My Week With Marilyn

SPOILER WARNING: Book Vs. Film is a column comparing books to the film adaptations they spawn, often discussing them on a plot-point-by-plot-point basis. This column is meant largely for people who’ve already been through one version, and want to know how the other compares. As a result, major, specific spoilers for both versions abound, often including dissection of how they end. Proceed with appropriate caution.

  • Book: The Prince, The Showgirl, And Me: The Colin Clark Diaries, Colin Clark, 1995
  • Book: My Week With Marilyn, Colin Clark, 2000
  • Film: My Week With Marilyn, adapted by Adrian Hodges, directed by Simon Curtis, 2011
  • Film: The Prince And The Showgirl, adapted by Terence Rattigan from his play, directed by Laurence Olivier, 1957

“Based on real life” films are generally bunk, at least in terms of portraying history. The vast majority necessarily invent dialogue, conflate characters and events, and simplify cause and effect to the point of being unrecognizable. For every United 93, which attempts to get across rigorously researched facts as well as feelings, there are a hundred films like We Bought A Zoo, which bills itself as a “true zoo story” while eliminating virtually every aspect of the true story (as laid out in Benjamin Mee’s book of the same name) and replacing it with a more trite and sentimental invented one. All too often, “based on a true story” in the credits means “we took a few key details from a true story to give new flavor to a canned story arc that the audience already knows well.”

And in some ways, there’s nothing wrong with that. A good story is a good story, regardless of where the details were acquired. If a film is enjoyable, interesting, and well-made on its own, it can be an aesthetic and artistic success without being a historical one. There are just two major problems with the “based on a true story” movie. One is that the marketers often disingenuously try to sell these films as having some additional gravitas, authority, or authenticity because they’re “true stories,” even if practically every aspect of the remaining story has been falsified—again, to increase the film’s marketability. The other is that all too often, the true story that’s being glossed over is more idiosyncratic and compelling than whatever’s left when filmmakers are done making it familiar and accessible. And that blandifying process can happen even when filmmakers aren’t necessarily working at it.

Case in point: My Week With Marilyn, the film adaptation of two memoirs by British director/producer Colin Clark, who started his film career as a gofer on The Prince And The Showgirl, directed by and starring Laurence Olivier, and co-produced by and starring Marilyn Monroe. Both memoirs capture the profound conflicts between the two stars, and explore where they were in their careers at the time. The Prince, The Showgirl, And Me is a production diary Clark started in September 1956, and kept up through the course of filming the movie, recording events both on the set and in his personal life at the time. The second, My Week With Marilyn, he wrote much later, based on memory and a single letter written to a friend in 1956. They’re very different books, and one of the funnier and more notable things the 2011 film version does is reconcile them into plausibility. In this case, the film version might actually be closer to reality than the memoir. But that’s a matter of conjecture, worth delving into shortly.

The primary difference between the film and Clark’s books is that the books are full of his personality. He was 23 when he prevailed upon Olivier—an old friend of his rich, well-connected parents—to get him a starting job in film, and his diary is full of the energy and arrogance of a sheltered, well-educated, full-of-himself twentysomething just starting his career, but confident that his merit will soon propel him past all the know-nothing goons and slackers around him. In The Prince, The Showgirl, And Me, he calmly, often contemptuously judges everyone involved in the film, railing about their stupidity and ineffectualness. For instance, his thoughts on the tech crew:

The Electricians’ Union is above any question or criticism, yet it can bring the whole studio to a halt at a moment’s notice. Everyone behaves as if technical mysteries are so mysterious that only technicians can understand them. Absolute nonsense! It is all simple and basic. All this mystery is just to hide laziness and incompetence, to make sure that three men are hired to do the job of one. The art of acting is far more mysterious, yet every technician feels free to criticise [Marilyn Monroe]. They damn her every time she has an attack of nerves, as if it was she who was lazy and incompetent. It is MM who really lights up the screen, and not some engineers fiddling with switches.

