Marilyn Monroe was such a big star at her height that one young man’s brief encounters with her spawned not one but two memoirs, which in turn inspired a feature film that’s currently generating Oscar buzz. The two books by the late Colin Clark both document the author’s experiences at the age of 23 as the third assistant director — or really, as an errand boy — on the conflict-ridden, six-month-long shoot of The Prince and the Showgirl starring Monroe and Laurence Olivier. His first book about the shoot, The Prince, the Showgirl, and Me (1995), consists of his day-to-day, fly-on-the-wall journals of his on-set observations. The second book, My Week With Marilyn (2000), takes a deeper look at a magical nine-day period (mentioned just briefly in the first book) in the middle of that six months in which Monroe lured Clark into a semi-romantic affair. While the two books — published only five years apart — take a markedly different stance on Monroe as a person and an actress, My Week With Marilyn the movie, as the title would suggest, adheres very closely to the book of the same name, although it draws some expository details from the first book as well. Weinstein Books, the publishing arm of the studio that produced the film, has released the two books in one volume for the first time. Whether you have or haven’t seen the movie, is the book worth reading? (Minor spoilers ahead).
In The Prince, the Showgirl, and Me, Clark strikes a dishy, sniping tone, and levels some of his withering snark at Monroe. He paints her as a difficult, inconsiderate star who cared little for the people she was working with, and there’s a rather cruel passage in which he describes the iconic sex symbol with no makeup: “Nasty complexion, a lot of facial hair, shapeless figure and, when the glasses came off, a very vague look in her eye. No wonder she is so insecure.” In My Week With Marilyn, Clark does detail the frustration that Monroe’s lateness and general unreliability on set could cause, but he’s largely forgiving, even fawning. He casts her very much as a victim of celebrity, the old Hollywood studio system, bad men, and leech-like hangers-on, while casting himself as the hero, the person uniquely qualified to save her from her own misery. He compares Olivier’s mannered acting negatively to Monroe’s more naturalistic method, and he criticizes Olivier for his anger at the constant delays she caused, as if she were some “bit player” who could be held to the same standards as everyone else on set. Owing to the two disparate portrayals of Monroe — not to mention the hard-to-believe dialogue — Clark hardly comes across as a reliable narrator in either book.
One would have hoped that the filmmakers would fix the weakest part of the books — Clark’s limiting perspective — in the screen adaptation, but My Week With Marilyn the movie also hews closely to Clark’s (played by Eddie Redmayne) starry-eyed, self-aggrandizing point of view. But the film transcends the limitations of the books whenever Michelle Williams lights up the screen as Monroe. It’s fascinating to go back and re-read the passages from the memoir that Williams brought to life, including this scene, which is featured prominently in the movie trailer:
“Shall I be ‘her’?” she asked.
Without waiting for an answer, she jumped up on a step and struck a pose. Her hip went out, her shoulders went back, her famous bosom was thrust forward. She pouted her lips and opened her eyes very wide, and there, suddenly, was the image the whole world knew. Instinctively the audience started to applaud. Several of them had cameras, and for a few minutes Marilyn gave them all the poses they required. Considering that she had hardly any make-up on, and had not done her hair, it was an incredible performance.
It would actually have been nice if the filmmakers had taken more license with the material in order to heighten the stakes of this decidedly low-stakes story. For instance, in the book, Clark takes Monroe to his uncle’s to look at some paintings, and not much happens. In the film, Clark takes Monroe to his uncle’s to look at some paintings, and not much happens. The movie version did add the subplot of Clark’s romance with costume girl Lucy (Emma Watson), but other than giving the lovely Watson a non-Hermione role, it didn’t serve a significant purpose.
During the filming of The Prince and the Showgirl, Clark asked his friend in a letter, “Who on earth would want to know the day-to-day details of how a film is made?” If you love the film, love Marilyn Monroe, or are fascinated by Hollywood of the 1950s, Clark’s books may be a worthwhile read. Otherwise, just enjoy Williams’ luminous performance in theaters.