If you lingered at all over the print advertisements for My Week With Marilyn in The New York Times (and, I suspect, other papers) this past post-Thanksgiving weekend, you know that the movie’s star, who plays Marilyn Monroe, is getting raves. “Michelle is luminous,” says movie-poster staple Peter Travers in Rolling Stone. “Michelle is ravishing,” proclaims Leonard Maltin. “Michelle makes the star come alive,” declares David Denby in The New Yorker.
Except, of course, none of them says those things. Not exactly. No major film critic would refer to an actor in a review by her first name—even if a critic wanted to, he’d have to take it up with an editor: Publications have style guides when it comes to such things, and using someone’s surname (sometimes preceded by a title like “Mr.” or “Ms.,” as in The New York Times) is generally considered the respectful thing to do. Thus, “Williams makes the star come alive” is what David Denby actually wrote. The other two critics were misquoted more aggressively: Travers’s actual words were “The luminous Michelle Williams goes bone-deep here,” while Maltin said Williams “convinces us that she is that ravishing, impossible, heartbreaking figure we’ve all read so much about.”
Misquoting critics for advertising purposes is nothing new, of course. (For one thing, film critics are not actually addicted to exclamation points.) Movie studios and distributors can be shamed into dropping an egregious misquotation, but the ones I’ve checked from the Marilyn ad are not fraudulent, really: The critics do think Williams is terrific. The charge I’m tempted to levy at the advertisers in this case is not dishonesty but sexism.
Now, I realize what the film’s advertisers are up to here: They want us to conflate Michelle Williams with Marilyn Monroe. Fair enough: That’s what the actress tries to do on screen. And Marilyn Monroe is better known by her first name—hence the title of the movie. (The ad execs must have been giddy that their star’s first name also begins with an “M.”) But addressing a woman by her first name rather than her last has a long and unfortunate history. And it’s not as though the practice has faded into the benighted past, either: During the last presidential campaign, many people noticed that Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin were far more likely to receive the first-name treatment than Barack Obama and John McCain. The double standard also pops up regularly on TV. And the Marilyn ads do engage in the double standard: “Michelle is extraordinary. Branagh is hilarious.” So says Lou Lumenick, supposedly, in The New York Post. Travers, we’re told, says “Branagh is superb.”
Using simply “Marilyn” in the movie’s title makes sense: Monroe was one of those rare celebrities on a first-name basis with the world. She was also often unfairly reduced to a girlish sex object—and the fact that everyone called her simply “Marilyn” can’t be entirely untangled from that treatment. If the trailer for My Week With Marilyn is any indication, the new movie attempts to examine the tension between that public identity and Monroe’s more private self. So it seems unfortunate that, in its advertising, those putting out the film have opted to echo, however inadvertently, the kind of sexism that the movie itself appears determined to explore.