And just one of his many judgments on Monroe herself:

I have been watching MM very closely. She is really like a lovely child. Whatever possessed her to become an actress? I suppose it was some sort of clichéd idea about Hollywood. In America pretty blondes with buxom figures often think that they are meant to be film stars. Or perhaps it was some man who found that the quickest way into her pants was to promise that he could get her into movies.

Clark isn’t usually so catty, but he is utterly confident he has all the answers that have somehow escaped everyone else. For instance, only he sees that Olivier and Monroe have both picked the wrong part for themselves: Monroe has come to England because she thinks she’ll be taken seriously by working with one of the most celebrated stage actors of her time, but her role is a fluffy, giddy, manipulative chorus girl, too much like her past roles. Olivier, meanwhile, wants to be seen as a Monroe-level superstar and hopes some of her glamour and youth will rub off on him, but he’s playing a stiff, stuffy role in the stagiest way possible. And Clark certainly has nothing nice to say about Monroe’s new husband, Arthur Miller:

AM went off to Paris today, which may explain why MM was in such bad shape yesterday… AM seems big-headed, insensitive and super-selfish. I never saw him look tenderly at MM, only with what looks like a sort of boasting self-satisfaction. What bad luck on MM. Why couldn’t she have found what she really needs—someone sympathetic to support her? She doesn’t move around with those sort of people I suppose.

Contrast all this with the Colin Clark of the film adaptation, who’s a fresh-faced, nice young man, but essentially a personality-free cipher. He’s an open, easygoing Everyboy, experiencing the blush of first love. More specifically, he’s experiencing it with one of the era’s biggest celebrities, a lush and lovely, vulnerable, wounded superstar who briefly turns the full intensity of her personality and her sexual wiles on him as she attempts to use him for comfort in an unfamiliar, uncomfortable setting. It’s heady stuff, but it’s much headier in the film, where Clark is so innocent and ingénue-like that he basically stands as a relatable symbol for youthful naïveté, the kind of character who only exists in the realm of nostalgia. As Eddie Redmayne plays him in the film—with a big, self-effacing smile and tender eyes—he’s meant to present no resistance as viewers put themselves in his place in order to feel what it would be like to be young and in love again. And in love with a glamorous movie star, at that.

Contrast this with some of Clark’s actual diary entries about Monroe:

  • “AM certainly doesn’t behave like America’s most eminent intellectual. More like an overgrown schoolboy. But MM has a very appealing aura, even if physically she is not my type. A bit too exaggerated… her figure—and especially her bust—is fantastic but a little on the plump side. Problems—too much fakery: peroxide hair, dead white make-up, heavy lipstick, but that is her image.”
  • “When MM did arrive [for a screen test] we all got a shock—except Whitey [her makeup man], I suppose. She looked absolutely frightful. No make-up, just a skirt, a tight blouse, head scarf and dark glasses. Nasty complexion, a lot of facial hair, shapeless figure and, when the glasses came off, a very vague look in her eye. No wonder she is so insecure.”
  • “…the process of acting is very frightening for her. She needs [drama coach Paula Strasberg] a few feet away and Lee [Strasberg] at the end of a phone to reassure her. But there is no easy formula, no short cut. I suspect that there have been quite a few ‘Paulas’ in the past, and all of them will ultimately fail because they are substitutes for a training which is just not there.”
  • “The trouble is that MM simply cries out for someone to control her, and no one can resist trying to do so. She dumps her problems in Paula’s lap, and then while the wretched woman is trying to sort them out, MM goes and dumps them on someone else, and they start working on them, and so on.”
  • “A girl like that really needs her mum… but I’m told her mum is in a bin.”
  • “Even seeing MM in the nude had left me cold—well not exactly cold, to be honest, but not in love.”

