Tuesday, 22 November 2011


There was only one actress who Curtis considered for the iconic role of Marilyn, and that was Oscar nominee Michelle Williams. “I’ve always admired Michelle's work and absolutely consider her to be one of the finest actresses of her generation,” says Curtis. “Her performances in BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN and BLUE VALENTINE were especially brilliant, and she’s right at the age of our Marilyn in 1956. I was thrilled when it emerged that Michelle was interested in the part. She’s an incredibly hard worker and researcher and she is incredibly brave to take on such an iconic role.”

Williams particularly appreciated the fresh angle into Marilyn’s life afforded by Clark’s memoirs. “For Michelle it was key that the story wasn’t about the whole of Marilyn’s life,” says Curtis. “It’s just one month, which gave it a natural focus.” 

The American actress admits that she was a little apprehensive about filling the role. “Gosh, really I was. How could you not be?” Williams concedes. “I kind of ignored it, though, and tried to make her in my own mind not a famous person, just a person for the shoot - more like a friend than an icon.”

For Williams, the opportunity to play Monroe was also personally significant. “I grew up with a poster of her in my bedroom,” Williams reveals. “I had always been more interested in the private Marilyn, though, and the unguarded Marilyn - the Marilyn before ‘Marilyn.’ Even as a young girl my primary connection wasn’t with this larger-than-life personality, but with what was going on underneath.”

While Williams is ostensibly portraying only one woman on screen, she manages to capture three distinct “roles” played by the famed actress: Marilyn Monroe, the international movie star; the vulnerable and insecure woman baptised and raised as Norma Jeane Baker; and Elsie, the naïve titular showgirl in Olivier’s film. In order to give audiences an authentic glimpse of Monroe’s star power, Curtis shot two musical numbers that serve as bookends to the principal story. He explains, “This film is an intimate window into Marilyn Monroe’s vulnerable, secret side. But we also wanted to make sure we showed her in her element as a star, as a performer living her dream. It’s the contrast between these two sides, which are so opposed, that makes her so compelling.”

Rather than resort to body doubles and lip-synching, Williams eagerly accepted the challenge of performing all of her own singing and dancing in the film. “Michelle can sing and dance beautifully,” reports Curtis. “She jumped full steam ahead into the two numbers.”

In order to facilitate those sequences, Curtis, Parfitt and Weinstein brought together an accomplished team of Broadway stalwarts that included Tony Award-nominated choreographer Kathleen Marshall (WONDERFUL TOWN, ANYTHING GOES) choreographer Denise Faye (NINE, CHICAGO), and singing coach David Krane. Krane also arranged the chosen Monroe songs, which include a “When Love Goes Wrong/Heat Wave” medley and “That Old Black Magic.” 

Even though her knowledge of Monroe’s life was already extensive, Williams pored over every research source she could find in preparation for the role. She studied movement in order to recreate Monroe’s unique physicality, from her walk to her well-documented descent from the airplane at London airport.  Williams also worked extensively with Faye, Marshall and Krane to master Monroe’s singing and dance styles. “The most useful thing was to watch the movies over and over again, to really make it like a screen that played on my brain,” says Williams. “I’m very fond of THE PRINCE AND THE SHOWGIRL still, even though I can’t count the number of times I’ve seen it.” Aiding in Williams’ remarkable physical transformation was hair and make-up designer Jenny Shircore, who won an Academy Award for her work on Shekhar Kapur’s ELIZABETH.

Monroe’s desire to produce her own movies, and to come to England to work with the great Olivier, was rooted in her desire to be taken seriously as an actress. The decision was a bold career move that found Monroe taking on the role that Olivier’s esteemed wife and acting partner, Vivien Leigh, had originated in the stage version of THE PRINCE AND THE SHOWGIRL. Monroe’s dedication to Method acting was another bid for respect, though it placed her in stark contrast to the stagey performances favored by the Brits on screen. 

