How much of the backstage drama depicted in the new Michelle Williams film 'My Week With Marilyn' -- which chronicles the tumultuous shoot of the 1957 Marilyn Monroe/Laurence Olivier romantic comedy 'The Prince and the Showgirl' -- actually happened? Quite a bit, according to various Monroe and Olivier biographies. If anything, the new movie understates the turmoil surrounding the notoriously insecure and unreliable yet charismatic and witty sex goddess, her frustrated co-star/director Olivier, her overwhelmed new husband Arthur Miller, her manipulative drama coach Paula Strasberg, and star-struck gofer Colin Clark (on whose memoirs 'My Week with Marilyn' is based). It's no wonder that the action behind the camera is better remembered today than the finished product, which plays like a pleasant but inessential trifle, a footnote in the careers of two of the greatest performers in film history. Read on to learn more about what really happened behind the scenes of 'The Prince and the Showgirl,' including events not mentioned in 'My Week with Marilyn.'
1. 'The Prince and the Showgirl' was to be the first movie made by Marilyn Monroe Productions, the independent company she had formed with photographer-turned-paramour-turned-platonic-business-partner Milton Greene. The company had acquired the rights to Terence Rattigan's London stage hit 'The Sleeping Prince' as a vehicle for Monroe to prove her serious thespian bona fides, although it didn't stray too far from her roots in light romantic comedy. She'd made the deal with Rattigan herself, meeting him for drinks in a downtown New York bar before his trip to Hollywood, where he'd receive a nibble but no firm offers.
2. The obvious choice for both star and director was Olivier, who had originated the role of the Carpathian prince in the London version opposite his wife, Vivien Leigh. Many other alumni of the stage version would work on the film as well, including Jeremy Spenser and Richard Wattis, who reprised their stage roles, and set designer Roger Furse.
3. Olivier was considered the greatest actor of his generation and one of England's biggest stars, but in 1956, pushing 50, he felt his film career was in a rut. He thought that Monroe's freshness and glamour would rub off on him and rejuvenate him.
4. Monroe and Olivier announced plans to make the movie at a February 1956 press conference in New York City, a Q&A session whose biggest revelation was a wardrobe malfunction in which a shoulder strap on Marilyn's backless black dress broke. Cynical reporters accused her of rigging the strap to snap on purpose, a charge she denied. But even Olivier believed it was a stunt. In any case, the broken-strap incident was memorable enough for Olivier and Monroe to turn it into a gag in a scene in the film.
5. Monroe and Miller had been married for just two weeks when they came to London for the shoot. They had left America at a time when Miller was under threat of indictment for contempt of Congress for his refusal to name suspected Communists to the House Un-American Activities Committee. Days after their arrival, Congress voted to cite him for contempt, a citation that would ultimately lead to a trial the following spring, after the Millers had returned to America. The playwright was ultimately fined $500 and given a suspended sentence of a month behind bars. The conviction was overturned on appeal a year later. Meanwhile, Olivier and Monroe had inserted an in-joke about "un-Carpathian activities" into their film.
6. Two days before Monroe's arrival, Leigh, 42, announced she was expecting a child in December. Three weeks into filming, however, Leigh miscarried. That tragedy put a new strain on the Oliviers' fragile marriage.
7. Greene brought along a young assistant, David Maysles, effectively launching the young man's movie career. Years later, David and his brother Albert would become giants of the documentary, with such films as 'Gimme Shelter' and 'Grey Gardens.'
8. Colin Clark landed his job as third assistant director because his parents were friends of the Oliviers.
9. Monroe's Method training, which made her feel like she needed to delve into the motivation for every line and gesture, led to clashes with Olivier and his classically-trained, just-do-it actors. She felt inadequate among them, despite having studied the Method herself for years with famed drama teacher Lee Strasberg. Asked by a British reporter what had inspired her to start studying acting, she replied, "Seeing my own pictures."
10. Lee's wife, Paula Strasberg, came along as Monroe's acting coach and earned a higher salary than anyone else on the project except the two leads.
11. Olivier sought advice from other directors who'd worked with Monroe on how to handle the difficult actress. Billy Wilder's advice: Just put up with her; the results are worth it. Joshua Logan, who visited the set late in the shoot, told Olivier: Work closely with Paula Strasberg and Monroe in rehearsals but don't let Strasberg on the set. But that proved impossible as Monroe simply refused to work without her coach by her side.