None of this prevented the real-life Clark from falling for Monroe to some extent when she started leaning on him for support, looking for any ally in a situation where her co-star/director and husband were both judging and haranguing her, leading to a cycle of erratic behavior and substance abuse that just made the judgment worse. (At least from Clark’s POV, and in his retelling. To be entirely fair to film adaptations, memoirs can be just as misleading about history. But that’s an entirely different column; this one is about what the books say and how the filmmakers chose to modify them, not about whether the books themselves are entirely historically accurate.) The quotes above are all negative, but Clark does periodically mentally praise her looks and her work, and defend her from Miller and Olivier—both of whom he feels are handling her all wrong. And ultimately, he’s flattered and starstruck and attracted when she turns her attention on him. Also, reading between the lines, he’s probably more than a little taken with himself, and how well he handles himself around her, managing her neediness while not getting himself into significant trouble by, for instance, sleeping with her, even when she invites it.

Because the Colin Clark of The Prince, The Showgirl, And Me isn’t a schoolboy looking for a first love. Above all, he’s an ambitious career climber who’s looking to get a foot in the door of the film industry. Time and again, he enjoys his own cleverness in managing some piece of business as Olivier’s assistant, at anticipating his boss’ needs or manipulating events so as not to get into trouble. He’s extremely aware of social and political balances on the set of the film, and he talks about them like Machiavelli lecturing a student. For instance, when ordered to disperse a piece of news to the producers and staff, he notes “It is not a good idea to arrive on the set, out of breath and clearly in possession of important news no one else has.” So he explains how he sidles up to all the important players individually, giving them the news as if Olivier sent it directly to them and only them. When each of them says, “All right, have you told ______ yet?” he agrees to go tell that person next, even if he already has. As he sees it, he’s the only person on set who truly has Sir Laurence Olivier’s best interests in heart, and he’s the only one who “picks up all the little bits of information and can put it to SLO when I know he will listen.”

But by eliminating most of his personal ambition—really, just by eliminating his inner monologue of judgment and job-related scheming—the film makes him simultaneously more accessible and less interesting. It also makes the film far less about him, and far more about the much more familiar and prestigious topic of Marilyn Monroe. Michelle Williams’ terrific performance as Monroe accomplishes part of that shift, and director Simon Curtis helps it along by opening the film with Williams doing a musical number as Monroe, emphasizing the force of her personality and the depths of her sex appeal—and establishing her as the film’s real focus. And the script seals the deal by keeping all the specificity of her character, while tossing out most of the specificity of Clark’s. She’s still a worldwide mega-star with a complicated history, a distinctive persona, a troubled marriage, an angry boss, an interfering coach, and a myriad of personal issues; the Clark of the film is just the smiling, sympathetic witness to her troubles. The trailer certainly acknowledges that the story is more hers than his:

And all this alteration of focus happens without the filmmakers actually significantly changing the story. Most of the incidents seen in the film are depicted as Clark describes them. All they’ve removed is Clark’s own personal take on things.

Well, that and his sexual history. The film version of Clark briefly flirts with a girl his age in the wardrobe department (played by Emma Watson, of the Harry Potter films), but his relationship with Monroe shuts that down. The real-life Clark is a sexually active twentysomething, young enough to both boast about his conquests and to consider himself jaded. Some of the book’s most fascinating passages deal with his sex life, and casually reveal a number of aspects of sexual mores in Britain in the ’50s, not to mention Clark’s attitude toward women in general, which naturally carries over into his many thoughts on Monroe. For instance,

On Friday night I told all the girls about my job. They were very impressed and I succeeded into getting Yvonne into bed at last. She is tough as an alley cat on the surface but quite scared underneath—like an alley cat is, I suppose. She is really too moody for me, but she was just the company I needed to stop me getting big-headed. After all, I’m not exactly going to direct MM in a movie yet.

And then when he does go out with “the little wardrobe girl”:

Not much to do with my film career, but all part of my film life, so I can’t resist writing it down. The little Wdg is as sweet and tasty as a sugar mouse. I am head over heels with infatuation… [After dinner and a date] she happily allowed me to stroke her all over. Neither of us wanted to go the whole way. It is much too soon, and she is a good girl and not a tart. But it was impossible for her to not see how excited I was. She was curious, I explained, and finally out of kindness she put her little hand where the tension was and I was soon in heaven. Actually I think she enjoyed herself too, if not in quite the same explosive manner… now I can’t wait to see her again.

