“For a lot of people Marilyn is more of an iconic image than an actress,” admits director Simon Curtis. “People haven’t seen her films as much as they have her portrait. My way into this project was falling in love with the first of Colin Clark’s two memoirs. As somebody who was assistant director at The Royal Court Theatre, I found it fascinating to uncover this moment in time.”
The first memoir, The Prince, The Showgirl and Me, recounts Clark’s experiences working as third assistant director on the set of THE PRINCE AND THE SHOWGIRL, Marilyn Monroe’s first film as both producer and star in which she played opposite Sir Laurence Olivier, who also directed. The book recounts the production’s myriad problems, fuelled almost exclusively by the lack of communication and understanding between the two stars: Monroe’s erratic behavior and tardiness were exacerbated by her addiction to alcohol and prescription medication; while Olivier, a staunch traditionalist, refused to accommodate Monroe’s idiosyncrasies or her devotion to Method acting, which she practiced under the guidance of Paula Strasberg.
While Clark’s memoir is a dishy, fly-on-the-wall account of Olivier’s and Monroe’s fraught partnership, his follow-up memoir, My Week With Marilyn, feels like an intimate confession. In it, Clark affectionately remembers one enchanted week he spent leading the troubled Monroe on a tour of the English countryside. It offers an all-too-rare glimpse of the real woman beneath the carefully cultivated image, unencumbered by the busy machinery of stardom.
“I couldn’t believe my eyes when My Week with Marilyn was published,” avows Curtis. “Colin really did have this tense, erotically charged week with the most famous woman in the world, at the peak of her fame. I couldn’t believe my luck when I was able to get hold of the rights. People had tried over the years. And in the last year I’ve met at least three very established directors who have said, ‘I’ve always wanted to make that story.’ So I feel very lucky.”
Curtis teamed with noted producers David Parfitt and Harvey Weinstein to realize the project, which masterfully offsets the drama with its musical roots and comedic moments. Parfitt and Weinstein, who had already worked together on three of the most well-respected period films of the past fifteen years: WINGS OF THE DOVE, GANGS OF NEW YORK, and the Academy Award Best Picture winner SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE, immediately reacted to the potential of Clark’s memoirs as the basis for a feature film. “We thought that the first book, while it gave a really interesting insight into how THE PRINCE AND THE SHOWGIRL was made, might appeal more to people in the film industry,” explains Parfitt. “The second book, however, is the real peek behind the curtain into who Marilyn really was. Importantly, this is not a Marilyn biopic; it’s about a window into her life, working on a particular film, and the relationship she forged with Colin Clark at a crucial moment in her life.”
With the book rights secured, the team approached screenwriter Adrian Hodges, with whom Curtis had worked on a BBC adaptation of DAVID COPPERFIELD, to try his hand at an adaptation. Hodges, however, expressed doubts about taking on Monroe as a subject. “Like everyone else I was mesmerized by SOME LIKE IT HOT the first time I saw it. I had never seen anything so sexy,” says the screenwriter. “But stories about Marilyn feel like an overworked field. Over the years she’s just become this thing, this poster, a set image which has been produced again and again and again, both in her own image and in people like Madonna’s and Lady Gaga’s.”
But after reading Clark’s two memoirs, Hodges changed his mind. “I thought they gave a wonderful insight to the very real side of Marilyn, the Marilyn who was everything that everybody thought she was - scared, insecure, frantic, sometimes impossible - but at the same time vulnerable, sweet, endearing, just a young girl, really. So I thought this screenplay could make her human again.”
Much of the intrigue of Clark’s connection to Monroe lies in just how unlikely their relationship was. How did a world-famous star at the height of her fame end up spending an intimate week travelling across England with a gopher from her film set? Clark had only recently graduated from Oxford, and while he would eventually become an accomplished filmmaker in his own right, he had yet to cut his teeth when THE PRINCE AND THE SHOWGIRL went into production early in 1956. As a Third AD, his job was to be both visible and invisible. “Third AD’s are everywhere and everyone knows who they are, because they have access to every aspect of the film, and yet at the same time they are possibly amongst the least important people there,” says Hodges.
When Clark arrived on set for his first day of work, he stumbled into a tense atmosphere created by the accomplished celebrities in his orbit. “This was a very critical time in all their lives,” says Curtis. “Marilyn had just married Arthur Miller and when she arrived at London airport to make this film, it was the proudest moment of her life. She was now married to the great intellectual who she thought was going to be her man for the rest of her life. Also, this was her first film as a producer, the first project under Marilyn Monroe Productions, and she was coming to England to work with the great Olivier in an effort to disprove doubts about her acting ability. In some ways the story of our film is how that all went so wrong.”
At the same time, Olivier was trying to reignite his career as a movie star in a volatile cultural landscape that only seemed to herald his obsolescence. Curtis notes, “1956 itself was an extraordinary year in England, with rock ’n’ roll, the year of ITV, the year of LOOK BACK IN ANGER, the year of LUCKY JIM. LOOK BACK IN ANGER’s squalid settings and anti-establishment vitriol shocked reviewers and tore a hole through the bourgeois niceties of 1950s British theatre, while the satiric novel LUCKY JIM skewered just the sort of stiff academic pretensions with which Olivier made his name. Adds Curtis,“Culturally, so much was in turmoil at the time. Having Marilyn arrive with Paula Strasberg and the Method was yet another challenge to Olivier’s identity.”
Monroe’s clashes with Olivier, her anxiety about her marriage to Arthur Miller and her own insecurities about her talent made her deeply vulnerable. “She wanted a friend,” explains Hodges. “And basically through a series of incidents, she became very close and intimate in a platonic way with Colin Clark, because he was always there and was non-threatening, although he was a charming and handsome man.”
Monroe yearned to escape the troubled production, and when she learned that Clark came from a well-connected, privileged background – he was the brother of the famous diarist Alan Clark and the younger son of Kenneth Clark, the noted author and art historian – she realized he could provide access to places beyond her reach, such as Windsor Castle and Eton College. Adds Hodges, “It was a very innocent week and at the same time very charged with emotion and intimacy.”
Indeed, Curtis identifies the film’s story as following the same tradition as the popular, nuanced film, LOST IN TRANSLATION. “Two people accidentally come into each other’s orbit and have this very charged connection, which then evaporates, and that appealed to me,” says the director. “Also, the story chimes very much with our present fascination with celebrity. Now, with Twitter, you get very much into the details of how stars live, but back then things were much more controlled, so I liked how Colin gives us this inside track.”
A veteran of the stage and the small screen, Curtis has waited a long time to make his directorial feature debut. “There have been films I have nearly done but I’m really, really thrilled that my first film is what they call a passion project, not something I’ve just stumbled into. It’s something I’ve always dreamt of making so it’s a great starting point.”
“It’s a testament to Simon’s skills as a director that he was able to attract this level of talent for his debut film,” adds Weinstein. “He possesses a real gift with actors and he was able to draw uniformly intelligent and beautiful performances from his cast.”
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