Saturday, November 26, 2011
Last night Maureen and I saw the new film My Week with Marilyn, which has generated buzz because of Michelle Williams' portrayal of an alternately alluring and wigged-out Marilyn Monroe (in England shooting a film with Laurence Olivier in 1956; the film is based on the diary of one of the production staff). But another female role stuck with me: Judi Dench playing Dame Sybil Thorndike, the famous British Shakespearean and tragic actress, 75 years old in 1956, for whom George Bernard Shaw had written Saint Joan back in the 1920s. As this biography apparently details, Dame Sybil was sort of a saint herself: a suffragette and labor activist, a Christian believer who prayed before every performance and wrote a short book called Religion on the Stage, and a warm and caring person who "visited leper colonies, held the hands of dying children in Belsen after the war," and as an actor always did her best to make those around her comfortable. In the new movie, Dench as Dame Sybil understands her co-star Monroe's insecurity and tries to build her confidence with repeated acts of kindness. When Marilyn messes up her line (as happens frequently) in a scene they have together, Sybil (who is always consummately prepared) says so everyone can hear, "I must have given you the wrong [cue] line, dear." She stands up for Monroe by telling Olivier to stop "bullying" the young star. And when Sybil notices that another character, a young production staffer, is shivering in the cold studio, she arrives the next day with a new red scarf for him.
Lawyers, other professionals--all of us--can draw on many persons as models. In Dame Sybil's model, the professional does her work with care and skill and also goes out of her way to make those around her the best they can be, by paying attention to the things that burden them and those that encourage them, and by actively affirming their worth as persons. It's a fine model for any of us.