Nearly 40 years after Marilyn Monroe’s death, an upcoming film attempts to (figuratively) strip the icon to her core, with Michelle Williams filling Monroe’s delicate shoes.
Taking the lead role in any sort of biopic is a tricky line to toe. The gift of inspirational source material can also become fodder for mimcry, or worse, literal comparisons with the real-life main characters.
When it comes to casting, a natural instinct is to select an actor who simply resembles the title character. Sometimes, look-alikes work; Jamie Foxx won a Best Actor Oscar for his work in the titular role in Ray. Other times, selecting a talented actor and making necessary image adjustments suffices. Julie & Julia was mediocre at best, but Meryl Streep glowed as Julia Child, shoe lifts and all.
The upcoming film My Week With Marilyn, starring Michelle Williams in the title role, intimately, almost metafictionally, deals with that tug-of-war. The just-released trailer reveals that Williams, an undeniably gifted actress, went through some noticeable alterations to prepare for the role. Those changes bring Williams aesthetically closer to Monroe, but they seem to threaten her attempt at interpreting the part.
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According to the film’s website, the story was inspired by real-life events. In the summer of 1956, 23-year-old Colin Clark worked as a lowly assistant on the set of The Prince and the Showgirl, starring Sir Laurence Olivier with Marilyn Monroe, who, during shooting, was also on honeymoon with her new husband, the playwright Arthur Miller.
Nearly 40 years later, Clark’s diary account, The Prince, the Showgirl, and Me, was published, but one week was missing from the account. The new film fills in the blanks.
In the same way that Clark’s story “inspired” the film, Monroe “inspired” Williams. The movie works within the confines of Clark’s diary, and Williams works within the confines of Monroe’s public persona. Now, the trailer has been released, giving life to the photos many have scrupulously inspected for a similarity check between the two women. And who can blame them?
In playing the part, Williams has the uniquely difficult task of embodying a woman famous mostly for her looks. This is not to diminish Monroe’s cinematic triumphs; films like Some Like it Hot remain in the 20th century cultural canon. But on the flip side, who remembers much about The Seven Year Itch that doesn’t involve a white dress and a strategically-placed sidewalk grate? Monroe’s reputation and looks preceded her, leaving the core of an emotionally conflicted femme fatale in its wake. That core, incidentally, is a key aspect of My Week With Marilyn‘s plot.
The trailer itself endears in the same way that The King’s Speech did nearly a year ago. A charming British film, populated with some of the country’s brightest talents (Dame Judi Dench, Eddie Redmayne, Kenneth Branagh), illuminating a little-known snippet of a historical figure’s life that speaks volumes about their life as a whole. In fact, those Brits take up far more of the trailer’s two-minute run time than any scenes with Williams. The parts that she is in simply have her showing off her striking blue eyes and peroxide-blonde mop. Williams is a near sound-alike and a close act-alike, but a look-alike? Not quite.
But she is mostly convincing. Those short bits with Williams leave as strong as of an impression as the Anglo-filled rest of the trailer does. She grins, sashays and hip-pops so believably that it’s possible she’ll successfully carry a film that promises to carve an emotional outline out of an iconic silhouette. Maybe the film didn’t need someone so talented to fill the title role, if looks are what mostly mattered. But Williams comes close, and good acting certainly can’t hurt.