British director Simon Curtis understands the cultural romance between America and England. Not only is he a “Masterpiece Theatre’’ veteran (“David Copperfield’’ and “Cranford,’’ among others), he’s married to American actress Elizabeth McGovern, who’s enjoying a career resurgence thanks to PBS’s “Downton Abbey.’’
“I know the trans-Atlantic ways; the two acting styles divided by a common language,’’ says Curtis, 51, whose feature film debut, “My Week With Marilyn,’’ opens Wednesday.
His tousled gray hair and courtly manner makes Curtis seem both impish and professorial, an appealing - and very British - combination. He’s hoping his film, which he describes as “a love letter to a lost England,’’ will resonate with American audiences the same way that last year’s “The King’s Speech’’ did.
“Yes, that film didn’t do too badly,’’ he says wryly.
Based on a memoir (“The Prince, the Showgirl and Me’’) by the late Colin Clark, “My Week With Marilyn’’ is a coming-of-age story imbued with showbiz history and culture-clash drama. In 1956, at the height of her fame, Marilyn Monroe (Michelle Williams) arrived in London to costar with British acting royalty Laurence Olivier (Kenneth Branagh) in “The Prince and the Showgirl,’’ which Olivier, who’d starred in the stage version opposite his wife, Vivien Leigh, was also directing.
Monroe’s youth, vitality, and intuitive acting style clashed with Olivier and caused friction on a set that included Dame Sybil Thorndike (Curtis’s “Cranford’’ star Judi Dench). The film was a famous flop, a fact that makes “My Week With Marilyn’’ even more intriguing.
“There is something about this story that’s a unique combination of English heritage meets Hollywood, also the ’50s and ’60s ‘Mad Men’ thing; it feels like everything comes together at right time,’’ said Curtis in Boston last month. “I wasn’t one of those Marilyn Monroe fanatics; for most people my age or younger, she is a brand, a Warhol image, a Madonna image, rather than an actress. So it was fun to get to know her performances better. I remember being disappointed by ‘The Prince and the Showgirl’ because here was the marriage of Olivier and Monroe and somehow it’s this stodgy, old-fashioned thing.’’
The film depicts what he calls the “massive cultural moment’’ when Monroe arrived in London. “Olivier was in his 50s and emblematic of fading England and she was emblematic in her 30s of burgeoning, exciting America,’’ says Curtis. “England in 1956 was still in the shadow of World War II; rationing had only just ended. It was a black-and-white culture and she delivered Hollywood glamour.’’
Curtis said he drew on two American films - “Almost Famous’’ and “Lost in Translation’’ - for inspiration in his story about Clark (Eddie Redmayne, a Tony winner last year for “Red’’), an Eton graduate and film buff who, at age 23, took a job with Olivier as a gofer. During the shoot, the impressionable Clark fell under the spell of the seductive, charming, needy, and often manipulative Monroe, who turned to Clark for the friendship and support she wasn’t getting from her new husband, Arthur Miller. “ ‘Almost Famous’ and ‘Lost in Translation’ are about random people who come into one’s orbit, and there is a show-biz environment, too. There’s this intense connection and then they go their separate ways. . . . The relationship has to be rewarding enough [for the audience] even if it’s not fully consummated.’’
To make matters on Olivier’s set even more contentious, Monroe at that time was immersed in Lee Strasberg’s famous “method’’ and needed the constant presence and reassurance of her acting coach, Paula Strasberg (Zoë Wanamaker).
“Olivier famously was an external actor. . . . As a director your job is to know what every actor needs in order to do their best work and try to provide it; some need a lot of attention, some don’t,’’ Curtis explained. “I do feel that Olivier didn’t serve Marilyn Monroe - I can see why he’d be irritated with her arriving late on set and [Strasberg] whispering in her ear all the time but, nevertheless, his job was to make her feel comfortable. . . . Also, I am a great admirer of Terence Rattigan but [‘The Prince and the Showgirl’] is not his greatest play. It was hard for Marilyn to bring the scrutiny of the method to this rather flimsy character in a flimsy film.’’
Although one of Monroe’s greatest career successes was still a few years away (1959’s “Some Like It Hot’’), she was already at the peak of her celebrity when she came to London in 1956. She had just married Miller “whom she thought was going to help give her credibility and open all these doors for her,’’ said Curtis. “She and Milton Greene had set up Marilyn Monroe Productions - way ahead of her time - and she was coming to work with the great Olivier. The story of our film is how each of these aspirations collapsed before her eyes.’’
Curtis credits his three stars - Williams, Branagh, and Redmayne - for vibrant characters that enrich the story. “Once Michelle agreed, it was a magnet to other people. . . . I wish I could say I discovered Eddie but he was cast after ‘Red.’ But I knew he was right: He’s an old Etonian playing an old Etonian. More importantly, he has a lovely quality of wisdom and youthful naivete.’’
It’s no surprise that Williams’s interpretation of such an icon has lit up message boards for months now. Playing a “brand’’ - especially one with such iconic physical attributes - is bound to disappoint some and exceed the expectations of others. But her performance has already generated Oscar talk, and Curtis is solidly in that camp of fans. “No one could watch the journey she goes on and not be convinced. Audiences are thrilled to see a great American actress taking on this American icon and conquering it,’’ he says. “I knew, really, from the moment she’d done a costume and makeup test and I walked her from her dressing room to the set. I remember thinking, ‘I’m walking with Marilyn’ and I could see that the crew was looking at her in a different way. Crews tell no lies. It was Marilyn Monroe through the lens, know what I mean? It was great screen acting. It’s a magical thing.’’