By Eleanor Ringel Cater
Everyone wanted a piece of Marilyn Monroe.
The Kennedy brothers, who used her like frat boys.
Arthur Miller, who married her, divorced her, then shredded her in several of his works.
Even Norman Mailer, who never laid a hand on Monroe but still managed to sully her in a lascivious, vulgar biography.
No wonder she fell to pieces. Accidental OD? Intentional? Murder? It hardly even matters any more.
Simon Curtis’s often brilliant “My Week With Marilyn” catches her mid-career. “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes” and “Bus Stop” are behind her. “Some Like It Hot” and “The Misfits” are still to come.
She and Miller, their marital troubles still vague and private, come to London to make a movie with Sir Laurence Olivier. His marital troubles — Vivien Leigh is coming unhinged and he isn’t in the mood to care — are more focused but still private. They, after all, are merely world famous. Marilyn is Marilyn Monroe.
The plan is for Sir Larry (at one point, she calls him, “Mr. Sir”) to direct and co-star with her in a film adaptation of Terrence Rattigan’s mildly successful play, “The Sleeping Prince.” It will later be re-titled, “The Prince and the Showgirl.” Just in case anyone missed the point.
More importantly, Olivier and Monroe hope — though neither says it — to have a Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers effect on each other. That is, he will give her class and she will give him sex appeal.
It doesn’t work. But then nothing really works in “The Prince and the Showgirl,” should you happen on it some late night.
“My Week with Marilyn,” however, does work, albeit in fits and starts. Based on the reminiscences of the third assistant director, Colin Clark (Eddie Redmayne), the movie — like the Olivier and Monroe marriages — works best in public.
When we are on the movie set or at press conferences, the film is delicious. And acidly funny.
We’re backstage with the “Dearies” as a certain generation of theatrical Sirs and Dames were dubbed (and often, laughingly, called themselves). Dame Judi Dench is hilarious as Dame Sybil Thorndike whose chipper, “Ah, what marvelous creatures we actors are” attitude becomes ever slightly more forced as Marilyn shows up hours late or needs 40 takes to say one line.
Branagh is similarly larkish as Sir Larry, glorying in the great actor’s plummy tones and false modesty. He shows us, too, how genuinely appalled Olivier is by the discovery that his co-star is, indeed, everything she’s cracked up to be.
Emphasis on cracked.
That brings us to Michelle Williams whose performance as Monroe is a quiet marvel. She isn’t a Marilyn impersonator; you can get that at dozens of drag shows. She doesn’t transform herself physically either (note, she’s a lot less busty than the real thing). Nor does she try to weasel her way through by mimicking Marilyn’s celebrated bedroom-whisper voice. There’s a hint of it now and then, but her commitment and art go far beyond a wiggly walk.
Trouble arises when the movie focuses on Clark’s relationship with Marilyn. Their country walks and private winks. They swim together nude and sleep together clothed (well, at least he is).
None of this, alas, is of much interest. It may have been the most important week of his life or, perhaps, one of the least harried of hers. But as Tommy Lee Jones so memorably said to Harrison Ford in “The Fugitive,” I just don’t care.
And neither, likely, will you.