“What Marilyn was anticipating happening and what actually wound up happening were two very different things and they created discord and unhappiness for her in England,” explains Williams. “She was expecting to go to London and make a movie with the most esteemed actor of the time and hoped it would bring her the respect that she deserved and craved. When she arrived she felt she was being mistreated and laughed at. Olivier sneered at her and didn’t treat her with the kind of attention that she was hoping for. She felt that she needed allies and she found one in Colin.” 

Williams is still struck by Monroe’s talent and how modern her performances feel to this day. “She yearned to play dramatic roles but I rather take to her comedy and in THE PRINCE AND THE SHOWGIRL she wipes the screen with the rest of the cast,” avows Williams. “They’re all very stiff, mannered, archaic and unapproachable, while if she were making that movie today there’s nothing about that performance that’s gone out of fashion or faded. She is very real and very in the moment and so beautiful.”


To bring Colin Clark to the screen, Curtis pursued the highly regarded young actor Eddie Redmayne. “I’ve always loved Eddie,” explains the director, “and like Colin, Eddie is an old Etonian and has these qualities that are from the right place – he has both emotional maturity and a youthful innocence.”

While Clark was born into a privileged family, he was still considered somewhat bohemian by the standards of the upper class. “He was at school at Eton with all these aristocrats but actually he was an oddball because his family was not all within that posh context,” explains Redmayne. “They’d have Laurence Olivier or Margot Fonteyn over for dinner whereas everyone else was shooting and fishing. He seems to be a guy who has everything. But he’s actually an eccentric who’s been out in the world trying to prove his worth to his parents, to the rest of his high-achieving family, and also to himself.”

Charming, bright and most importantly, tenacious, Clark’s selflessness proves to be his most winning attribute. “Colin is a very caring guy and a very generous-spirited guy,” muses Redmayne. “And all this chaos is going on around him, this explosion of talent, egos, energy, and sexuality.”

In the film, the 23-year-old Clark is an appealing, confident young man, though perhaps not quite as mature as he assumes he is. “He thinks that he’s a bit of a player,” admits Redmayne with a smile. “I spoke to a lady who was the press officer on the original film and she said that Colin was a complete charmer and he could make anyone change their mind. It’s that slight arrogance of youth. But he definitely learns a serious lesson in this film. It’s a subtle coming-of-age story.” 

And not many young men learn worldly wisdom from one of the most famous, iconic women of all time. Adds Redmayne, “It’s amazing that this runner, who has never worked on a film set before, could build a more intimate friendship with the leading lady than anyone else on the set. That is one of the wonderfully bizarre, brilliant things about filmmaking.” 

Redmayne believes that the friendship was possible in part because of Clark’s sensitivity as an observer, something he would put to use later in life as a documentary filmmaker.  “He senses Marilyn’s fragility amidst all of the chaos on set,” says the actor.  “He sees behind closed doors. And he doesn’t have a fear of celebrity, having grown up in a household where he was having tea with Olivier or Fonteyn and great composers of the period. The celebrity washes over him but what remains is the dazzling quality Marilyn has and that really extraordinary thing: vulnerability. That’s what he falls for.”

Early in his time on set, Clark flirts with a young wardrobe assistant, played by Emma Watson, in what seems like a budding romantic relationship. But that courtship is derailed by Clark’s fascination with Marilyn and his desire to get closer to her. “Colin does dare to dream that his friendship with Marilyn could lead to more, and certainly from what the book describes, the idea of kissing her on that frivolous utopian day of freedom is all wonderful,” explains Redmayne. 

Though their week together certainly carries an undeniable erotic charge, Clark and Monroe find themselves navigating more complex emotional terrain than that of a typical love affair. Says Redmayne, “Theirs is a strange relationship. It’s a mixture of mother and son and then the opposite in some way with him fathering her. It’s a very light and sometimes meaningful relationship, but also a wispy thing that they have. That’s what I love about it. It is a fleeting thing between Colin and Marilyn.”


