Saturday, January 24, 2015

A Lifetime with Marilyn, A Week with Michelle

Michelle Williams
In the 2011 film, Eddie Redmayne’s character enjoyed A Week with Marilyn, but I have had a lifelong obsession with her...and as a result, no actress who ever attempted playing her in a film has ever satisfied me. All have been disappointments, until I saw Michelle Williams’s characterization of the iconic star. 

 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
 Thus began my fascination with Marilyn Monroe. After reading the Mailer, I obsessively bought, borrowed and devoured every book about her life and career, searching for clues as to what had made her so legendary and so famous, and why this lovely young woman had died so young. I still had not yet ever seen a movie with Marilyn Monroe in it, but I read about her performances in all of them. 

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. 

Catherine Hicks

Poppy Montgomery

Mira Sorvino
 Over the years, many a brave and talented and actress has made the valient attempt, including Catherine Hicks in Marilyn: The Untold Story (1979), Constance Forslund in Moviola: This Year’s Blonde (1980) and Poppy Montgomery in an adaptation of Joyce Carol Oates’s Blonde (2001). But to me, not one of them did my idol justice. 

 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.) 

 Before My Week with Marilyn, I must admit I had been underwhelmed by Michelle Williams. I had barely noticed her on Dawson’s Creek, and her much-lauded performance in Blue Valentine had left me cold (apparently, blank expressions and halting dialogue are enough to earn Oscar nods, I thought), and I approached seeing this movie with trepidation. But it was a movie about Marilyn, and I had to see it. 

 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. 

Sir Laurence

Sir Kenneth
 As the uptight and egotistical Sir Laurence Olivier, more comfortable on a theater stage than a soundstage, Sir Kenneth Branagh (who inherited Olivier’s mantle as “the world’s greatest living actor”) is a delight, spoofing the image of Shakespearean actor as supercilious, sulking, pompous ass. Branagh also weaves in some vulnerability and compassion to his characterization, grudgingly acknowledging his impossible costar’s talent and accomplishments. Sir Kenneth received a well-deserved Academy Award nomination as Best Supporting actor for his performance as Olivier. 

MM and Paula Strasberg

Zoe Wanamaker as Paula Strasberg
 The mysterious figure of acting coach Paula Strasberg (wife of iconic Method guru Lee) is brought to life by the talented Zoe Wanamaker. Swathed in black caftans (she was nicknamed “Black Bart”) she resembles a witch whose over-the-top flattery casts spells that conjure Monroe’s ephemeral gifts from the ethos. Dominic Cooper is subtly effective as disgruntled photographer Milton Greene, who reinvented Monroe’s public image and helped her establish Marilyn Monroe Productions, and is now losing his grip on the star. 

Marilyn took Vivien's role for the film version of the Terrence Rattigan play

Julia Ormond as Vivien Leigh
Perfectly played cameo appearances by Julia Ormond as Vivien Leigh, terrified of aging and losing her husband (she eventually did, to lovely young actress Joan Plowright), and Dame Judi Dench as compassionate costar Dame Sybil Thorndike, add dimension to the storyline. Dougray Scott as a cold and preoccupied Arthur Miller, and Toby Jones as beleaguered publicist Arthur Jacobs (who later produced the megahit Planet of the Apes film series), are equally on the mark. 

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
 In short, the cast is uniformly excellent—but it’s Michelle Williams who is truly remarkable and holds the entire picture together. Without resorting to a cheap imitation, Williams closely approximates Monroe’s voice, gestures and famous walk. She recreates scenes from The Prince and the Showgirl with Marilyn’s uncanny quirkiness and joie de vivre. Obviously building the character from the inside out, Williams channels Monroe’s mercurial essence in a startling multilayered performance--here is a troubled yet talented girl, obviously suffering from anxiety, depression and overwhelming stage fright but determined to give her public its money’s worth. She is equal parts villainess and victim in the unfolding plotline, alternately adorable and exasperating. This is a miraculous performance by a skilled actress who clearly understood the complicated woman she was playing. I was entranced. 

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!