Tuesday, February 28, 2012


"I'm a failure as a woman. My men expect so much of me, because of the image they've made of me — and that I've made of myself — as a sex symbol. They expect bells to ring and whistles to whistle, but my anatomy is the same as any other woman's and I can't live up to it." - Marilyn Monroe

Edgar Allan Poe said that the death of a beautiful woman is unquestionably the most poetical topic in the world. Was there ever a more beautiful or more tragic figure than Marilyn Monroe? No wonder popular culture is obsessed with her and her life, apocryphal. There's an entire wing in the Hollywood Museum, Los Angeles dedicated to her-- from her famous dresses to her infamous pill box.  But too much space has been dedicated to the conspiracies surrounding her death, her affairs, scandals and her larger-than-life image and too little to her mundane and human facets.  My Week With Marilyn attempts to set that right, by portraying her as a vulnerable, deeply insecure woman with oscillating desires for success  on the one hand and the simple life on the other.

The thing is, I've never been particularly interested in Marilyn Monroe. I've seen a few of her comedies and frankly, I don't know what the fuss is all about. I think her best roles are that two-bit part in All About Eve and her role in How to Marry a Millionaire-- both times when the film did not rest solely on her shapely shoulders.  But in 1957, Marilyn went to London to star in The Prince and the Show Girl, directed by Lawrence Olivier and managed to captivate and exasperate an entire nation.  Told from the perspective of a young, lovestruck lackey on the film set, My Week With Marilyn details the joys and pitfalls of shooting a film with Marilyn (played by Michelle Williams):  her notorious war on punctuality, her relationship with the Strasbergs, Olivier and her then-husband Arthur Miller and most importantly, her many insecurities.  But the film is as much about her as it is about Lawrence Olivier, Vivien Leigh, Dame Sybil Thorndike and of course, Colin Clark.

Kenneth Branagh shines as Lawrence Olivier. He represents a last bastion of traditional acting disciplines in the changing face of cinema. He delivers his cutting dialogues with such precision and style that he simply stole the show every time he was on screen.  Even in a scene where he is a mere spectator on a set, where Marilyn is shooting an adorable scene that is so quintessentially her, I only had eyes for him as he watches her with so much hate and admiration.  Poor Michelle on the other hand-- it is admirable that she ably fulfilled her brief in playing such an iconic figure and was perfectly adequate.  But nothing more.

This film does not take upon the daunting task defining Marilyn's life and does not try to be a biopic. It is just an idyll from her short but tumultuous life.  What an effect she had on people! Olivier feared her and the generation she represented; Vivien Leigh envied  Marilyn who was in the bloom of her youth and fame, while she herself stood at the brink of old age and faded glory; Arthur Miller was never sure if he wanted Marilyn or Norma Jeane for wife; and the many studio bosses who wanted to exploit her and her overwhelming sexuality.  How lonely it must have been for her, to only be surrounded by sycophants, the envious and lustful men.

I really also must make a mention of the stunning outfits.  Clothes madeth the Marilyn as much as her nude photographs, and the attention to detail stands this film in good stead.  Now that the Mad Men fervour has petered out, resurgence of Marilyn in popular conscience (what with the new TV musical show Smash), the 50s may just make their comeback on the ramps.

All in all, it was a pleasing, elegant film that neither elevated Marilyn to Goddess-status nor painted her as an entitled dumb blonde. It managed to convey the idea that all the frenzy that surrounded her was our doing, while all she wanted was to be taken seriously.  I'll let the infinitely quotable Marilyn have the last word, but do read it while listening to this wonderfully poignant song about Hollywood by the Kinks:

"Please don't make me a joke. End the interview with what I believeI don't mind making jokes, but I don't want to look like one... I want to be an artist, an actress with integrity... If fame goes by, so long, I've had you, fame. If it goes by, I've always known it was fickle. So at least it's something I experienced, but that's not where I live."

