The 1957 film The Prince and the Showgirl was perfectly cast to type—Laurence Olivier the “prince” of the London stage as Charles, the Prince Regent of Carpathia, and Marilyn Monroe, Hollywood’s sex symbol, as Elise Marina, a sexy showgirl who captures the prince’s attention. The lineup looked better on paper than it played out on screen. Both actors expected something from the film they would never receive; Olivier hoped that appearing opposite a star like Monroe would jumpstart his film career, while Monroe thought that being in a feature with Olivier would polish her acting credentials. The filming turned out to be an excruciating experience, the only positive outcome a book written by Colin Clark that has been turned into an endearing film with Michelle Williams shining as Marilyn.
Olivier and Monroe came to this project at difficult times in their lives. After a year, Monroe’s third marriage to playwright Arthur Miller was on shaky grounds. Olivier was trying to deal with his wife, Vivien Leigh, who, having played the role of the showgirl in the stage production, was nursing hurt feelings. While Olivier was directing the film, Monroe was a producer, making it difficult for him to chastise her when she was a no show on the set. When she did show up, she demonstrated the reason for her worldwide popularity. A dedicated student of Strasberg’s method acting (Strasberg’s daughter, Paula, is portrayed in the film by Zoë Wanamaker), Monroe’s talent came naturally. Quite simply, the camera loved her and, as a result, so did audiences.
Casting for My Week with Marilyn was more complicated. Scarlett Johansson was rumored as the frontrunner to play Marilyn, but Producer Harvey Weinstein, financing the film, wanted Michelle Williams, who starred in another Weinstein film, Blue Valentine. Johansson comes closer to matching Monroe’s voluptuous figure; Williams reportedly had to gain weight for the role. What Williams lacks in curves, however, she more than makes up for by capturing the elusive Monroe charisma. With the youthful Colin (an adorable Eddie Redmayne), she’s alternately flirty and fun, then vulnerable and needy. Williams imbues her performance with just enough of Monroe to make her portrayal believable, mimicking the star’s hip swivel and breathy singing voice, but adds her own appeal, a wide-eyed innocence that is also seductive.
With impressive credentials as a stage actor and director, Kenneth Branagh bears more than a passing resemblance to Olivier. Judi Dench (does she ever turn in a bad performance?) commands the screen as Dame Sybil Thorndike, an unlikely supporter for the fragile Marilyn. Emma Watson, alternating time between the set and her studies at Brown, is sweet as Lucy, a wardrobe assistant whose relationship with Colin suffers when he becomes Marilyn’s confidante and companion. Other well-known British actors—Derek Jacobi, Michael Kitchen, Dominic Cooper—round out the cast.
By the time she landed in England, Monroe was an international star, besieged by admirers wherever she went. Williams conveys Marilyn’s ambivalence, one minute soaking up the public’s adoration with a brilliant smile, eager to get closer, the next seeking protection and ducking into a waiting car.
During her meltdown, she shows Colin a photograph of her mother “before she entered the asylum,” and one of Abraham Lincoln, a substitute for the father she never knew. Colin challenges her to give it all up, the stardom, the fans, the money. But she knows she never will.
The Prince and the Showgirl was not the high point for either Olivier or Monroe. He would go back to work on the stage, while Monroe would go on to make one of Hollywood’s most beloved comedies, Some Like It Hot, with Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon. We know how the tragedy of her life played out, but we are spared that ending in My Week with Marilyn. We do, however, have the opportunity to see a rising star, Michelle Williams, in one of the best performances of the year.