My Week With Marilyn
2 “Me and Orson Welles” + 1½ “The Prince and the Showgirl” = 3½ “My Week With Marilyn”
Lost in the plaudits for Michelle Williams’ sultry, vulnerable performance as Marilyn Monroe is Kenneth Branagh’s turn as Sir Laurence Olivier. Strange to say “lost” when he was nominated for an Oscar, but considering the death of Heath Ledger and Williams’ withdrawal from Hollywood life, she was certainly the story. But for those of us who’ve admired Branagh, watching him take on Olivier is fascinating.
Branagh, of course, was declared and declared himself the successor to Olivier. Apart from playing almost every major Shakesperian protagonist onstage, Branagh filmed top-shelf adaptations of “Henry V,” “Much Ado About Nothing” (with then-wife Emma Thompson), “Othello,” and finally, “Hamlet.” Branagh’s Hamlet is the only major version to use every single word of text, resulting in a 4½ “monument to the highest art of the Western canon.” In receiving an Oscar nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay, Branagh took the famously beguiling text and “interpreted in detailed stage directions every scene in a way that invites our understanding.” His Hamlet, true to form, is dialed up to 11, but Branagh made sense of each moment of the play with precise line deliveries and clever, clear visual metaphors and hypertext sequences.
It may have killed his career. Like Hamlet himself, you have to be somewhat crazy to try something so crazy and play crazy for that long. After Hamlet, Branagh slipped into meaningless character roles in bombs like “The Gingerbread Man,” “Celebrity,” and “Wild Wild West.” Eventually, Branagh returned to Shakespeare, adapting the minor work “Love’s Labour’s Lost” into a musical with Alicia Silverstone. Has ever such a great actor succumbed to such hubris?
Olivier had ambition, of course, but he was making himself into something entirely new: a Shakespearian movie star. Olivier aged into a long and prodigious career—yes, he had fat Orson Welles and fat Brando moments (Zeus in “Clash of the Titans”), but he also played Lear in admirable fashion as a 75 year old. Still, Olivier had all the pretension of an “artist” while trying to achieve Shakespeare stardom beyond his stage bound rivals.
Branagh declared himself Olivier’s successor, but being second, he knew he couldn’t re-break his ground. Millions might never tune into Richard III on television again, but Branagh could himself into a bonafide movie star. As noted above, he couldn’t square his artistic ambition with his popularity, and hasn’t quite transitioned into having a foot in both worlds like Ian McKellan, whose Richard III stands neatly alongside Magneto.
Branagh dramatizes this conflict in his portrayal of Olivier, who becomes exasperated with Monroe’s “technique,” such as it is. He maintains his dignity and “professionalism” as Monroe deigns to drag herself out of the dressing room, getting advice from some sort of soothsayer psychologist life coach. Eventually, Branagh’s patience with stardom wears thin, and he lashes out: “Marilyn, my darling, you are an angel and I kiss the hem of your garment but why can’t you get here on time for the love of FUCK?” His grievances are warranted, but as his resolve wears, he reveals himself at heart to be a fussy old didact, wholly unsuited to a romantic comedy with the most famous actress in the world. It’s the one thing he can’t act, and as Olivier himself observes, “ Acting is all about truth, and if you can fake that, you’ll have a jolly good career.” For Branagh, this is how the new Olivier ends up turning “Thor” into Henry V.