It’s almost immaterial that one of these films is derived from a novel and the other from a memoir. An experiment: Watch Me and Orson Welles and My Week with Marilyn back-to-back without knowing which is which (skipping the opening credits, of course), and try and guess which of those pronouns refers to a fictional character. One can only guess, because each character serves precisely the same function: that of an observer, someone with whom the audience can identify. Wouldn’t it be cool, not to be Orson Welles or Marilyn Monroe — that’s too much to imagine — but to spend some time with them and even get to know them? In lieu of a standard biopic, which could only fall short in capturing the lives of these larger-than-life figures, directors Richard Linklater and Simon Curtis took a more modest and indirect route with these films, attempting to catch a legible reflection.
So there are two young men, either one of whom could have been invented from whole cloth, who happen upon an incredible and unique opportunity, however brief: to see one of the twentieth century’s defining performers in action. Richard Samuels (Zac Efron) talks himself into a small role in Orson Welles’ legendary 1937 production of Julius Caesar. Colin Clark (Eddie Redmayne) maneuvers to get a job with Laurence Olivier’s production company during the filming of The Prince and the Showgirl (1957) as the classically trained Olivier famously butts heads with Marilyn Monroe, who had recently studied the Method with the Strasbergs and is hobbled by addictions.
As if to steer away from the charge that their protagonists are mere passive observers, the scripts and their source material take pains to make them assertive, even presumptuous. Down to many of the details, the stories are the same. Me and Orson Welles has a counterpart for Monroe, a character named Sonja Jones (Claire Danes). A production assistant for Welles, she is the mature and gorgeous alternative to the protagonist’s younger, “cute” girlfriend (characters who appear only intermittently in either film, played by Zoe Kazan in Me and Orson Welles and by Emma Watson in My Week with Marilyn). Richard and Colin both become involved with these older women, and, as young people often do, they expect more from these relationships than they ultimately get. So far, so good, even if each scenario is already a dream come true. But there are still greater fantasies to indulge, like one in which Orson Welles tells you you’re a born actor, or in which you not only get to sleep with Marilyn Monroe, but help her with a performance as well.
Pronouns notwithstanding, there’s no denying that the proper nouns in the titles are what audiences paid to see here. Whatever positive reaction the two films received when they came out (in 2009 and 2011, respectively) was almost certainly tied to the performances of Christian McKay and Michelle Williams. Indeed, they both execute remarkable impersonations, despite some unavoidable but nagging discrepancies — the fact that McKay was more than a decade too old to play a 22-year-old Welles, and the fact that Williams had to wear blue contacts (too light blue, perhaps? Oddly noticeable, at any rate). Some of the best pleasures of biopics are in evidence in these actors’ work, from the way McKay curves his eyebrows to the tilt of Williams’ head when she smiles. It’s all very studied, but there’s a soul behind it as well. McKay has a great time with the role of a titanic personality, a pig-headed but lovable director with unquenchable artistic passion and a tendency to womanize at every available moment. Williams locates the pain and insecurities behind the movie star persona, while also conveying Monroe’s physical confidence and ability to make cameras work for her. Movie actors playing other movie actors is always a little superfluous — why not just watch the original movies? they’re right there — but these are satisfying portrayals, even if, by design, they keep their distance, sticking to the broad outlines we can pick up from biographies.
There’s a little bit of tension in these films between the script’s need to take the perspective of “some guy” and the obvious appeal of just looking at Orson and Marilyn. Throughout his career, Richard Linklater has been invested in soaking in the moment, and the best parts of Me and Orson Welles are all about that. The excitement of putting a stage production together — lighting, blocking, performance, music cues, the whole deal — is lovingly portrayed. The character of Richard, fittingly, is very near to the filmmaker’s heart, expressing a love for all kinds of pop culture and musing that his whole life is ahead of him at the film’s ending (a quintessential Linklater moment, punctuated by the lovely image of a bird that had flown into a museum escaping back out). Less effective are the script’s insertions of conflict and suspense, like Richard’s job being thrown into jeopardy by an unlikely event, or the time he takes umbrage at Welles for sleeping with Sonja after he did. The fact that Welles is ostensibly only a few years older than this kid and has already made a name for himself in two different media (with more to come) makes it difficult to place much weight on Richard’s wounded pride. “Just happy to be here” is a sentiment that Efron almost never conveys. Still, he’s a good deal more interesting than Redmayne in the corresponding role.
Simon Curtis seems to have been more simpatico with the script for My Week with Marilyn, but don’t let that fool you; it is in every way the inferior film. Scenes are endlessly declaratory. The joy of artistic creation, so evident in the Caesar scenes of the other film, is nowhere to be found. To some extent, this is understandable, as the film tells the story of a troubled production that reaped little success in the end. But there ought to be some evidence as to why everyone keeps coming back to the set no matter how many times Monroe is late or unprepared. All we get is verbal confirmation near the ending, when Olivier (Kenneth Branagh) speaks of Monroe’s transcendent screen presence, saying that it was worth the struggle but that he’ll never go through something like that again. The film is cheap regarding that struggle, as well, portraying Paula Strasberg (Zoë Wanamaker) as an imperious yet ineffectual appendage. The audience is assumed to be ignorant about things like camera setups and coverage. If an actress flubs a line, there’s nothing for it but to do another take of the whole scene. That’s how movies are made, right?
Fundamentally, the difference between these films has to do with their relative humility before their subjects. Orson Welles was a tornado, and if Linklater is a little too admiring of him, not willing enough to critique his darker side, it’s not a great loss, because the pocket of time under consideration happens to depict one of Welles’ greatest triumphs. Marilyn Monroe is a thornier subject. My Week with Marilyn serves as a conduit for a certain type of sensitive young man, not unlike myself, who may have, at one time or another, indulged the fantasy that he could’ve done something to help her if he’d been around. Such a thought is embarrassing to contemplate with the vantage of greater maturity, but even without that baggage, the film is a facile treatment of a complex set of ideas. At any rate, each film gets by on the strength of Welles and Monroe as dramatic subjects. It’s a shame the two of them never worked together.