12. Typical Strasberg advice to Marilyn: Olivier spent a morning trying to inspire in Monroe the wit and sparkle needed in the scene when their characters first meet. Strasberg told her, "Honey -- just think of Coca-Cola and Frank Sinatra."
13. Monroe's frequent tardiness, inability to remember lines, and her insistence on having every direction of Olivier's reinterpreted by Strasberg led to numerous production delays. One scene, in which Monroe's character eats caviar, took two days, 34 takes, and 20 jars of caviar to complete.
14. Olivier displayed his anger by being patronizing. "All you have to do is be sexy, dear Marilyn," he said, demoralizing Monroe, who was trying to break out of sex-symbol status and be taken seriously as an actress. Off the set, he complained that trying to give her direction was like teaching Urdu to a marmoset.
15. Sybil Thorndike, the venerable actress who played the Dowager Queen, urged Olivier and the other actors to be patient with Monroe. "We need her desperately," Thorndike said. "She's really the only one of us who knows how to act in front of a camera!"
16. In addition to babysitting the star (including during her free time, as depicted in 'My Week With Marilyn'), Clark was also tasked with keeping cigarettes on hand at all times for Olivier to smoke, since the actor/director's costume had no pockets. He smoked Oliviers, a brand named after himself.
17. Monroe turned to her new husband for moral support, often distracting him from working on rewrites of his play 'A View From the Bridge,' which was having its London premiere. He'd expanded it from one act (as it had premiered on Broadway) to a full-length, two-act drama. There were censorship complications over the play's hints of homosexuality that led the producers to move it to another theater. When it finally premiered that fall, the Oliviers and Millers attended opening night together in a gesture of solidarity, with Monroe wearing a striking red dress that ensured enthusiastic press coverage. The play was a hit.
18. Here's how Miller assesed the 'Prince and the Showgirl' shoot:
19. It was during his time in England that Miller began writing the short story that would become 'The Misfits,' which would be the last film Monroe would complete.
Olivier was soon prepared to murder Paula outright, and from time to time, I would not have minded joining him, for Marilyn, a natural comedienne, seemed distracted by half-digested spitballed imagery and pseudo-Stanislavskian parallelisms that left her unable to free her own native joyousness. As for Olivier, with all his limitations in directing Marilyn -- an arch tongue too quick with the cutting joke, an irritating mechanical exactitude in positioning her and imposing his preconceived notions upon her -- he still could have helped her far more than Paula with her puddings of acting philosophy.
20. Despite the countless production delays, Olivier finished the shoot a few days ahead of schedule. Still, he was said to be so shattered by the process that he didn't direct another film for 14 years (when he shot 1970's 'Three Sisters'), though he remained in demand as a stage and screen actor.
21. Warner Bros. changed the title 'The Sleeping Prince' to 'The Prince and the Showgirl' to play up the presence of Monroe, the movie's chief box office draw. The film was advertised with a poster of Olivier and Monroe locked in a steamy embrace, a clinch that doesn't actually appear in the film. Despite these efforts, the movie earned mixed reviews and was considered a box office disappointment in America. In Europe, however, critics were kinder, and Monroe even earned awards for her performance in France and Italy.
22. Monroe and Greene's partnership dissolved in bitterness. She didn't work again for another two years, until she made her triumphant comeback in 'Some Like It Hot.'
23. Years later, Olivier admitted that the tribulations of working with Monroe had been worth it. Thorndike had been right; the camera had captured only Monroe's magic, without any of her doubts and frailties. "No one had such a look of unconscious wisdom, and her personality was strong on the screen," Olivier said. "She was quite wonderful, the best of all."
24. 'The Prince and the Showgirl' was the only movie Monroe filmed outside North America.
25. Rattigan's play also became a Broadway musical in 1963, called 'The Girl Who Came to Supper.' Noel Coward wrote the songs. The stars were Florence Henderson and José Ferrer. The show ran just over 100 performances, perhaps because Ferrer, while a terrific actor, was no Olivier, and Henderson (who was no longer an ingenue but not yet Mrs. Brady) was no Monroe. But then, who is?
[Photos: Warner Bros.]
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