The Oscar battle of the biopics is in full swing with the release of “My Week with Marilyn.” Michelle Williams hands in exactly the kind of performance the Academy loves. As Marilyn Monroe she turns the camera on Hollywood, playing one of its biggest stars at the peak of her career.
Based on two books by Colin Clark, “The Prince, The Showgirl and Me” and “My Week with Marilyn,” the movie’s main character isn’t Munroe, but Clark (Eddie Redmayne), the third assistant director on “The Prince and the Showgirl” starring Sir Laurence Olivier (Kenneth Branagh) and Munroe. It was the summer of 1956 and Clark was a twenty-three-year-old, who, like the rest of the planet, was smitten with Monroe. The two form a bond, and for a few days it looks like his love for her might actually be reciprocated. Perhaps this should have been titled “The Week I Almost Made It with Marilyn.”
Everyone has been predicting Oscar success for Williams and rightly so, she’s very good, but the bulk of the movie is carried by Redmayne. It is his coming of age story that really fuels the movie’s dramatic arc and his youthful excitement at meeting and, possibly mating with, the movie star is infectious. Of course he’s playing against Williams and Branagh in much showier roles, so I suspect he’ll get the sort shrift attention wise.
As for the above the title stars, Branagh shows two sides to Olivier, the flamboyantly theatrical public persona contrasted against his testy frustration of having to work overshadowed the unprofessional movie star from America. “She’s all instinct, no craft,” he says.
Branagh is very good, but when placed against Williams’s Monroe his work seems to lack the soul she brings to every frame of film. He does have many of the film’s best lines, however. His delivery of lines like, “Trying to teach Marilyn to act is like teaching Urdu to a badger,” is letter perfect and adds much to the movie.
Even almost fifty years after her death Monroe is still one of the best-known actresses in the world. Her famous face adorns everything from wine bottles to Volkswagen commercials, and yet Williams manages to bring something new to someone we thought we knew so well. Her off-screen life, as dramatic as anything she ever did on screen, is tenderly portrayed here but the story isn’t as interesting as the performance.
Williams plays Monroe as a coddled woman-child, crippled by nerves, insecurity, but long on instinct but she goes beyond the little girl lost act so often associated with Monroe. She digs deep, cleaving the role into two parts—the sex-bomb and the vulnerable real life counterpart.
“Shall I be her?” she asks Colin as a crowd descends on them in public. She then shifts effortlessly from the private to the public Marilyn, blowing kisses and turning the flirt up to eleven. But when she is behind closed doors the performance glows. While some of the dialogue is a bit too Psyche 101—“Why do the people I love always leave me?” she pouts at one point—the complexity behind her eyes isn’t.
Williams has perfected playing dour characters in movies like “Blue Valentine,”—so it is a bit of a revelation to see her smile here—but this is something else—well rounded and revelatory.
“My Week with Marilyn” feels a little old-fashioned. The show biz story about, as they say in the film, “a great actor who wants to be a movie star and a movie star who wants to be a great actor,” is overtly theatrical, but Williams brings real soul and heart, handing in the Oscar worthy performance that eluded Monroe in real life.