Saturday, April 19, 2014

Notes on the Method: Michelle Williams as Marilyn Monroe

Michelle Williams as Marilyn Monroe.

Is there anything trickier for an actor than playing a show-business legend? Jimmy Cagney in Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942) and Barbra Streisand in Funny Girl (1968) didn’t have to worry about getting down George M. Cohan and Fanny Brice because so few moviegoers would have been able to compare them to the personalities they were depicting – Cohan had made only one obscure film, and by the time Funny Girl came out Brice’s handful of screen appearances were long forgotten. They were stage performers (Brice also had a radio fan base); an established movie star like Cagney or a newly minted movie star like Streisand easily trumped a ghost from an earlier Broadway era. But Judy Davis in Life with Judy Garland: Me and My Shadows and Geoffrey Rush in The Life and Death of Peter Sellers – both made for television – were playing movie stars of mythic status, so they had to find a way to replicate their eccentric physical presences while simultaneously inhabiting them from the inside, and miraculously both did. Davis, giving perhaps her greatest performance, burrowed so deep into Garland’s persona that when she lip-synched that famous contralto, with its spring-air freshness and warmth in the thirties and forties and its increasingly desperate tremolo in the fifties and sixties, the results were spooky. Rush approximated Sellers’s madly gifted clowning and made up the rest, since whereas the whole world got to see Garland’s neuroses – in A Star Is Born and on her TV show (and you can hear it on the Judy Garland at Carnegie Hall album) – Sellers’s complicated psychology was always completely separate from the characters he played in the movies.

So much has been made of Marilyn Monroe’s life and career, which lasted not much more than a decade, that Michelle Williams, who plays her in the 2011 My Week with Marilyn, is competing not only with our impressions of her on the screen but also with the too much we know about her wretched childhood, her imploded marriages, the insecurities that savaged her and marked her for an early grave. (She was thirty-six when she took her own life in 1962.) And though My Week with Marilyn, which is set during the filming of The Prince and the Showgirl in 1955, is the first movie (part-) bio of Monroe, it’s not the first attempt to build a dramatic character around her. Arthur Miller, whom she had been married to for just three weeks when they both showed up for the shoot, tried to get her down in The Misfits (which he wrote for her) and his play After the Fall and finally succeeded in 1990 with one of the sides of the character he created for Debra Winger – Angela Crespini, a femme fatale with multiple personality disorder – in the offbeat film noir Everybody Wins. Winger captures the essence of Monroe in the scenes where she drifts through the New England factory-town setting, distracted and soul-scarred, unaware of the lascivious looks of the local men who know her as a whore, as difficult to scoop up in your hands as a soap bubble. It is, I think, the most amazing work Winger has ever done. In an entirely different way, playing the actual Marilyn, Williams matches it.

Laurence Olivier & Marilyn Monroe
Monroe was a one-of-a-kind Hollywood star who ached to be a great actress; she studied with Lee Strasberg at the Actors Studio, and he and his wife Paula, working under God knows what combination of delusion and longing for power and star-fucker nutsiness, convinced themselves that she already was everything she aspired to be and strove to convince her of the same thing. Lee Strasberg became her guru, Paula her traveling acting coach, who accompanied her to the set of The Prince and the Showgirl every day, to the irritation of her director and co-star, Laurence Olivier, who – famously – thought the Method was a sham. The Strasbergs’ manipulation of this lonely, fragile starlet and their ludicrous projection of Strasberg’s ideas about acting onto her is a black mark on the history of the American Method; when she was at her most Methody, in The Misfits, she was at her worst. But the Strasbergs distorted the Method. Michelle Williams is one of the current generation’s most gifted practitioners of it, and draws on it to find a way into Monroe just as Rush and Davis used their own types of magic to locate Peter Sellers and Judy Garland.

