Behind the scenes

second take

Behind the scenes

“I can tell you what’s wrong. He’s in agony because he’s a great actor that wants to be a film star, and you’re in agony because you are a film star who wants to be a great actress. This film won’t help either of you.”

The great actor in agony is Sir Laurence Olivier, the English theatre legend, and the star in agony because she can’t be the actress she wants to be is Marilyn Monroe. The film in question is the making of The Prince and the Showgirl, the 1957 romantic comedy that starred both of them. The dialogue (which I’m paraphrasing) is from the more contemporary My Week with Marilyn, the 2011 movie about the making of The Prince and the Showgirl starring Michelle Williams as Monroe and Kenneth Branagh as Olivier.

The movie is really about Marilyn, but the background is the constant battles the legends had on the set. At first, Olivier was enamored that he had snagged the hottest actress in the world (or so goes the claim) and Marilyn was thrilled to be working alongside the greatest actor in the world (or so they claim), but just a few days into the shooting, Olivier was shocked at how unprofessional Marilyn was all the time — coming to the sets late each day, keeping her co-stars, legends like Dame Sybil Thorndike (Judy Dench), waiting for hours.


I remember seeing a re-run of The Prince and the Showgirl sometime in the late 80s in one of those old Bangalore theatres, and remember being disappointed that Laurence Olivier should be acting and directing in fluff like this.

Today, the movie feels warm and funny and I don’t think Olivier was wrong to do it. You are treated to a lot of the famous Oliver hamming, especially that syrupy European accent he pours thickly over the screen that we know from The Boys from Brazil and Marathon Man and giggle over.

Kenneth Branagh must have been the immediate choice to play Olivier in Marilyn and Me. When he arrived on the British stage (and later screen), he was heralded as the new Olivier. He walked in Olivier’s footsteps for a while and then went off in his own direction.

Neither Branagh nor Michelle Williams try to impersonate the legends they are playing here (Michelle barely looks like Marilyn and Branagh doesn’t go overboard with mimicking Olivier. Instead, the actors suggest what the legends may have been like to work with on a daily basis. Olivier comes off as agreeable and friendly and not at all hotheaded or egoist. Marilyn is vulnerable more than sexy.

But there’s little we learn about both these stars in My Week with Marilyn. When we see a scene being shot/staged, neither impress. It’s possible that this isn’t the fault of Branagh or Williams but that both Olivier and his sexy co-star had little to do in a movie like The Prince and the Showgirl. Somehow, even with the whole experience frustrating Olivier because of Marilyn’s unpredictable behaviour on the sets, he wraps up the production.

The movie flopped and the critics roundly thrashed the movie. But right after the movie’s shooting wrapped up, Olivier and Monroe went on to doing acclaimed roles — Olivier as Archie in John Osborne’s The Entertainer and Marilyn in Some Like it Hot. The only interesting insight that My Week With Marilyn gives us of the two acting legends is the commentary that goes on through the film on their different styles of acting.

Much to Olivier’s annoyance, Marilyn arrives from America to Pinewood Studios, London with her acting coach in tow, Paula Strasberg, the wife of the famous Method Acting coach, Lee Strasberg who trained Brando, Pacino, De Nero, Hoffman and dozens of American acting icons.


When Marilyn feels frozen on the sets, she turns to Strasberg, not Olivier the director, for instruction and inspiration. Olivier later hisses, “There can’t be two bloody directors in the movie.” Strasberg tells Olivier that Marilyn is trying to find her character and Olivier snaps back, “The character is on the page.” For Olivier, as with so much of good British acting, it is not to bring psychology to a character but simply playing a character using your actor’s training and technique. With the Method style, derived from Stanislavsi, you go deep into a character and become the character — the artifice drops. British acting is about keeping the artifice and dropping it when you don’t need it anymore.


To understand a little bit about why the two styles clashed, there’s an interesting anecdote about Olivier and Dustin Hoffman on the sets of Marathon Man that sharply contrasts two acting styles. It concerns Lawrence Olivier’s reaction to Dustin Hoffman’s Method acting preparations. On the sets, Olivier noticed Hoffman looking beaten, haggard, weak.

Worried, he turned to director John Schlesinger and asked what had happened. And the director replied that there was nothing wrong, Hoffman had deliberately not slept for a couple of days and not eaten because it was Hoffman’s way to prepare for a scene that called for him to look that way.

Amused and astonished, Olivier snapped back: “Why doesn’t the dear boy just try acting?” Perhaps he was just jesting, but what Olivier was getting at was why Hoffman wasn’t creating an illusion of a beaten, haggard character, rather than trying to physically resemble one. British theatre acting is emphatically physical, not psychological. Olivier often used body posture, voice and make up to figure out how a character should be played.

And yet, at the end of My Week with Marilyn, Olivier, watching the rushes of the movie, admits to Colin, the young assistant filmmaker and the narrator of this tale, that Marilyn was brilliant without trying, that was what was so great about her.

She shines, he says, despite him; she has a natural instinct for acting, she didn’t have to fall back on technique. It’s because she didn’t listen to him always that she acts with her instincts. Olivier had to try hard, but Marilyn had to simply be herself.

Which is why, he says, she is such a profoundly unhappy actor and human being. Marilyn is ill through the movie (except the few happy, innocent moments stolen with the assistant director) and comes to apologise to the crew in the end: ‘I came to say I’m sorry. I just want you to know I tried.’

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