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Arts and Culture

Movies About the Movies: ‘Marilyn’ Charms, ‘The Artist’ Bombs

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Posted on Nov 25, 2011
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Michelle Williams brings a legend back to life in “My Week With Marilyn.”

By Richard Schickel

Basically, I love movies about moviemaking. And basically, Hollywood loves making these movies. They have been a well-established genre since Chaplin was a pup. And a pretty good genre it is—there’s nothing like self-regard to bring out the feverish in people. The trouble is, audiences are not always as interested in show business sagas as you think they might be. Movies we have eventually come to love for their giddy melodrama (“Sunset Boulevard”) or their high-stepping high spirits (“Singin’ in the Rain”) were, relatively speaking, flops on their original release—possibly because their makers seemed to be having too much fun with their subjects. We take movies seriously, I think, and if the drama of their making doesn’t match up to our tragic expectations (or our carefree hopes), we tend to withdraw into grumpiness for a while.

There are a few exceptions, of course. You can’t beat “I’m Mrs. Norman Maine” for a kicker to the lugubrious “A Star Is Born,” version No. 4 of which goes into production next summer. And, bless its heart, Hollywood, after something of a gap, is back at it again this season, though with decidedly mixed results.

The good news is “My Week With Marilyn,” which is about a naif named Colin Clark (Eddie Redmayne) who’s eager to shed his incipient stuffiness and have a showbiz fling. Clark, third son of the renowned art critic Kenneth Clark, signs on as third assistant director (read gofer) on Laurence Olivier’s 1956 production of “The Prince and the Showgirl.” Soon enough, he is executive in charge of Marilyn Monroe—mostly because he has no ax to grind. He’s just a nice kid with good manners and a helpful way about him—too innocent, really, to be anything else.

Marilyn, wonderfully portrayed by Michelle Williams, is, of course, Marilyn as legend has come to portray her: late to the set, unable, at times, to speak her lines, drugged with sleeping potions and dragging behind her both a grudging new husband, Arthur Miller, and her god-awful acting coach, Paula Strasberg (Zoë  Wanamaker). What makes her bearable is that she is, betimes, charming and playful and, occasionally, more than up for her job.

This does not entirely impress Olivier, who is played, brilliantly I think, by Kenneth Branagh, who doesn’t look at all like the lordly actor but, in flashes, channels him uncannily. Olivier was, among other things, a consummate professional, and he couldn’t abide Marilyn’s ways, yet he was sometimes seduced by her despite himself.

All of this is a true (all right, truish) story, based on diaries and a book Clark wrote, and the direction by Simon Curtis and the script by Adrian Hodges are feather-light. We don’t learn anything about Marilyn that we did not know after a half-century of “legendary” twaddle. She was totally impossible, just as everyone who ever worked with her said she was. Yet at this point she was, I think, possibly salvageable. At least this movie makes it seem so. It does not deal in portent—the tragedies to come are not particularly hinted at. Williams makes her a kind of playful child—gifted, whimsical, perhaps more knowing than she seems, and sometimes a lot of fun to be with.

There is no consummated sex between Clark and Monroe, but that does not mean the thought does not cross their minds. Which seems to me just right. Essentially they just have what the title implies—a frivolous, playful week. It would be easy to overpraise this very slight little picture. But its heart is in the right place. Marilyn was now and then, here and there, kind of fun to be with. Who knew?

Writer-director Michel Hazanavicius’ “The Artist” is not for a nanosecond fun—though it works hard to be so. Basically, it is “A Star Is Born” knockoff. George Valentin (Jean Dujardin) is a silent picture superstar. Then sound comes in and career dwindles to drink and poverty until Peppy Miller (Berenice Bejo), a rising star who for inexplicable reasons loves him, rescues him. You couldn’t hope to put this tired story over on anyone without some kind of a gimmick. And “The Artist” has one. It is a silent picture.

You heard that right—essentially no talk. Just lots of big takes and broad pantomime. After 15 minutes my teeth were aching from the sheer stupidity of this effort. To begin with, the overall look of the film is nothing like as elegant as that of high-silent-era movies. It looked more like a ’40s picture. Worse, the clichés of plot and characterization (I’ll exempt Valentin’s really cute dog from this criticism) rob the picture of any surprise or wonder. You are left merely with silence and high spirits. And, frankly, actors who—no surprise here—haven’t a clue about the subtleties of silent screen acting.

Let my contempt for this exercise be interrupted by a serious thought. Silent movies were not simply movies that didn’t talk. They are at many levels a lost art—a subject, now, for a shrinking band of cultists. Personally, I don’t particularly mourn them, and sometimes I am still strangely moved by the elegance of the mighty effort that went into their tongueless attempt to communicate with us. If the movies had not learned to speak, there is just the slightest chance that silent film might have developed into a unique form of symbolic and poetic expression. Be that as it may, this strange and lovely form does not deserve that vulgar and witless travesty that has so often been its fate, and which reaches a peak in this truly worthless film.


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By Harvey Vincent, February 11, 2012 at 8:41 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

I loved “The Artist”. Seen it twice. Richard Schickel’s review reads like sour grapes.

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By Lylejames, December 6, 2011 at 9:17 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Noting someone’s expertise is not “pulling rank.” It’s pointing out how irrational it is to suggest that Mr. Schickel is stupid, which is what the word “clod” means.  You’re perfectly free, of course, to disagree with his opinion, and experience isn’t everything.  Taste and affinity count as well.  But when I decide which film reviewer’s opinion is worth considering, it matters to me that the writer has more than 40 years experience reviewing films, writing books on film, producing documentaries on film and interviewing probably every major director of that period. He may just know something worth considering—and deserves more respect than to be called stupid.

