Thursday, March 1, 2012

The Monroe Mystique: Michelle Williams in My Week with Marilyn

Michelle Williams as Marilyn Monroe
As Meryl Streep went up to collect her golden statue at last Sunday’s Academy Awards, I was one of those she referred to from the stage going, “Oh no, not her again.” The Iron Lady is the insufferably noble Mrs. Miniver returned to us with Greer Garson’s patriotic stoicism repackaged as a modern feminist polemic. Who would have ever guessed that Margaret Thatcher’s life and policies would be seriously perceived as a brave revolt against the male establishment? But that’s how this picture skirts any controversial dramatic take on Thatcher. Just like Patton, four decades ago, The Iron Lady is shrewdly designed with box office consideration to give us a Thatcher that both liberals and conservatives can find acceptable without ever fully delving into the depths of what made her such a divisive figure. As for Streep’s celebrated role as Thatcher, it is so skillfully mannered (with every defiant nuance carefully in place) that her performance becomes as self-righteous as the story. If the rousing sentimentality of Greer Garson’s stiff-upper lip can help countries win wars, I guess Meryl Streep’s grand dame theatrics can win awards.

But Margaret Thatcher at least provides a definitive personality for an actress to play. Imagine the challenge for Michelle Williams who was far more deserving of an award for playing the elusive Marilyn Monroe in My Week with Marilyn. Since Monroe’s sexuality, in screen siren terms, was both passive and polymorphous, no one has ever been able to quite capture her appeal on the screen until now. In her review of Norman Mailer’s 1973 book Marilyn, Pauline Kael accurately described the Monroe mystique this way:

“She would bat her Bambi eyelashes, lick her messy suggestive open mouth, wiggle that pert and tempting bottom, and use her hushed voice to caress us with dizzying innuendos. Her extravagantly ripe body bulging and spilling out of her clothes, she threw herself at us with the off-color innocence of a baby whore. She wasn’t the girl men dreamed of or wanted to know but the girl they wanted to go to bed with.”

The screen icons of the past such as Jean Harlow, Greta Garbo and Marlene Dietrich had clearly defined sexual personae, where Marilyn Monroe was merely the personification of our erotic fantasies. My Week with Marilyn doesn’t really develop any of these aspects, but Michelle Williams does do so in her extraordinary portrayal of the blond legend. If Meryl Streep compartmentalizes all the recognizable ticks and gestures of Margaret Thatcher, Williams’ Marilyn Monroe goes below the familiar into the unknown, into the realm of discovery, daring to imagine the Monroe we never got to experience on the screen.

My Week with Marilyn depicts the making of the 1957 film The Prince and the Showgirl, which starred Marilyn Monroe and Laurence Olivier. The picture focuses on the week when Monroe and husband/playwright Arthur Miller are in England for the shoot and their relationship begins to fall apart. As Monroe’s depression and anxieties also jeopardize the film, she develops a relationship with Olivier’s assistant Colin Clark (whose two books on the subject form the basis of the Adrian Hodges screenplay), who worships Monroe. The story itself has that banal familiarity where a young innocent gets wised up and has his illusions shattered by the source of his idolization. But director Simon Curtis thankfully keeps the film relatively engaging by keeping the tempo quick and often comic.

Eddie Redmayne (Pillars of the Earth), who plays Clark, shows him as both innocent and crafty. Like the innocent young male Jeffrey in Blue Velvet, he’s a naïf who is tickled by his erotic fantasies. Kenneth Branagh also provides a sporting impression of Olivier even if the script doesn’t seem to have a clue how to shape the role. Since Monroe was a student of the Actor’s Studio and Method acting, there’s a running gag about the clash of the classical school of Olivier versus the American model. But the Method wasn't really an issue with Monroe, or even part of her screen appeal. She always seemed the least likely Method actor because she was a projection of the fantasies of others rather than someone with a personality (like Brando) who created fantasies and expectations.

Kenneth Branagh as Laurence Olivier
But Michelle Williams gives us a vivid glimpse behind the Monroe mask to reveal the confusions, the desperate isolation and turmoil. Unlike Streep, who continually telegraphs us as to what our thoughts of Thatcher should be, Williams effortlessly draws us into Monroe’s despair without signaling what we may find when we arrive there. If Marilyn Monroe was the least likely Method actor, Michelle Williams gives a fascinating and powerful Method interpretation of Monroe the actress and the woman. In My Week with Marilyn, Williams shows Monroe’s insecurities about her talents without resorting to the coyness that became Monroe’s trademark; rather she goes to the source of her coyness and what it repressed.

With the exception of Debra Winger in the film noir Everybody Wins (written by Arthur Miller), nobody has ever got the Monroe mystique quite as effectively, or as hauntingly, as Michelle Williams does in My Week with Marilyn. She delicately toys with our preconceived notions of Marilyn, what Laura Warner described in an earlier Critics at Large post as “the stresses of excessive fame and fortune [and how they] can amplify the star’s frailties,”and she gives us an empathetic understanding of the destructive forces of those frailties. In My Week with Marilyn, Michelle Williams finally gives the screen’s most endurable sex kitten some claws.

Kevin Courrier is a writer/broadcaster, film critic, teacher and author (Artificial Paradise: The Dark Side of The Beatles' Utopian Dream). His forthcoming book is Reflections in the Hall of Mirrors: American Movies and the Politics of Idealism. In January 2012, at the Miles Nidal Centre JCC in Toronto, Courrier began a lecture series (film clips included) based on Reflections. Check their schedule. With John Corcelli, Courrier is currently working on another radio documentary for CBC Radio's Inside the Music called The Other Me: The Avant-Garde Music of Paul McCartney.

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