Sometimes an actor takes on the role of an iconic figure and they do a good job.Sometimes they do a lousy job.But sometimes, very rarely, they disappear into their role so perfectly that all you have left is the person they're playing. Such is the case with Michelle Williams in Simon Curtis' moving and thoroughly enjoyable "My Week With Marilyn."
About 15 minutes into the film, the first she's been called on to completely carry, Williams vanishes. All that remains is Marilyn. It's a magnificent performance and one of the most heartbreaking celebrity stories there is.
In the summer of 1956, Marilyn Monroe, newly married to writer Arthur Miller (Dougray Scott), traveled to England to shoot "The Prince and the Showgirl" with co-star/director Laurence Olivier (Kenneth Branagh). The third assistant director, aka gofer, on that production was Colin Clark (Eddie Redmayne), a 24- year-old aspiring filmmaker on whose memoir the film is based. He rapidly became Monroe's confidant and ally, the only person on the crew on whom she could rely. Needless to say, he fell hopelessly in love with her, but really, what choice did he have?
Marilyn Monroe was like a lottery ticket. You know you're not going to win, but when those numbers come up, damned if you're not sure you're going to pocket millions. Of course Colin wouldn't actually have won had he ended up with Monroe, but she was someone who men desperately wanted to take care of. After all, she was Marilyn Monroe. That's a roll of the dice very few would be able to pass up.
As Monroe, Williams is nothing short of dazzling.
She's managed to inhabit perhaps the most iconic woman in American history and not only her public persona, at that. To do a decent job of mimicking a well-known figure, all one has to do is capture their mannerisms and voice and let the makeup department handle the rest. However to truly capture the essence of someone, the actor has to convince us that we're watching them, not an actor playing them. We have to believe that if, for example, no record of that person in casual situations exists, the actor has captured what they would actually be like.
We have all seen images of Marilyn Monroe, Frank Sinatra and Elvis Presley, perhaps the three most-famous pre-Michael Jackson entertainers in history, in public, on stage or in films. But there's very little recorded of them in private times. What Williams does is create a fully realized portrait of Monroe. It doesn't matter if her portrayal is 100% accurate. It feels 100% accurate.
As for the production within the film, Monroe's reputation of difficulty on the set follows her to England, and what's more, she brings acting coach Paula Strasberg (wife of famed acting teacher Lee, played by Zoë Wanamaker) with her. Whenever things get rough for her, which was often, Marilyn retreats to her dressing room or cottage with Paula, leaving Olivier to stew and the production be damned.
As the director and star, Olivier is used to getting his way and is not a method actor. He doesn't understand Monroe's need to believe in her character and finds her questions about motivation frustrating. One can't help but be reminded of the (likely at least partially apocryphal) story about Olivier on the set of "Marathon Man" when, after Dustin Hoffman has stayed up all night supposedly to accurately portray his character's state of mind, Olivier retorted with something along the lines of: "Why don't you try acting, dear boy. It's so much easier."
It's a case of when styles collide and at one point Branagh explodes on set that "teaching Marilyn how to act is like trying to teach Urdu to a badger!" It's a great line, and Branagh is excellent as Olivier. It serves to underscore the differences in their styles and how frustrating Monroe's behavior was for Olivier. For her part, Olivier's bluster turned Monroe's already present insecurities into full-blown panic attacks.
When you're watching Williams go through Monroe's struggle with self-doubt and an increasingly serious pill problem, there's no doubt in your mind that it's Marilyn Monroe. You feel her pain, her fears and, on a rare occasion, her joy. Williams perfectly captures Monroe's legendary vulnerabilities and in the culmination of a series of scenes, the duality of Norma Jeane Baker, the person she was, and Marilyn Monroe, the woman she became.
After an afternoon spent secretly touring Windsor Castle, courtesy of Sir Owen Morshead (Colin's godfather and the castle librarian, played by Derek Jacobi), Colin and Monroe are spotted by castle staff. Leaning into Colin, Monroe whispers "Shall I be her?" and instantly, Norma Jeane disappears and Marilyn is there, shimmying, posing and doing exactly what's expected of her. It seems like she gets a kick out of it but at the same time, there's a sadness in her leaving Norma Jeane behind, once again.
At once lightweight and melancholy, "My Week With Marilyn" doesn't purport to reveal any deep, dark secrets or illuminate any truths that we already don't know. In fact, we don't know for certain that any of this actually happened at all. I'd like to think that it did, though.