It has proven a lifetime impossibility for me to fall in love with Marilyn Monroe… until, quite by accident, I viewed My Week with Marilyn.
Michelle Williams’ brilliantly constructed embodiment of Ms. Monroe has me finally understanding this tragic, fairy-tale nightmare of American film stardom. Until now, the power of Marilyn Monroe, in light of her Siren-like hold on intellectuals such as Arthur Miller, Norman Mailer and John F. Kennedy, had escaped me.
So many disparate memories of my own life were mysteriously recaptured and miraculously revived by this film’s exceptionally surprising look at an American legend.
In short?! My Week with Marilyn has become A Cinematic Reintroduction to My Younger Self!
As a mere high school graduate, younger than even Eddie Redmayne’s flawlessly portrayed Colin Clark, I had a romantic brush with an American, shamelessly generous female singing star.
However, my own true “first love” at the time was not, as might surprise you, the soul-rattling presence of a top-of-the-charts singer and her life-changing sweep through the backwoods of Detroit, Michigan. This indisputable singing star of that era and her own obsession with me could not, I regret to say, be requited.
Hard as I tried, I couldn’t return her love.
However, much to my own shame, I certainly didn’t turn down the perquisites of this one-sided, Singing Lover’s Leap. Labeling it a learning experience, I tumbled into this star’s bed with embarrassingly shivering stage fright.
Stage fright plays its own, vividly alive character in My Week with Marilyn. This haunting nightmare for all performers consumes Ms. Monroe with erratically and unpredictably shocking speed.
With a dual irony that seems to have possessed Ms. Monroe’s professional life and that of her infinitely seasoned, stage-acting co-star Laurence Olivier, an unexpected but profoundly alarming stage fright would later overcome Lord Olivier during his live performances as Othello.
The great actor even found himself unable to look the other actors in the eye. If he did and his fears were shown, he would entirely lose his formidable powers of concentration. He would, as they say, “go up” on his lines.
For a Maestro who could rhyme off 10 lines of iambic pentameter in one breath?! To not know his lines for even a millisecond?!
I walked off stage once in Houston, Texas, not because I didn’t know my lines. I was simply embarrassed by my own performance. My perfectionist’s obsession whipped me into a self-destructive decision… not unlike a few of Marilyn’s choices in life. The gossip about my sudden and thoroughly unjustified exit from the stage kept me out of work as an actor for quite some time.
Meanwhile, back in my 18th year as a confused young man, my own true “first love” was actually in New York at the time of my visit in Manhattan to see Ma Chanteuse.
My “first love”, as an exquisitely beautiful sister to a gorgeous New York City model, was also visiting New York. The model’s home in Manhattan proved to be of vitally romantic importance to my increasingly clumsy sideshow of misplaced affections.
How do I know all this?
My friend, whose idea it was for me to visit Miss Hit Parade, wanted to drive us to New York. With more than a mildly ulterior motive, he, unbeknownst to me, was having an affair with that New York model, my “first love’s” older sister. He’d “hooked up” with her when she visited Detroit. He was, as one might say, an earlier “developer.” Much “earlier” than myself.
I, with embarrassing obviousness, lagged far behind him. I had been, in terms of My Week with Marilyn, a forerunner to Eddie Redmayne’s perfectly captured, unconditionally bewitched surrender to the film goddess Marilyn Monroe.
Unfortunately, my true “first love” was, as well as I, also in New York visiting her sister on the other side of Manhattan. Meanwhile, I’m endeavoring to live up to a singing star’s misguided expectations of me in a disturbingly expensive apartment on the posh East Side of Fat City.
I am now, thanks to My Week with Marilyn… at 71 sporadically wild years of age… still stumblingly dazed with painfully adolescent memories. A youthful melancholy I had thought, several decades ago, to be forever behind me.
As the great Judi Dench’s character of the show, her Dame Sybil Thorndike, quietly comforts our young hero: “First love is such sweet despair, Colin.”
As a sidebar, I’ve seen Ms. Dench on stage in London and upon the screen in countless films. At no time have I ever seen her falter in her work. I wish I could have said the same for myself. My undependability is what has made me not a “great” actor.
What are my conclusions from having watched a bit of my own life grace the screen with more than a few legends within the performing arts?
Beyond even my identification with My Week with Marilyn, I had my day on screen with Katharine Hepburn, Jack Nicholson, Clint Eastwood, Sidney Poitier and Charlton Heston. I am not always so sure what made them and the likes of Marilyn Monroe giants of film history, leaving the rest of us simply actors.
I don’t know and I really don’t care.
The breathtakingly talented performances of Michelle Williams and Eddie Redmayne may, despite their infinite promise, never make them superstars. Such thankless neglect by their audiences and the industry may prove to be the most liberating corner of their lives and careers. Left without the pressure of worldwide expectations, they won’t be pigeonholed. They can explore and, with great panache, fall on their splendidly endowed heads.
The rule in theater is, “Nothing risked… and you’re no longer even alive in the arts, let alone awake to creation.”
Oh… before I forget… the last moment on screen for Ms. Williams’ Marilyn, when she’s singing That Old Black Magic?!
Please watch it here.
Michelle Williams takes a pause after the word “called”… turns her head into the half light… and closing her eyes… she then turns back into profile, and, after another, briefer pause, she sighs, “Love.”
Oh, how exquisitely perfect!!!!!
Not since I saw Bricktop at The Living Room nightclub in New York sing Miss Otis Regrets have I been so overwhelmed by the minimalist gestures of great cabaret singing. It also seems to be no mere coincidence that I was introduced to New York City’s The Living Room by my lovingly generous and generously loving singing star. With her I was privileged to hear Sylvia Syms sing Kurt Weill’s breathtaking lyric, My Ship. That night, this song put me in tears.
Rerunning Ms. Michelle Williams’ tribute to Marilyn Monroe with her rendition of That Old Black Magic, I’m awash in blissful tears – not only from that song’s ending but also by the tender vulnerability of Mr. Redmayne’s soul as he listens to his “first love” sing to him quite lovingly and personally.
If I had had that same experience when my mystery singing star, during the wrap party for her appearance in Detroit, sang You Made Me Love You… right to me… and no one else?! I would have been truly and gratefully awake!
That singing star was Jill Corey.
God bless you, Jill!
I write that with immense pride and gratitude for having met her, let alone the honor of her having loved me for any length of time at all.
“First love is such sweet despair, Colin.”