Written by Adrian Hodges and directed by Simon Curtis, My Week with Marilyn is based on two memoirs by Colin Clark, who, at twenty-three, talked his way into a third-assistant-director job on The Prince and the Showgirl and became Monroe’s pal and confidant. Clark (played, with sensitivity and charm, by Eddie Redmayne) is the son of the world-famous art historian Sir Kenneth Clark (Pip Torrens); he and his wife (Geraldine Somerville) treat their son’s dream of getting into the movies like a lark and a passing fancy. But Colin’s determined: he presents himself at Olivier’s offices day after day, until he’s finally noticed by Olivier (Kenneth Branagh), his wife Vivien Leigh (Julia Ormond), producer Arthur Jacobs (Toby Jones), and Hugh Perceval (Michael Kitchen), the head of Pinewood Studios. Someone sends him out to rent a house for Monroe and Miller (Dougray Scott); Colin impresses them by finding the couple two homes – a choice – and gets hired onto the picture. There he meets the rest of the cast of characters: Milton Greene (Dominic Cooper), half-owner of Marilyn Monroe Productions; Paula Strasberg (ZoĆ« Wanamaker), and Dame Sybil Thorndike (Judi Dench), one of the principal actors in the movie. (The Prince and the Showgirl is a film version of Terence Rattigan’s play The Sleeping Prince, about a romance between an Eastern European royal and a musical-comedy star; Thorndike played the Queen Mother. Olivier had starred in it in the West End opposite Leigh, but Monroe bought the rights, which is why she and not Leigh starred in the movie, but in My Week with Marilyn Leigh claims that Olivier won’t let her reprise her stage role because she’s too old for it – which, in fact, she was.)

Eddie Redmayne & Michelle Williams
So the movie is told entirely from Colin’s point of view, and among other things it’s a coming-of-age story in which this young man – whom we first see in the audience of a movie house, moony-eyed, with a loopy grin on his face, watching MM perform “When Love Goes Wrong, Nothing Goes Right” and “Heat Wave” in the Irving Berlin movie musical There’s No Business Like Show Business – gets to live out a dream as an intimate of his screen idol and, natch, gets his heart broken in the process. Even before he crosses paths with Marilyn, he’s pulled into off-camera intrigue when Leigh begs him to let her know if Larry is unfaithful to her with his new star, confessing, “I’m forty-three. No one will love me for very much longer.” (Terrific in this small role, Ormond reads this line with the merest trace of sadness behind her celebrity noblesse oblige.) He meets Monroe when he’s sent to knock at her dressing-room door the first day to tell her that Larry is ready to start the readthrough of the script and Strasberg – whom Wanamaker plays, uproariously, as an owlish tyrant – informs him in no uncertain terms that “Marilyn is not ready. She’s preparing.” But he’s entranced by his first glimpse of her, looking back at him in the mirror, playing peek-a-boo with one eye and begging sweetly to be forgiven for her un-made-up face.

At first Colin is little more than a bystander with the phenomenal luck to be on the set, and he’s a great narrative convenience for Hodges and Curtis, who filter the details of Marilyn’s rocky first days through his enchanted gaze. She shows up two hours late for the first scene, looking ravishing, and runs off to her dressing room out of nervousness between takes. She keeps screwing up her lines, but Dame Sybil, who is garrulous and welcoming, gallantly makes excuses for her and is kind-hearted enough to invite her to tea so she can help Dame Sybil with her lines. (Some days later Thorndike appears on the set with a scarf for Colin because she’s afraid he’ll catch a cold. Dench is lovely in this part – she gets at this theatrical icon’s easy, distinctly English warmth without ever stooping to play her as an old dear.) Paula coaches Marilyn in conspiratorial whispers during the readthrough (which drives Larry crazy) and never leaves her side during the shoot; after the first scene, she walks Marilyn off the set, assuring her of her brilliance and falls to her knees – literally – refusing to get up until Marilyn has admitted that she’s the greatest movie actress of all time. (Wanamaker didn’t get much notice for this performance, but it’s a small classic of show-biz parody.) When Marilyn arrives late again the next day, Olivier makes her apologize to Thorndike, who immediately covers for her, praises her camera instincts, and censures Larry for bullying her. But after three days the movie is two weeks behind schedule.