Shortly thereafter, though, they have a blowout, and he spends the rest of the book referring to her in increasingly contemptuous terms, insulting her vacuousness and using her nickname as shorthand for unmanageable, demanding females. For instance, when he has to break it off with her in a way that will calm her down so he can go back to interacting with the wardrobe department: “What a nightmare. The trouble is that you can’t discuss things logically with a little Wdg. I’ll have to find the right cliché.”

And then there’s his casual night on the town with a couple of gay actors and one of the film’s dressers, “Gordon,” who keeps putting the moves on him. Clark eventually says what-the-hell when Gordon offers him a blowjob:

I had heard this phrase before, but I didn’t know exactly what it meant. It sounded sexy, so I said OK. It felt great to start with but in the end I got restless and found it unsatisfactory. Gordon seemed to be having more fun than I was. I don’t really like sex unless I can take an active part.

So he goes off the next night and finds Yvonne: “Just had to have normal sex again. I’ve grown out of all that school-boy stuff at last. Perhaps I’ll go back to it when I’m old, but for now I prefer girls.” No surprise that the film excises all of this. It’s hard to maintain a “first and purest love” storyline when your male ingénue is sleeping with half the cast and crew on the side.

Everything else aside, The Prince, The Showgirl, And Me is a hugely entertaining book. Clark is entirely too pleased with himself, and he can be catty, smug, self-righteous, and unsympathetic, but he really was at ground zero for a clash between two of his era’s big stars, and he captures a lot of their behavior behind closed doors, from Monroe’s perpetual lateness and unpreparedness to Olivier’s stormy rages. He gets into a great deal of fascinating detail about British moviemaking of the era. One particularly compelling section deals with the attempts to bully 500 extras into doing the work they’re being paid for, instead of sneaking off to play cards together. In another section, he meets future filmmaker David Maysles, at the time a film assistant who spends most of his time running errands and chasing girls—and he quickly writes Maysles off, possibly having no use for his own competition: another ambitious fellow his own age who’s similarly putting in his time while getting a foot in the door for better things. In yet another, he reports on visiting an adjoining studio with Olivier to meet Bob Hope and Katharine Hepburn, who are about to start work on The Iron Petticoat. (“Needless to say Hepburn is divine and BH is arrogant and unpleasant.” Afterward, Olivier laments, “Why couldn’t MM have been like that? What a lot of fun we could have had, making this film.”) And of course, there’s plenty of fascinating minor detail about Monroe, such as, for instance, her tendency to flush a deep, bright red when she became stressed, such that filming had to stop for hours until she regained her famous delicate paleness.

The book My Week With Marilyn, on the other hand, is even more entertaining, for all the wrong reasons. As Clark explains in a foreword, there was a nine-day period in the middle of the filmmaking where he didn’t keep a diary, but he filled it all in 40 years later: “I make no apology for that. The whole episode is still as fresh in my mind as if it had happened yesterday.”

Strangely, though, that “fresh” story is clearly coming from a nostalgia-struck sixtysomething looking back on his career with the wisdom of age, rather than a bushy-tailed twentysomething looking to his future. The book My Week With Marilyn is far briefer than The Prince, The Showgirl, And Me—it only covers nine days, after all, rather than 15 weeks—and it’s clotted with sentimentality and self-righteousness. In Clark’s 1956 version of events, he’s a harried assistant running from place to place, dealing with people’s endless demands, pressures, and dismissals, and often completely ignored by Olivier and Monroe even when he’s in their presence. In the later book, his writing style is broad and expansive, full of generalizations and emphatic dialogue that always sounds invented, like it comes from a particularly lazy pulp novel. And hilariously, both Monroe and Olivier separately come to Clark, hat-in-hand, begging for his advice, which he dispenses like largess:

“Oh, Colin.” Marilyn began to sob quietly. “I love Arthur so much. How can I show him? How can I convince him? Do you think I can ever give him a child? Do you think he wants a child? We’ve never discussed it. I know he’d be a wonderful father. Why, he’s like a father to me. I’ll never lose him. I’ll make it all up to him. I’ll never disappoint him again.”

