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At last, an actress brave enough to play Marilyn

Newer actresses, from Lindsay Lohan to Nicole Kidman, have done photo-shoots recreating famous Monroe roles and poses.

She remains a source of fascination both to the public at large and to intellectuals and artists, who have sometimes waxed very pretentious about her. Norman Mailer, Joyce Carol Oates, her one-time husband Arthur Miller, Terry Johnson, JG Ballard and Andy Warhol are just some of the major cultural figures who have drawn on her life and persona in their work.

However, very surprisingly, no major Hollywood film has yet been made about her.

"I suppose there is always a danger that people think [playing Monroe] is impersonation and there's not a huge amount to say," suggests David Parfitt, producer of My Week With Marilyn, a new film about Monroe.


The film is based on two books by Colin Clark, son of Kenneth (of Civilisation fame) and brother of Alan (of the Diaries notoriety), reflecting on his experiences as a young trainee assistant on The Prince And The Showgirl. The Eton and Oxford-educated Clark struck up an unlikely rapport with Monroe, escorting her round late 1950s England and even sharing a bed with her (albeit not having sex).

Michelle Williams, who plays Monroe, is already being talked up as a front-runner for an Oscar nomination (something which Monroe never achieved.) Parfitt remembers that Williams was initially reluctant to take on the role. "I think she tried very hard to turn it down but, in the end, the script got her." Williams's performance received glowing reviews at the New York Film Festival.

"Sexy, vulnerable, fragile, alluring, seductive, delectable, complex, and all things in between, she nails it," rhapsodised veteran critic and awards pundit Pete Hammond on website Deadline Hollywood. "Williams is a sure bet for Academy recognition," agreed Screen International's Howard Feinstein.

Long a favourite of US indie cinema, Williams is arguably better known to the wider cinema-going audience for her relationship with the late Heath Ledger than for the films she has made thus far.

Her searing turn opposite Ryan Gosling as the young wife dealing with a crumbling marriage in Blue Valentine (2010) showed her capacity for bringing emotional depth to her performances. Internet gossip (denied by Parfitt) suggested that Scarlett Johansson had been in line to play the lead in My Week With Marilyn. However, Williams looks to have been astute casting.

She is a character actor as much as she is a star: bound to explore Monroe's motivations and feelings and not to rely on mannerism or to try to trade too heavily on glamour.

You can see, too, why a film like My Week With Marilyn might work when a biopic wouldn't. The film focuses on a very specific moment in Monroe's career. As accounts of the making of The Prince And The Showgirl have made clear, this was a famously troubled production.

Its director and star Laurence Olivier didn't hit it off at all with Monroe.

Arthur Miller, wrote in his autobiography Timebends of the "menace" Marilyn saw in Olivier: "Finally she came to believe he was trying to compete with her like another woman, a coquette drawing the audience's sexual attention away from her." Neither Olivier nor Miller cared much for Paula Strasberg, Monroe's acting coach and Method guru. Miller accused her of weighing down Monroe, a "natural comedienne", with "half-digested, spitballed imagery and pseudo-Stanislavskian parallelisms".


Olivier's antagonism toward his co-star was heightened, David Parfitt speculates, by his sense that she was out-performing him. "The Prince And The Showgirl is not Olivier at his best. It is very stagey, very staid. Basically, she knocks him off the screen."

The glamourous and voluptuous star was an incongruous figure in stuffy, class-obsessed 1950s England.

The reaction she elicited anticipated Beatlemania a few years later.

"Such was the frenzied lusting to get near her -- the all-American dream girl, the embodiment of erotic fantasy," cinematographer Jack Cardiff later recalled.

You can understand Williams's initial qualms. Portraying the film world's biggest sex symbol is a stretch, even for major stars. Moreover, any truthful biopic would be a chronicle of dysfunction.

In contrast to such work are the tawdry biopics, for example Marilyn: The Untold Story, in which Catherine Hicks plays her as a slightly more emotional version of one of Charlie's Angels, or gossipy, speculative dramas like Marilyn & Bobby. In Timebends, Arthur Miller hints at why the actress has proved such a difficult to portray in anything other than the most superficial light.

My Week With Marilyn is released on November 25