With acclaimed turns in Brokeback Mountain, Blue Valentine and Wendy and Lucy, actress Michelle Williams has earned what Marilyn Monroe always wanted: respect for her talent. And as more praise unfurls when My Week with Marilyn opens nationwide today, the film's director, Simon Curtis, believes it's Williams's ambition to get such a coveted role that just might be the key to her flawless portrayal of the iconic celluloid siren.
Both are flaxen-haired, beautiful, and have had their personal ups and downs dominate headlines. But what is the most striking similarity between Williams and Monroe? When I caught up with Curtis last week, I asked him what he thought.
"They are both supertalented women with a hunger to do interesting and challenging work," he said.
Monroe's sensational smile, figure and sexuality were the mainstays of a manufactured, salable package that she knew fueled her fame. And while her scene-stealing comedic skills were lauded frequently, in Marilyn, audiences witness that deep down, the girl born Norma Jean really wanted to be described by directors, peers and moviegoers the way Curtis described Williams while explaining to me that she was the perfect choice to play Monroe because of "her courage, her extraordinary talent, and her ability to inhabit and deliver complicated, psychological performances."
After films like The Seven Year Itch, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and Some Like It Hot, it was established the world over that everyone liked it hot, and Monroe's true acting gifts were oftentimes overlooked. Her uniqueness became the "prototype of celebrity," according to Curtis.
"Her performances were discussed as much as her private life and her marriages and her affairs," he said.
In Marilyn, 23-year-old Colin Clark's week in 1956 with Monroe, 30, on the British set of The Prince and the Showgirl is folded into 99 minutes of insight into what she was like away from Hollywood.
As though bouncing about on springs, Clark (Eddie Redmayne) is A-OK with being a lowly assistant to the film's director, actor Sir Laurence Olivier (Kenneth Branagh); he just wants to break into show business. The set is tense, as cast and crew endure Monroe's excessive problems with the clock and numerous takes. Everyone placates her, including her furrowed brow-plagued business partner, Milton Greene (Dominic Cooper), and her coddling acting coach, Paula Strasberg (Zoë Wanamaker). Monroe's overwhelming neediness compels her husband, writer Arthur Miller (Dougray Scott), to decamp, rendering her disabled with loneliness and insecurity.
When the mess becomes too much to tolerate for the repining Olivier and he bursts with frustration, veteran thespian Sybil Thorndike (Judi Dench) pops up like a daisy through mud to defend the woman with whom many have come to sympathize. And why is that? Why does everyone want Monroe to be and do well? It becomes clear that beyond her physical exquisiteness, she is achingly wounded and so very, very soft.
Clark, taken over by ruth and infatuation, rushes to her side when she asks for him and him only. The two steal away, but in the end, Monroe, ever the sad soul, must leave her dewy-eyed friend and return to being a movie star.
Williams manages to traverse through the part with such fluidity that at times, one might forget it's not really Monroe on screen, and this -- in addition to a marvelous soundtrack and Curtis's dedication to details of the era -- is what makes the film one of the most intriguing of 2011.
Williams is Monroe in childlike bewilderment, asking Clark why Olivier is "so mean" to her, and then Williams is Monroe flicking on her persona switch, va-va-vooming her chest and hips off a TWA jetliner and through a passel of fans. She is Monroe dégagé, frolicking in a meadow far away from responsibility, and finally, she is Monroe breathy and bubbly as Elsie in Showgirl.
When I asked Curtis about his leading lady's chances for a Best Actress Oscar, he was effusive.
"Nothing would thrill me more than if Michelle gets recognition for her bravery and her superb work," he said, also pointing out that the 2012 Academy Awards ceremony is during the 50th anniversary year of Monroe's death.
Perhaps Monroe will get her due after all.
My Week with Marilyn is based on two memoirs by Clark, a confessional by the same title as the film and The Prince, the Showgirl, and Me: Six Months on the Set With Marilyn and Olivier. Watch the trailer here.