Saturday, February 18, 2012


In the last few years, we have had to bid goodbye to many familiar things, as technology marches on inexorably. The baby boomers are discovering rheumatism and we are writing bedtime stories about paper books, DVDs and a truly free internet for our grandchildren. So it is no wonder that 2011 was heavily nostalgic on the movie front: Midnight in Paris with its cotton-gathering hero, The Descendents with its protagonist who labours under the weight of his ancestors' deeds and the expectations of his descendents, The Tree of Life with its narrator who remembers the horror and innocence of childhood and Hugo with its touching tribute to Georges MélièsThe Artist went one step further with its wonderfully satirical throwback to the silent film era.

How many film aficionados have you met, who don't list at least five silent films among their favourite films? And how many times have you told them that the only reason silent movies existed was because they hadn't found a way to stick sound to the picture, not because it was a superior story-telling device. The moment they found the technology to do so, they abandoned silent films and ushered in one of the most glorious and exuberant eras in film: musicals.  Why would you want to watch people mugging at the camera when you can watch Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers fire up the screen instead? Well, Michel Hazanavicius presents a strong case for the former, having had over a century's worth of cinematic cautionary tales warn and inspire him.  Is it not said that hindsight is 20/20? So too was The Artist with its beautifully arranged scenes and simple plot that always threatens but never actually falls into the trap of rose-tinting the past.  Perhaps the original silent films were constrained in their imagination and plot due to lack of technology and because the art was very new, but after watching this film, my interest in silent films has been piqued.  A well-executed and well-intentioned film, Hazanavicius reminds us that sound often obscures our ability to see.

Jean Dujardin plays a famous silent film star at his peak. He is entranced by a spunky, ambitious woman, Bérénice Bejo who manages to worm her way into Hollywood and hitches her wagon to the rising star of the talkies. Dujardin on the other hand, becomes a has-been and doesn't even realize it.

Simplicity has been called the crowning reward of art; the ultimate sophistication. If you take away dialogue and noise which tend to dissemble and even take away the over-the-top gesticulations associated with silent films, what you are left with are little gestures, longing glances and lip quivers which tell you the whole story.  After so many bloated films with enormous budgets, lavish sets and costumes and self-indulgent dialogue, The Artist with its spartan aesthetic was satiating.  There is a scene when Dujardin, the famous star of a film and Bejo, a set extra are filming a scene in a room full of dancers.  We giggle when Dujardin, is so captivated by Bejo's beauty, that he absent-mindedly forgets his role and then we sigh when they forget that the camera is rolling and dance together unmindful of the rest of the world. Or a scene when Bejo, sitting in her plush luxury car secretly purchases everything put up for auction by a tired, angry and destitute Dujardin and manages to convey love, concern and guilt without having to say word.

There were a number of hat-tips to Singin' in the Rain, a film about the introduction of talking films and one of the cheekiest and most enjoyable digs at studio bosses, starlets and Hollywood in general. But I was also reminded of another film about silent films: the darker and tragic Sunset Boulevard, a critique of Hollywood's flagrant use-and-throw attitude with its people.  Dujardin's fading celebrity more closely mimicked Norma Desmond's dangerous self-obsession and inability to flow with the current than Gene Kelly's Don Lockwood who, despite being uncomfortable with the new technology, admits defeat when he sees the overwhelming response to talkies. Singin' in the Rain is a happy story because Don swallows his pride and takes diction lessons. He accepts criticism of his silent film style of acting and instead concentrates on his strengths: song and dance. Norma Desmond failed, not because she was old but because she thought she was more important than the art itself.  While this film could have captured Dujardin's catharsis better, Dujardin does a fantastic job with his character.

Truth be told, I was not swept away by the film when I watched it. It was good, it did everything right but was it enough, I wondered. But weeks after watching it, I find myself dwelling on scenes, some of which were composed like paintings or I find myself thinking of Dujardin's range as an actor or even some particularly clever title cards.  Some would say that my growing regard for the film may be related to the growing number of awards it has been racking up and because it is a very likely winner in the Best Director, Actor and Picture categories this Oscar season, but that's nonsense. This year, my heart and inconsequential vote are with Woody Allen's Midnight in Paris. But then, simplicity really ought to be a more popular virtue in Hollywood and I hope that it is encouraged by suitably rewarding The Artist with golden naked men.