There has never been anyone like Marilyn Monroe. There have been other movie stars. Big stars, even. Cary Grant, Robert Redford, Julia Roberts, Tom Cruise, George Clooney- you could call them stars, but they don’t come close. I’ve only seen one Marilyn Monroe movie, but I know it’s true. She lit up the screen like no one else I’ve seen. There have been better actors and actresses, better singers, better performers even, but when it came to being simply a movie star, she is above them all.
I watched two movies these last couple weeks about Marilyn Monroe. One was a classic comedy called Some Like It Hot that actually starred Marilyn. The other was My Week with Marilyn, a middling drama from last year that features a great performance by Michelle Williams as Monroe. One of these movies was great, the other was just pretty good, but both provide snapshots into the wonder of Marilyn Monroe.
My Week with Marilyn gives us a glimpse into Monroe’s fragile psyche (or attempts to at least). Directed by Simon Curtis (whose previous directing credits were in TV), we see Marilyn on the set of Laurence Olivier’s The Prince & the Showgirl, and she’s very out of place among Great Britain’s acting elite, not to mention the fact that she’s mentally unstable. Because she’s so insecure, she clings to a harmless 3rd assistant director, Colin Clark (Eddie Redmayne), who quickly falls in love with her, and who wrote the true-story book this movie is based on. Emma Watson plays Colin’s previous romantic entanglement, a sweet girl in costuming who is genuinely hurt by Colin’s changing affections. Another party not amused by Colin’s flight of fancy is Olivier (Kenneth Branagh), who nevertheless must tolerate it, since Colin is the only one whom Monroe will listen to.
A better movie would have spent less time trying to say something profound about Monroe. My Week attempts to analyze whether she truly was a helpless naif, as well as her motivations with men and her acting style. We watch too many characters telling us things about Marilyn, rather than seeing these things for ourselves. The most magical moments in the movie come from those moments when we do get to witness Marilyn (really, Williams, but she’s so good, it feels like we’re eyewitnesses to Marilyn Monroe at times) nailing line-readings with her distinct charm, as only she could. But those moments are too far and few between. While this arms-length perspective in My Week may be the easiest way to film a movie about Marilyn, it’s just not very affecting. However, there are great performances throughout. Kenneth Branagh chews the scenery wonderfully, giving telling insight into how men perceive Monroe. His Olivier is a bitter man, alternately frustrated and in love with Marilyn. Judi Dench and Emma Watson give good supporting turns, though Eddie Redmayne is severely outmatched in every scene. Best of them all is Michelle Williams as Monroe herself. There’s not nearly enough of her onscreen; her ability to replicate something of the magic that Monroe really gave to movies is uncanny. Williams was much-deserving of the accolades she received early this year. However good the performances are, the movie is just pretty good, and actually slightly disappointing.
Some Like It Hot, however, lives up to its classic status. We follow two musicians (Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon, hilarious) forced to flee mobsters after witnessing a gang execution. Their only way out of the city is to dress in drag (of course) and join an all-girls band heading to Florida; that band just happens to include Sugar Kane Kowalczyk, who just happens to be played by Marilyn Monroe, who just happens to be amazing. One of the guys, Joe (Curtis), falls for Sugar, and because she claims to only be attracted to millionaires, he periodically leaves behind his drag and plays the part of the debonair millionaire to win her over. The other guy, Jerry (Lemmon), attracts the eye of a real millionaire, Osgood Fielding III (Joe E. Brown), and he pursues him (her?) all over the resort the band is playing at. Eventually the aforementioned mobsters turn up, and the movie revs up into full screwball mode, to the audience’s delight.
A movie like this is great for three reasons. The first comes from the slam-bam gags and the lightning fast dialogue. Back then, actors didn’t have to talk at a realistic pace to draw people into a story, they just had to sell their lines the at whatever pace the screwball comedy demanded. All the actors are good at it here, and it helps that director Billy Wilder (The Apartment, Sunset Blvd.) has set up a bunch of great gags, what with all the identity confusion. The second reason is the relationship between Joe and Jerry. Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon both proved in their other movies that they were fantastic dramatic actors, but here Wilder has them busting our guts at an alarming rate. Their interplay never misses a beat, even when they’re pretending to be girls; at one point, Jerry forgets he’s a guy and begins planning his wedding with Osgood, and the ensuing back-and-forth between Jerry and Joe is one of the highlights of the film. The third reason is Marilyn herself. The movie is great, but she steals it effortlessly*. Though My Week was solely about Monroe, watching a movie she starred in is far better at showing you her magic. She bounces across the screen, virtually injects the story with life, and she gives a singing performance during which the censors must have blacked out, because I don’t know how it passed muster. She’s a joy to watch in her apparent naivete, in her effortlessness, in her beauty. Some Like It Hot is a great movie, but Marilyn Monroe was an even better star.
You’ll think I’m being subjective when you read these ravings about Marilyn Monroe. But I assure you, it’s all objective fact. When I think of the performances I’ve been lucky enough to witness, Monroe’s doesn’t stand among the best in terms of acting. The reaction I have is one more visceral; there’s just something about her that no one else has. Whatever it is, she had it. When you see a Marilyn Monroe movie, you’ll understand. Maybe someday we’ll see another star of her magnitude, but not the way things are going now. Marilyn Monroe was a one-time deal, an inexplicable phenomenon, someone, it seems, who will never be repeated.
*Incidentally, she made this movie immediately after making The Prince & the Showgirl.