Dougray Scott & Michelle Williams
From the beginning, Williams captures Monroe’s odd blend of openness to the camera and wounded privacy, sexual readiness and little-girl-lost-ness. When she entertains the press corps she gives them a performance, kittenish and somehow simultaneously coy and forthrightly sexual. When Colin walks in on her, in her dressing room, as she’s emerging from the shower, she doesn’t flinch as he gets an eyeful of her breasts; she’s flirtatious with him, but in an entirely playful manner. And when, on a shopping trip with Miller and Greene and Colin, the crowds go crazy, screaming and pressing her for autographs, she responds happily to them – until they get too close, and then she starts to come apart, her face dissolving in confusion as she retreats into herself. That’s the first time Colin sees the fragility that’s the underside of her inviting public seductiveness. Then he overhears part of a quarrel between her and Miller after she reads something about herself in his notebook – she’s weeping in a corner, huddled under a blanket, while Miller insists that it isn’t about her at all, that it’s just “writer’s stuff.” (Poor Dougray Scott has the unenviable role of the self-involved husband the filmmakers obviously don’t think much of; he takes off for America shortly after, protesting that he can’t work because she’s “devouring” him.) It’s around this point in the filming process that Marilyn starts to claim Colin as a friend and beg for his support. Lying on her bed – Williams sculpts the space like a figure in a painting – she demands of him, “Whose side are you on?” And from that moment, he’s unmistakably on her side, and she relies on him more and more, calling him to her home when she’s feeling unsure of herself, exhorting him to tell her why “Sir Olivier” is so mean to her. She talks to him about her constant disappointments in the men she gets involved in (“They always seem right at the start”). She doesn’t feel as comfortable with anyone else; his youth disarms her – they giggle together like naughty schoolchildren. Soon he’s the only one she wants around her when she’s upset. he comic scenes where Milt and Paula jockey for the role of confidant while Colin secures it without even trying are some of the cleverest in the movie. (It would help Cooper’s performance considerably if he were always allowed to be as funny as he is in these moments. Most of the time Cooper is stuck playing him as so jealous over Colin’s growing closeness with Marilyn that it propels him into a series of futile explosions.)

My favorite section in the movie is the extended one where Marilyn, with the help of her driver/bodyguard Roger (Philip Jackson), abducts Colin from the studio and takes him out for a day’s adventure. Milt has ordered Colin to stay away from her, but Roger gets him into the car and she pops up in the back seat, demanding to know, like a little girl who just raided the cookie jar, if he thinks Milt saw her. (Of course he does: he yells as they spin away that Colin’s fired – a punishment that doesn’t stick because Monroe continues to insist on his presence.) First she and Colin visit Windsor Castle, Colin gaining entrance by dropping the name of his godfather, Sir Owen Morshead, the Royal Librarian (Derek Jacobi, in a relaxed cameo). Charmed by Marilyn, he takes them on a tour that includes perhaps the most exquisite doll house in the world, and she’s transfixed: she imagines that the dolls are versions of her and Colin and their children, sinking touchingly into the fantasy as she comments that all little girls should be told how pretty they are and how much they’re loved. (This is a wonderful moment.) When she strolls downstairs on Colin’s arm, they find the domestic staff gathered at the bottom to applaud her; “Shall I be her?” she whispers to Colin, and then performs for them in the role of MM. Then he takes her to see Eton, his alma mater, and the schoolboys in their caps and gowns rush toward her. She’s delighted; she even gives one of them a kiss – making his entire adolescence, we assume. Afterwards she strips naked for an impromptu swim and Colin can’t get his pants off fast enough to join her. This is Redmayne’s sweetest scene: he watches her step onto the shore as if she were an angel. She kisses him sweetly – and chastely – and then Roger discreetly reminds them that it’s time to get back to London and her face falls gently. The holiday is over; it never lasts, and on the way home she’s melancholy. On the soundtrack Nat King Cole’s velvety rendition of “You Stepped Out of a Dream” shifts to his classic take on that most plaintive of ballads about endings, “Autumn Leaves.”

