Blondes (Supposedly) Have More Fun
This is a slice of Marilyn Monroe’s troubled private vs. seemingly exotic life in the mid-‘50s, with superb performances all around but an astounding turn by Michelle Williams.
Sure, you can tell the difference between how Norma Jeane Baker created and portrayed Marilyn Monroe in the 1950s vs. how Michelle Williams creates and portrays Norma Jean Baker portraying Marilyn Monroe in 2011. But until reincarnation kits are sold at Walmart, if you want to get a worthwhile encounter with the incomparably iconic Miss MM beyond what survives in her movies you couldn’t do better than to spend about two hours with Michelle as she and Eddie Redmayne spend a week with Marilyn. What director Simon Curtis accomplishes here is to allow one tour de force of acting (Williams) to join with an effectively amusing dose of acting (Kenneth Branagh) and a lot of other very competent performances (especially by Redmayne as our narrator, Colin Clark, and Judi Dench as Dame Sybil Thorndike) to provide a fascinating recreation of a time that seems ideal, even if we idealize it too much, so removed from the sexist, racist realities of roughly six decades ago when this film is set.The film as a whole is pleasant, enjoyable, yet predictable—it’s hard not to play that way when it’s reasonably based in history so there can be no surprise ending of “the most famous woman in the world” running off with the third assistant director—but Williams’ performance takes it to another level which demands Oscar contention. I hate to restrict the stars allotment rating for the film down to what may seem like a mere 3 ½ of 5, but the real star of this time trip is Williams who achieves a level of impact that the rest of it isn’t quite able to match.
In a previous review I praised the performances of Kirsten Dunst and Charlotte Gainsbourg as sisters awaiting the ultimate doom in Melanchoia (even a Walmart reincarnation kit won’t help much if the planet’s been destroyed) but noted they’d face stiff competition from Viola Davis (The Help), Meryl Streep (The Iron Lady), and Glenn Close (Albert Nobbs). I haven’t seen those last two yet so I’m basing my predictions on the buzz already in the air about them, I’m confident that Viola belongs with the finalists (and maybe I’ll get to a retrospective review on her film at some point), but I saved commentary on whom I feel is the other sure contender for the Best Actress Oscar in order to heap praise on Michelle Williams. I’m not going to pretend that I knew Marilyn Monroe through anything but watching her from Elton John’s twenty-second row (“Candle in the Wind”) and in my first viewings of her films I didn’t see her as anything “more than sex appeal,” but such a distant, socially constructed understanding of this personification of ‘50s womanhood (or at least one variety of it) is exactly what Williams has to contend with in somehow inhabiting a universal presence that needs to be mesmerizing rather than imitative.
And mesmerizing is exactly what she accomplishes, in a manner that I can only compare to Denzel Washington as Malcolm X in Spike Lee’s 1992 film, one of the few historical recreations of a person I know in my own lifetime who really comes alive for me—even if just from media images (although Gary Oldman—another likely Oscar contender this year for Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is also very commanding as Lee Harvey Oswald in Oliver Stone’s 1991 JFK). Actors who do biopics of older notables such as Henry Fonda in John Ford’s 1939 Young Mr. Lincoln have their own challenges in making historical people relatable to a contemporary audience, but when the character is a known entity within the life span of many viewers and reviewers, especially one with so much screen time in films and Internet preservations as is Ms. Monroe (unlike, say, Billy Beane who’s a known entity but not seen all that much so that Brad Pitt can channel his own Oakland A’s general manager persona for Bennett Miller’s Moneyball and come away as an unlikely but now formidable Oscar contender himself), then the pressure is really on to somehow speak to what so many of us think we need to see and hear in a presentation of Marilyn without feeling that we’re seeing Madonna or Lady Gaga appropriating the image for their own commercial intentions.
Michelle Williams never allows herself to fall into such contrived mannerisms or cheap attempts at breathy dialogue. We know that she’s not Marilyn come back to reclaim the shortened career that both she and we wanted much more of, but at least for those precious moments in the modern caves we call movie theatres Williams channels Marilyn as perfectly and seemingly effortlessly as we could possibly hope for. We see a constructed character brought to life by acting, but in this case the acting is what Williams’ screen Norma Jean is doing to create the public celebrity of Marilyn Monroe. Williams loses herself so effectively in this role that we don’t become distracted by her desire to embody Marilyn; instead we focus on how Marilyn is trying to embody herself, to create a beloved character who can impose her will as needed on audiences and moviemakers with an aura so commanding that she can be forgiven her inability to always be the self-assured, desirable woman that comes across on screen—on the days when she’s finally able to deliver a take that’s a keeper (or even make it to the set).
This is truly a troubled superstar (is there any other kind, except maybe Tony Bennett?), a woman who’s hounded to be the answer to every man’s lustful dreams even as she yearns to expand her range and be taken more seriously as an actress rather than just a human calendar girl. Yet, with all the justifications for her insecurities that the film helps us to understand, there’s still a sense of condescension in our tolerance of her antics at times because Williams doesn’t present Monroe as fully innocent of her ego-fulfilling actions and manipulations. This version of Marilyn may be the physical reality that fuels male sexual fantasies, but she also knows how much she can get away with as she attempts to balance her obligations to her public and her collaborators with her own need to find and preserve some sanity in the whirlwind of her overly examined life. She obviously debated if that life was worth living, based on events in her final years, but the tragedy of her death is far from a foregone conclusion in 1956 when this film is set.
