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My Week With Marilyn: The Story of a Cultural Divide

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The Prince and The Showgirl, made at Pinewood Studios in 1956, is best known for the conflict between its leading lady Marilyn Monroe and her director and co-star Sir Laurence Olivier.

I have directed the film My Week With Marilyn based on the diaries of Colin Clark, who was the third assistant director on the film, and he had a front row seat to watch the struggle between the two legendary actors.

There was plenty about Marilyn's behaviour that could drive any director mad - her constant lateness (she was only on time three out of 54 days), her erratic moods and her insistence of having her acting coach Paula Strasberg beside her at all times.

The root of the problem between them epitomised the cultural divide. Olivier came from a theatrical tradition and chose the build of his characters from the outside in, whilst Marilyn had recently become devoted to the Method and the Strasberg school, which was about working on the psychology and the inner life of the character.

It is hard to understand now, when British and American actors work together on both sides of the Atlantic all the time, but in 1956 there was the perception of two very different styles.

Olivier was threatened by Marilyn's reliance on Paula and was never a fan of the Method, which may have originated in the time his wife Vivien Leigh worked with Elia Kazan. Later in life he is reputed to have said to Dustin Hoffman, who was agonising over a scene "why not try acting?"

Another problem was that the film they were making was based on one of Terence Rattigan's less substantial plays and the text did not bear too much scrutiny.

The irony was that Marilyn had come to England with the highest hopes as, way ahead of her time, she had set up her own production company in order to enable her to work on richer and more complex parts, and she was coming to work with the much revered Olivier. So she was all the more devastated when in a desperate moment her director was reduced to giving her the humiliating note "just be sexy", as it destroyed all her dreams of being taken seriously as an actress.

In fact one of the things I think a director needs to do is understand how each of his actors has a different version of how they can be supported to give their best possible performance. I believe that Olivier ignored Marilyn's needs and failed to give her the support she desperately needed.

As a director, I am a huge admirer of actors and what they do. I am always aware that they are doing something I could never do. On My Week With Marilyn I have been so lucky to work with an extraordinary ensemble, and I shall never forget the thrill of watching Michelle Williams and Ken Branagh become Marilyn and Olivier on screen.

Of course as supremely talented and fiercely intelligent modern actors, they came to their performances by working, as all great actors do, on both the interior life and the external body language of their characters. I am glad to say they enjoyed working with each other much more than the characters they were playing had done more than fifty years earlier.

To be fair to Olivier, he came to appreciate how much the camera loved Marilyn, and ultimately was very proud of her performance in The Prince and the Showgirl.

My Week with Marilyn is out November 25th

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