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By Anarcissie, December 5, 2011 at 8:55 pm Link to this comment

You think ‘there is just the slightest chance that silent film might have developed into a unique form of symbolic and poetic expression’ is a reasonable thing to say about silent films?  Really?

And please—don’t pull Shickel’s rank on me.  I’m not interested.

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By Lylejames, December 5, 2011 at 4:55 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

I think it’s seriously misreading Schickel to suggest that he doesn’t admire or understand the allure of the silent film—after all, he mentions his own admiration for the elegance of the “high silent-era movies.” His point, I believe, is that, without sound, film would have reached a barrier; could not have go on to accomplish what has been done since. It’s pretty hard to argue with that—pick any one of a dozen classic films from the last 90 years. Finally, I’m not sure using the word “clod” to describe a man many consider the dean of American film critics—for his thousands of reviews, his dozens of books on film and his numerous documentaries—I think using the word “clod” says more about the user than Mr. Schickel.

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By Anarcissie, December 1, 2011 at 11:39 am Link to this comment

His remark about the silents wasn’t ‘against the flow’, it was profoundly ignorant.

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By Lylejames, December 1, 2011 at 9:07 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Over many years of reading Richard Schickel, one thing I’ve always admired about him is that, more than any other critic I read, he is unafraid to go against the flow. Have you ever noticed how often critical mass collects behind some film that turns out to be pretentious and boring?  I haven’t seen “The Artist” yet, but I did see last weekend “The Descendants,” and Schickel’s review nailed exactly the shallow, aimless character of the movie—in contrast to all the 100-rated reviews on Metacritic. And you know what—a reviewer doesn’t always have to reflect accurately our own views. The only thing I consistently expect from a reviewer is that he be an interesting read, and Schickel is always that.

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By Robert, November 28, 2011 at 2:24 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Check the facts first…
According to BoxOfficeMojo.com ‘The Artist’ had a limited opening in only 4 theatres.

The Muppets opened in 3,440 theaters.

Numbers bomb, yes. Artistic bomb, I don’t think so.

http://boxofficemojo.com/movies/?id=artist.htm
http://boxofficemojo.com/movies/?id=themuppets.htm

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By Rob Kozlowski, November 27, 2011 at 8:28 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

I’m hardly surprised by Schickel’s review. His
biography of Douglas Fairbanks, “His Picture in the
Papers,” is so rife with errors it’s embarrassing. For
example, he mentions Mary Pickford’s “Coquette” as her
final silent film when it was really her first talking
picture, one that got her a Best Actress Oscar. It’s
the kind of factual error I wouldn’t even expect from a
middle school term paper.

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By Maximillian "Max" von Mayerling, November 27, 2011 at 3:44 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Ahh gee…shucks,Mr Schickle, never thought of myself and others as cultists—signed, Joe Gillis


But ya’ know,  as I was reading Mr Schickel, and he wrote “I don’t particularly mourn them [silent films/actors], and sometimes I am still strangely moved by the elegance of the mighty effort that went into their tongueless attempt to communicate with us”  I thought of Billy Wilder, Charles Brackett and Norma Desmond saying:  “I am big,  it was the pictures that got small.”

But then perhaps I and thousands of others are cultists.

When screened in a proper venue,  we think the recently restored version of “Metropolis” a better film than “Citizen Kane”—Much better—-  especially when shown in concert with the musical arrangement written for the restored work (Thinking here of The Michigan in Ann Arbor, Michigan in 2002 and 2010—there are others ).

Now if you will excuse me, I must clean Madame’s swimming pool.

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By LocalHero, November 27, 2011 at 3:11 am Link to this comment

I’ve seen both of these films and actually liked “The Artist” more. When was the last time Schickel got anything right?

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By Ricky Hargrove, November 26, 2011 at 4:07 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Seems like Schickel is the one that bombed…
L.A. Times had a much different take on The Artist.

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By Cinesnatch, November 26, 2011 at 10:56 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Richard Schickel’s “review” of The Artist sounds like more an axe grinding.

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By Anarcissie, November 26, 2011 at 10:06 am Link to this comment

Silent film did develop into a ‘unique form of symbolic and poetic expression’.  Too bad supposed film critic Schickel doesn’t know it.  What a clod.

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By berneredfeather, November 25, 2011 at 4:23 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Get over yourselves. Americans keep marketing their old image. When America
was the leader in everything. The new kids on the block are making more
interesting movies, like Bollywood (when they aren’t trying to copy the U.S.). There
are a lot of good foreign movies out. I’m tired of watching John Wayne reruns. Your
news has turned populist and movie magazine like. The Black Friday Ads are
killing me. Just once try telling the truth and an honest story without a car chase.
It is becoming obvious that no one is leading. The good ship “Ameritanic” is in
trouble and it is every man for himself at least for those not locked in steerage.
Sub economic collateral damage.

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By Stephen, November 25, 2011 at 3:11 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Yet almost every critic over at Rotten Tomatoes loved
The Artist. It’s got a near 100% rating!

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By john crandell, November 25, 2011 at 3:01 pm Link to this comment

Fascinating it is to compare Schickel’s view with that of the L.A. Times’ renowned
film reviewer.

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