Michcelle Williams ever saw that?

      • avatar Baby Snooks says:

        That does seem to be the problem. Actresses playing Marilyn Monroe playing Marilyn Monroe but then who could play her otherwise?  All the “private moments” aside she herself seemed to always be playing Marilyn Monroe. Which perhaps is how she became the myth.  Not sure when that happened. I suspect that night at Madison Square Garden. Lorelei Lee became the Lorelei. Singing her siren song. Luring all the ships and all the men aboard them to their doom upon the rocks below. 

      • avatar considerpleeze says:

        Michelle Williams specifically referred to listening to Marilyn’s normal “conversation” voice on itunes. I haven’t seen the movie and doubt I will. I love Marilyn and have never seen anyone who possessed her unique beauty, sensuality and vulnerability. The closest was the late Dorothy Stratten.

  6. avatar Count Snarkula says:

    “The Prince and the Showgirl” is the one MM film I can never seem to get through. Tried as recently as last week thanks to TCM, but it is still a no-go.

    • avatar Dan Patterson says:

      Count, in case you missed my message two days ago, NIGHT WATCH is now on DVD. Warner Bros or Amazon, $15.

      • avatar Mr. Wow says:

        Dear Dan and Count….

        And it’s fabulous!  It won’t won’t play on a lot of older machines, so be prepared.  Anyway, it is a beautiful remastering. 

        Miss T. looks blousy and beat-up one minute,  ravishing the next.   Performance on target—typical Taylor hysteria with a delicious twist. 

    • avatar Mr. Wow says:

      Dear Count…

      It is hopelessly stage-bound and Olivier’s tepid attempts to open it up, don’t work.  Everybody is forced to repeat themselves, over and over, to an odd conclusion. 

      Visually, Monroe is trapped in her white dress—the most unforgiving of her career–for one little wisecrack by Dame Sybil at the end.  Hardly worth it. 

      It is in no way the “typical” MM film.   Her performance is great, but everything around it is not. 

  7. avatar French Heart says:

    It’s brave, but doesn’t seem a good career move, of any actress to attempt playing SUCH an original. There’s no possible way to duplicate SINGULAR her.

    I read that Jackie Kennedy was off sailing on Agnelli’s boat in the Med when it was announced that MM died. Everyone got out the knives. Jackie wouldn’t have it, ‘Isn’t it enough that the poor woman is dead without sitting here under the stars gossiping about her?’ and off she went to sit atop a high cliff alone.

    I love the ever resilient Christie Brinkley. Wish there were pix of HER!

    Thanks for the always interesting reports Ms Liz. You DO have the LIFE!

  8. avatar April says:

    I think that, visually, Michelle Williams did a good turn as Marilyn Monroe. The second she opened her mouth, that image was ruined.