Friday, December 16, 2011

Maaaaaaaaarilyn!

When last month's copy of Vogue with Michelle Williams as Marilyn Monroe came in the mail, I was skeptical - Williams doesn't particularly resemble Monroe, and definitely not as much as Scarlett Johanssen, who was rumored to be one of the contenders for the role.

Of course, the idea of playing Marilyn should be a terrifying one - she's the quintessential American actress, a symbol, a shorthand for so many other things. Playing her without resorting to the wiggling, giggling caricature of herself she turned into would be a huge challenge.

As it turns out, Williams is the strongest part of the film. Sure, black eyeliner and baby-blonde hair coloring certainly help (as do the hip pads she donned to fill out Marilyn's famous curves) but her Marilyn is a lovely, shimmering, frustrating creature. When Williams is on screen, it's hard to look at anything else.

My Week is based on The Prince, The Showgirl, and Me and My Week With Marilyn, two books by Colin Clark (played by Eddie Redmayne, all freckles and massive blue eyes) about his work as a third assistant director - really a glorified go-fer - on the set of The Prince and the Showgirl, which Marilyn filmed with Laurence Olivier in 1957.

Marilyn is, of course, in the middle of a crisis when she arrives in London for filming. Her marriage to Arthur Miller is already falling apart, she's debilitated by stage fright, and she infuriates Olivier (Kenneth Branagh) with both her Method acting and her shaky work ethic. And, of course, she's downing enough pills to choke a horse.

Marilyn makes something of a pet of Colin, a rich Etonian with connections at Buckingham whose decision to work in films is regarded with barbed bemusement by his aristocratic parents. Of course, when the glowing Marilyn alights, who could blame him? When Miller leave Marilyn in London and her relationship with the other actors disintegrates, she leans on Colin as a sort of kid-brother, mock-boyfriend replacement. It's easy to see Colin's appeal (Redmayne's freckly good looks and plummy accent certainly help).

My Week is visually gorgeous, from Marilyn's shimmering set costumes to the reproduction of late 1950s London. The film's script is probably the weakest point, setting Colin up in a desultory romance with wardrobe girl Lucy (Emma Watson, wasted here, although with some yummy dresses) with no explanation, other than to present her brunette blandness as a foil for the platinum Marilyn. Dame Judi Dench turns up, projecting her Denchness as Sybil Thorndike (really, Dench could improve any movie. Her appearance in The Chronicles of Riddick, misguided though it was - was her agent drunk? - was the only watchable part of that monstrosity) and Dominic Cooper plays Marilyn's agent, Milton Greene.

What makes Williams' performance as Marilyn so fitting is that it's impossible not to love her - Clark, Greene, Miller, and even Olivier, drowning in stage makeup and despair at his inability to translate himself to the screen - all love her, even if it's not, and never will be, enough. Of course, watching My Week knowing that Marilyn is a mere six years away from death lends the movie automatic poignancy - a scene where Marilyn's acting coach Paula Strasberg cooes that she's still young, with her life ahead of her, is particularly sad. Despite the movie's thin script, William's Marilyn sucks all the light from the screen, and that's enough.

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