It started before I had ever seen her on the screen or heard her tremulous voice. While visiting a neighborhood bookstore when I was 7 or 8 years old, my mother told me I could have any book I liked. I gravitated to a beautiful white coffee-table-type book with a close-up of an ethereal and angelic woman with a wispy white-blonde bouffant, blood red lips and sparkling blue-green eyes on the cover. Inside were lots more pictures of this supernaturally attractive woman. When I brought the book, Norman Mailer’s Marilyn, to my mother at the checkout counter, I swear I remember her rolling her eyes. “You sure this is the one you want?” she asked, rhetorically. In retrospect, I think she knew her young son was going to grow up gay in the 1970s...
|The cover of Norman Mailer's book|
Our TV fare in those days was limited to four channels--the three major networks and PBS. A fuzzy parade of what were called UHF stations were also accessible if you carefully turned the dial and adjusted the antenna, but the picture quality was still so poor that no one in my family could stand watching them. But finally I was given a small black-and-white TV of my own, so I could start watching old movies in the privacy of my room...wavy, blurred and indistinct, panned-and-scanned, cut up with dozens of inane commercials and edited for length and content, all in contrasting shades of snowy gray. There, I first caught glimpses of the motion picture magic that was Marilyn Monroe.
It wasn’t until the VHS Blockbuster era of the mid-1980s that I was able to see great old films in their entirety, among them Marilyn Monroe’s iconic performances in films like Bus Stop, Some Like It Hot, The Seven Year Itch, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and The Prince and the Showgirl. Monroe was an utterly unique presence on screen. Like many gay men, I intuitively understood her appeal on many levels.
She was a mass of contradictions--a love goddess who could not find lasting affection, a sex symbol who reportedly could not have an orgasm, a serious actress who never got a role that could fully realize her potential, yet she excelled as a self-satirizing comedienne. Her delicious sense of humor, quick wit and lightning-fast comic timing were juxtaposed against an equal measure of sadness and dark despair. She was the embodiment of the American Dream, a rags-to-riches fable of the poor orphan girl who rose to heights most people only dream about, and a cautionary tale of being careful what you wish for. Like her Gemini soulmate and fellow gay icon, Judy Garland, she transmuted her pain and insecurities into art and beauty, leaving the world too soon. In short, Marilyn Monroe is a near-impossible character for an ordinary mortal actor to play.
Most decent female impersonators can imitate the most obvious facets of Monroe’s persona clearly enough, but the familiar gestures, mannerisms and breathy voice do not even begin to plumb the depths of Marilyn’s mysterious magnetism. How does one capture the essence of someone whose appeal still can’t be fully explained by her photogenic beauty, mannerisms or physical measurements?
So complex and seemingly schizoid was Monroe’s personality that often two actresses are cast to portray her in the same film, one as the young Norma Jean and the other as the star persona Marilyn Monroe—think of Ashley Judd and Mira Sorvino in Norma Jean and Marilyn (1996) or Misty Rowe and Paula Lane in Goodbye, Norma Jean (1976) and Goodnight, Sweet Marilyn (1989).
(Tellingly, almost all Monroe bio pics have been made for television, as if the producers knew that to splash a less-than-mythic Marilyn across a vast and wide cinema screen would fail miserably in conjuring movie magic and reveal their mere sleight-of-hand and legerdemain.)
On the whole, I was more than pleasantly surprised by the film. With its literate and historically accurate script by Adrian Hodges, who obviously drew on a wealth of source material and not just the two memoirs by Prince and the Showgirl assistant director Colin Clark (The Prince, The Showgirl and Me and My Week with Marilyn), the film details a slice of Monroe’s personal and professional life in an entertaining and absorbing manner. Kudos are likewise owed to director Simon Curtis who keeps the action moving at an engaging pace and allows all the actors to shine. Painstaking attention to period detail also pays off for Monroe scholars like me...the recreation of the sets and costumes from the 1957 Olivier/Monroe film is truly uncanny.
The story is rooted in truth, whether or not you believe the protagonist’s claims that he had an affair with Monroe during the ill-fated filming of the souffle-light Terrence Rattigan comedy, and the movie’s brilliant ensemble cast does an impressive job, giving a birds-eye view of what might have really happened at Shepperton Studios all those years ago.
|MM and Paula Strasberg|
|Zoe Wanamaker as Paula Strasberg|
|Marilyn took Vivien's role for the film version of the Terrence Rattigan play|
|Julia Ormond as Vivien Leigh|
As Colin Clark, the privileged and seemingly naive young man who serves as the third assistant director and personal assistant to Olivier, Eddie Redmayne gives a charming performance, as does Emma Watson in one of her first adult roles as a studio wardrobe mistress.
|Emma Watson and Eddie Redmayne|
The only suspensions of disbelief a die-hard Monroe fan might mention involve the musical numbers "Heat Wave" and "That Old Black Magic" which are given fresh contemporary restagings and arrangements—but Williams’s musical stylings as Monroe are so startling you would swear this is exactly how Monroe had performed them.
When Oscar nominations were announced that year, I was rooting all the way for Williams to take home the gold, and was appalled when Meryl Streep was named Best Actress for her lifeless, cardboard portrayal of another real-life legend, Margaret Thatcher, in The Iron Lady. (Had any of Streep’s other 5,000—ok, 17—nominations given her that third Oscar, I would have said she deserved it, but not this one!) As far as I’m concerned, Michelle was the winner that year.
Today, I’m an unabashed and bonafide fan of Williams and feel she can do no wrong. (I even loved her sweetly underplayed Glinda the Good in the universally panned Oz the Great and Powerful.) So thank you, Michelle Williams: Your stunning portrayal achieved the impossible. You brought Marilyn back to life for a few precious hours for stalwart fans like me...and you’ve introduced her to a new generation of eager fans, proving that, in the hands of a keenly sensitive artist, nostalgia can still be a relevant art form. Marilyn herself would be proud!