“Of course you won’t, Marilyn. And I don’t think you ever have. He’s frightened now, just as you are. You are both artists, great artists. Did you think it was going to be easy? Great artists need other artists in their lives. It takes one to understand one. But they will always clash—every now and then. A great writer like Mr Miller needs to be selfish in order to create his masterpiece. And so do you. Sure, an actor like Olivier can just walk out on the stage and play a part. But when you give a great performance, you actually become the person; you feel their joy and feel their pain. That is an incredible strain, but that is what makes you a star.”

“Ooh, Colin.”

Marilyn was beginning to cheer up. “So what must I do now?”

And in response, he goes on to tell her exactly how to manage everything from her work life to her sex life. And she says, “Yes sir,” and salutes him. Frankly, modern-era Clark is insufferable. The Clark of the ’50s keeps his wisdom to himself, wondering irritably why no one can see that Monroe is being misused and mismanaged, leading to her increasing instability. The Clark of the ’00s tells everyone involved in the film exactly what they must do to improve their lives, and they obsequiously thank him for it. (It’s a wonder, then, that Olivier and Monroe somehow continued to clash, and that she continued to live a troubled life, even with all Clark’s wise advice. And that, for instance, Paula Strasberg continued to be protective of Monroe and resentful of Clark, even after he praises Lee Strasberg in front of her and she beams at him, “suddenly my ally for life.”)

Wisely, the filmmakers again leave an awful lot of Clark’s personality out of the cinematic execution of those scenes. That involves more invention, since they have to create new dialogue (wherein Clark doesn’t ably have all the answers to hand, and his elders don’t continually praise his wisdom and promise to follow his counsel) rather than just omitting his inner monologue. Much as his real-life adventures in sex, drugs, and crafty personal politicking didn’t fit the filmmakers’ image of a first-love story, his later recollections of being everyone’s confessor-figure and life-coach didn’t fit the narrative either. Then again, they’re so laughably far-fetched, they don’t seem to fit into reality, so making the events he reports from that lost week fit into the tone of the rest of his production diary is actually a bit of historical revisionism that works.

One last thing about true-life stories and historical revisionism: Reading The Prince, The Showgirl, And Me and then watching 1957’s The Prince And The Showgirl is a fascinating experience. For all the behind-the-scenes drama and trouble and glitches and failures Clark reports, the film itself is a great deal of fun. It’s programmatic fluff, but it’s frank and playful. And it’s hard to reconcile it with Clark’s portrayal of Monroe as mesmerizing but unprofessional and inexperienced, easily flustered, unable to get through most scenes without repeated takes, unable to memorize speeches or blocking or get little details right, perpetually late or depressed or “cheerful but ga-ga. Booze and drugs I expect.” Because there she is in the film itself, capably delivering long speeches and gliding through long takes, embodying a smart, sharp, capable character playing and winning a complicated game with an old cad who just wants to take casual sexual advantage of her. She may have been a mess behind the scenes, but onscreen, she’s still luminous. And is that just another lesson in the inherent magic of the movies, with their ability to recut and recast reality? Or is it a warning that memoirs only reflect one version of the truth, and aren’t necessarily any more true to life than the films based on them?

So. Book, or Film? The film My Week With Marilyn has its pleasures: It’s beautifully shot, Williams is terrific (and a likely Best Actress contender), and Kenneth Branagh is thoroughly enjoyable as Olivier. But it’s a middle-of-the-road, mainstream crowd-pleaser, dressing up the old familiar “boy meets girl, boy loses girl” story with the tinsel of Hollywood history and the daydream of proximity to celebrity. The books, on the other hand, are a window into an era, revealing a great deal about the writer—in the former case, who he was, and in the latter case, who he liked to think he was—and the time in which he wrote them. They’re crammed with insights about what it was really like to be on a set with a couple of immense stars, and trying to grab some of their reflected glory. Both books are absolutely worth reading, though perhaps not worth taking too seriously as history. Maybe no entertainment is.

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