In truth, Laurence Olivier had high hopes for his project with Marilyn Monroe: it was the film that would reinvigorate his faltering film career. To bring the great actor to life on screen, the filmmakers turned to Kenneth Branagh, a modern day master of stage and screen who in his youth was often compared to Olivier. Indeed, both men directed and starred in highly regarded film versions of HENRY V and HAMLET.   

“I did have some concerns, but I decided that I would just read the script and see,” says Branagh. “I was completely captivated by the story. I knew the books by Colin Clark on which the script was based, but what surprised me was that while it could have been a very gossipy look into filmmaking, it was very touching and tender and very, very funny.”

Branagh was also impressed by the “affectionate and celebratory” portrayal of Olivier. “The script has a great and tender feel for Olivier and Marilyn Monroe and the period. And not only is it this fascinating insight into the world of creating art and films, but the script is a real page-turner.”

When directing and starring in THE PRINCE AND THE SHOWGIRL, Olivier was married to GONE WITH THE WIND star Vivien Leigh, who occasionally visited the set. Played in the film by Julia Ormond, Leigh also had a soft spot for Colin Clark. “I think Vivien is a mix of incredible toughness and spiciness within a very feminine body,” says Ormond, who confesses to being a huge fan of the Hollywood star. “One of the things Vivien was known for was her extraordinary beauty, which is, of course, horrifically intimidating. Thankfully, they did ask me to play her at 43 rather than 23. She was fascinated by Marilyn, I think, by her beauty, more than jealous of her beauty.” 

Marilyn’s spouse at the time was the famous playwright Arthur Miller, who is portrayed in the film by Dougray Scott. The couple arrive in England as newlyweds, although their young marriage is already showing signs of strain. “They were becoming increasingly separated and the relationship was becoming more and more difficult,” says Scott. “She was a difficult woman, very complicated, very difficult to understand. But ultimately, in later years Miller spoke of how much he loved her and adored her.”

When Miller returns to the United States following a misunderstanding with his new bride, Monroe is left without any real friends apart from her acting coach and Method advocate Paula Strasberg, played by Zoë Wanamaker. “Paula was married to Lee Strasberg, who was the leading light of the Method school in New York,” says Wanamaker. “She worked with Marilyn and I don’t think Olivier liked her being around that much. And I don’t think Arthur Miller liked her in the end, either. I didn’t want her to be a monster, though. I wanted to try and give some warmth and reality to her, a genuine concern and love.”

While Strasberg acts with her client’s best interests at heart, the same is not necessarily true of her business partner Milton Greene, played by Dominic Cooper. “To begin with they were really tight,” explains Cooper. “Then their relationship went from being a supportive relationship to, during that week, a fractious one. He would try to help her by giving her more medication and at the time when the film was shot she was being given all sorts of drugs for things that today are completely curable. She was in utter agony physically and emotionally and Milton, without really knowing what he was doing, was filling her with drugs to ease the pain. Everyone around her was trying to help her at that point in time without thinking of the full scale of the problem.”

When Marilyn struggles to adapt to Olivier’s set, it’s the esteemed actress Dame Sybil Thorndike, played by equally esteemed actress Dame Judi Dench, who offers kind words. “She’s there as a supporting ear to both Sir Laurence and Marilyn,” explains Dench. “Sybil, knowing Sir Laurence so well, picks up on the tremendous tension between him and Marilyn very early on. I think her sympathies were totally with Marilyn and Colin, though. She was very kind to Marilyn and very fond of her and championed her.”

Rounding out the supporting cast is Lucy, the wardrobe assistant played by Emma Watson, with whom Colin has a potentially amorous liaison before Marilyn steals his heart. “Lucy has experience on set, whereas to Colin Clark the film world is all new, shiny and exciting,” says Watson. “She is very wary about Assistant Directors and she knows how these films run, but she’s still a bit naïve and innocent. Even though at first she’s very careful of Colin, she falls for him and ends up getting hurt.”

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