Within My Week with Marilyn one character who’s constantly examining her life is her overwhelmed director and co-star, Laurence Olivier, played with great bombast and frustration by Kenneth Branagh. He’s worthy of Oscar consideration himself, likely as Supporting Actor—truly in this film everyone is supporting to Williams’ command of the screen—even though I see him with Best Actor potential because he’s more crucial to the success of the film than Redmayne and his role is more crucial to the fundamental situation of the plot, but the nomination distinction is usually based on screen time and that category is crowded anyway (although the voters may not realize that Brad Pitt might be better off with the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award for all those kids that he and Angelina have adopted). The actual Olivier was increasingly confounded during the 1950s with the rise in popularity of actors enamored of Stanislavski’s Method approach, especially as interpreted in New York by Lee Strasberg. Olivier’s classical training where you master the material as written and try to honor the author’s implied intentions contrasted markedly with the emotional submersion of Method stars like Marlon Brando into the supposed psyche of their characters, requiring a psychological attunement with the fictional person, a need to inhabit that persona in order to find the “truth” of the character while Olivier was simply searching for a precise line reading. So, the constant collision of “methods” makes for great comedy in this film, with Branagh displaying not only personal exasperation with his moody, un-centered screen goddess and her personal coach (Paula Strasberg, Lee’s wife, played by Zoë Wanamaker) but also pressing budgetary concerns about a project dragging on through unproductive days while the true star (despite Olivier’s lofty reputation) tried to find her way into the story of our film-within-the-film, The Prince and the Showgirl.
Olivier would continue to find clashes of perplexing preparations twenty years later when he co-starred with Dustin Hoffman in John Schlesinger’s Marathon Man, an intense drama that confirms every childhood (or Little Shop of Horrors [Roger Corman, 1960; Frank Oz, 1986]) fear about dentists being Nazis. When Hoffman drained himself to physical exhaustion in order to manifest this in his character’s later scenes Olivier was befuddled as to why he didn’t just act as if he were at a breaking point rather than pushing himself to such actual trauma. However, Branagh’s Olivier isn’t just confused by acting styles because he’s also responsible for the film project as a whole including bringing Marilyn into it, but he finds that her fame comes with a high price for all, including her.
Unlike Olivier’s troubles, though, Branagh’s performance is a bit less demanding than Williams’ for reasons noted above about personality perceptions in the public’s mind. Despite Olivier living considerably longer into the present than Monroe (1989 vs. 1962) and having a considerably longer movie career (his beginning in the mid-‘30s, hers in the very late ‘40s) I’ll wager that except for devoted cinephiles far more people have an awareness of who Marilyn was and why her image as an alluring sex goddess continues to resonate even if her films aren’t actually seen that often except for clips from Billy Wilder classics—her dress flying up over the subway grate in The Seven Year Itch (1955) or co-starring with temporary transvestites (a phrase borrowed from Chris Straayer’s great article, “Redressing the Natural”; you should look it up) Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis in Some Like It Hot (1959). Olivier, on the other hand, despite being known as possibly the greatest actor of his generation is likely a more abstract quantity except for those who sat through, by force or otherwise, his stunning director/star turns in Henry V (1944) or Hamlet (1948, winner of the Best Picture and Actor Oscars). So, Branagh could play around more with his depiction, not being too concerned that today’s audiences have such a clear picture of what they know or assume Olivier should look and sound like (or even his equally famous wife/actress Vivian Leigh, played here by Julia Ormond), especially given that in My Week with Marilyn they’re depicted in off-screen roles unlike Williams who has to be Monroe both on- and off-camera in this film-within-a-film. Branagh probably studied Olivier on screen quite a bit anyway in his preparation, given that he duplicated the director/star approaches in his own versions of Henry V (1989) and Hamlet (1996), but most of us could just appreciate the common feeling of exasperation he displays without holding him as accountable as we all do with Williams’ interpretation of this extended week with Marilyn.
Which finally gets us to the My in the title, the role of Colin Clark, whose actual but limited time spent with the megastar in the production of The Prince and the Showgirl led to memoirs that inspired My Week’s script. While Eddie Redmayne does a very effective job of giving substance to the stereotype of the star-struck fan suddenly given not only access to the living fantasy of female attraction but also some control of the film project—given her decision to seek his companionship and comfort—it’s another role that requires no historical accuracy for the general audience so Redmayne has great latitude in constructing the combination of youthful self-confidence and inexperienced confusion so central to the role. He’s in a situation similar to the character of budding rock critic William Miller in Cameron Crowe’s Almost Famous (2000), where an aspiring member of the arts world is suddenly given the golden opportunity to do more than just watch wistfully from the street as the bus full of celebrities rolls by; now our aspiring protagonists are on the bus (although Miller, unlike Clark, is a fictional character, he’s based on Crowe’s experiences), suddenly finding themselves whiplashed into the backstage storm that the public rarely knew (until the glut of “reality” TV in our day), unexpectedly given some power in their situations, and not really knowing how to handle the pressures that their truly famous companions have learned to incorporate, however sloppily, into their lives. Colin ultimately assumes too much too quickly (it was just a week, after all) and is brought back to predicted harsh reality when Marilyn finally finds her elusive focus and moves quickly past Colin’s useful but limited charms.
Likewise, we can move past much of this film and not have to remember a lot of its known and predictable aspects, just like we don’t have to remember the rapidly fading memories of Olivier’s former brilliance. But what will remain, just like with Marilyn’s enduring cultural status, is the contemporary brilliance of Michelle Williams’ synergy with Ms. Monroe. Given all the reported effort Williams put into finding her way into this character, the Method seems to still be alive in Hollywood, but it would be madness for us if she hadn’t gone to such lengths to succeed. Gentlemen—and ladies—should continue to prefer this blonde for years to come as a tribute to both Michelle Williams and the icon she depicts so perfectly in My Week with Marilyn.
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