Michelle Williams & Eddie Redmayne go for a dip

I adored this movie, with its deluxe cast – including Downton Abbey’s Jim Carter as a bartender, Gerald Horan as the implacable union rep on the movie set, and Emma Watson, looking lovely in an underwritten part as Lucy, the wardrobe girl Colin goes after as soon as he’s hired on the picture – and and its glossy, muted-Technicolor look: Ben Smithard has lit it to emulate Jack Cardiff’s cinematography for The Prince and the Showgirl. (Karl Moffatt plays Cardiff.) It’s not great – except for Williams, who really is great – but I suspect it’s unforgettable. The problems are in the screenplay. Though Hodges, who also wrote the fine, undervalued 1997 Metroland, based on the Julian Barnes novel, does a lot of things well, his approach to Colin is a little conventional, and he doesn’t seem to know exactly what to do with the character of Larry Olivier, who can’t make up his mind what he wants from Marilyn. (He complains that she isn’t a professional, he complains about her lack of technique, but then he urges her to just be herself.) Branagh is quite funny; he has a grand old time replicating Olivier’s famous vocal patterns, that sexy blend of staccato and soft-palate fade (I love the way he pronounces “motion pictures” as an Elizabethan might have: “mos-e-on pictures”). And he has a marvelous scene where Larry confesses to Colin that he’d hoped to renew himself in Marilyn but that he looks “dead behind the eyes” in the rushes, borrowing the phrase from Archie Rice, the character he’s about to play on stage in John Osborne’s The Entertainer. He’s right: the extraordinary thing about The Prince and the Showgirl is that Monroe, with absolutely no technique, steals it clean away from Olivier, who seems atypically stiff and a trifle sour. When Williams as Marilyn dances by herself on camera, swinging her hips, everyone on the set, Larry included, is knocked out by her uncategorizable brand of magic, which is as instinctive as a toddler’s. (Considering Branagh’s obsession with Olivier – he made his debut as a movie director with Henry V,which was also Olivier’s first picture as a director, and Olivier’s was the most famous Hamlet in the movies until Branagh released his – casting him as Larry seems comically perfect.)

In the middle of the movie Roger tells Colin that “they” keep Marilyn doped up because “they’re afraid their cash cow will slip away.” There’s no follow-up to this ominous confidence, and we’re left to guess who “they” might be: Milt Greene? Paula Strasberg? even Arthur Miller, who comes across as malevolent in some undefined way? It’s just as well that Hodges never develops this conspiracy idea. The MM we get to know in My Week with Marilyn was damaged before she ever got to Hollywood; fame has completed the work her blighted childhood began. She doesn’t need unseen greedy hands to undo her. When Colin, who has of course fallen hopelessly in love with her, suggests that the two of them run away, she smiles indulgently but laughs off the idea of giving up “all this.” She’s slapped in the face, over and over, by the disappointment of people who are drawn to “Marilyn” and leave her when they find out she’s not the image they see up on their movie screens, but she’s also addicted to the idolatry that comes with the image. Yet she longs for the innocence she sees in Colin, luxuriating in their adolescent intimacy; they bundle like virginal children, sleeping spoons in her bed. Michelle Williams gets MM in all her screwed-up complexity; I think that she gets her the way only another movie actress could, with a full comprehension of what the camera means and what the camera does – how it can both explore and invade, complete while maintaining the mystery. And she goes at the role like the Method performer Monroe dreamed of being. The irony is that if she had been that gifted Method practitioner, she wouldn’t have been the Marilyn Williams embodies. This performance – one of the best I’ve ever seen – is built, like Monroe herself, on an unresolvable contradiction.

– Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting StyleNo Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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