Among those who know me, it’s common knowledge that I’m lukewarm on Michelle Williams. I recognize her talent, but could there possibly be a name with less star quality? For the first third of My Week with Marilyn, now (finally) playing in Australia, I kept wondering why she didn’t change it to something more marquee worthy. It sounds like it should belong to a now-forgotten former school mate who sat behind you in English class and got A’s on everything, or the girl in Destiny’s Child that nobody really cared about.
Off screen, in interviews, on the red carpet, Williams comes across the way she does on celluloid, a little dour and joyless. I usually love whatever she is wearing, but has Hollywood ever created a star with less charisma and a blander name?
It didn’t help that she always seemed to be playing variations on a theme: Jen Lindley, the character who made her famous on TV’s Dawson’s Creek in the late ’90s and early ’00s. I was no fan of Lindley, so by extension, I never really cared for anyone Williams played in the movies. What did Ryan Gosling see in her in Blue Valentine anyway?
Maybe it was that wounded-bird quality. I once read an interview with Ang Lee who said that he cast Williams in Brokeback Mountain because she has this special thing where you want her to be happy in the end. So perhaps Marilyn Monroe was the perfect role for her, after all. There’s absolutely no physical resemblance between the two, but who doesn’t want to turn back time and give Monroe her happy ending?
She finally gets one in My Week with Marilyn, but only because the movie focuses solely on the filming of The Prince and the Showgirl, the 1957 movie she made with Laurence Olivier, who also directed it. I’d always been under that impression that Elizabeth Taylor was the most famous woman in the world during the ’50s, but apparently, Monroe gave her a run for her bombshell status and gossip-column supremacy.
If there’s a problem with the film, it’s that the central character is Colin Clark, the 24-old third assistant director who is played more or less unremarkably by Eddie Redmayne. I mean, who cares about his near-romance with the girl from the Harry Potter films?! But by telling the story from his point of view and not Monroe’s, we get the vantage point of flies on the wall during the filming of The Prince and the Showgirl, seeing Monroe from an angle other than the doomed beauty who suffered for and because of her art.
She becomes the movie star who was always playing one. Even when she’s alone with Clark, she’s still playing a role: little girl lost who just wants to be loved. I’m not really buying that her psychological problems can be wrapped up in a neat little bow — unlovable for being unloved by her parents — but since we’ve been down that path in countless biopics and documentaries, I’ll let it slide because, unlike The Iron Lady‘s assessment of Margaret Thatcher, the movie doesn’t strain trying to figure out what made Monroe tick tock like a time bomb.
Watching her popping pills, surrounded by enablers, it was hard not to think about Whitney Houston and wonder how the film might have affected me differently had I seen it before Houston’s death rather than one week later. I wonder how long it will take Hollywood to get Houston’s story onscreen, and who will play what will surely be the role of a lifetime. Is Alicia Keys, at 31, already too old?
But getting back to Monroe, why put up with all of her crap? Arthur Miller, her third husband, certainly didn’t and abandoned her mid-shoot. But I can understand why Clark, who was assigned to watch over her during filming, did. It wasn’t just about keeping his job. Monroe was a handful, but the film gives her sweet side equal screen time. Williams, though playing someone who treated life as a stage, manages to make Monroe sympathetic and likable. Despite the demons and despite being maddeningly high maintenance, she’s charismatic enough to make us all want to walk in Clarke’s confidante shoes. I wanted to jump into the water in my undies with her, too — and I can’t even swim!
Yet it never comes off as hagiography. Miller’s contempt seems justifiable, and Olivier (nicely resurrected, never imitated by Oscar-nominated Kenneth Branagh, who, sadly, doesn’t stand a chance against Christopher Plummer in the supporting-actor category) has every reason to love her and loathe her, though I’m glad the movie didn’t go the predictable route and make it all about the Prince vs. the Showgirl. Branagh’s part is sizable and meaty, but Olivier still spends most of the show fuming on the sidelines.
If Williams didn’t quite nail Monroe’s physical stature the way Branagh did Olivier’s, she did hit the emotional bullseye everywhere else, perfectly capturing the insecurity and immense, but tentative, talent. I didn’t realize just how impressive her performance was until last night when I looked up Monroe on Wikipedia and was surprised to see a photo of Monroe. I was fully expecting to see Michelle Williams.
Now there’s a feat that not even her Best Actress Oscar competition, the great Meryl Streep, could pull off with Margaret Thatcher!