Thursday, January 5, 2012

OMGMichelleWilliamsISMarilynMonroe, or: When Will Everyone Realize That Mimicry Does Not Always Equal "Best"

My Week With Marilyn is a piece of shit. With its BBC-level production values, a banal script full of clichés and dialogue that ranges from generic as all hell to "Holy fuck, people got paid to write turds like Marilyn telling Colin at the end of the movie, 'Don't forget me,' as if spending a week with one of the biggest celebrities in history is somehow going to slip his mind one day," and, perhaps most glaringly, an utter lack of any interesting new idea or thought, serving only as a cash-in on the infamy and legend of Marilyn Monroe, this film makes The King's Speech and its Wall look positively ripe with feeling and cinematic flourish. But you didn't need me to tell you any of this. I mean, you all have functioning eyeballs and eardrums, right? No, what I really want to talk about is this idea that an actor mimicking a real life person, preferably one who we are all familiar with and has identifiable quirks, somehow has more skill than an actor who conceptualizes a character from the page to the camera. Obviously, I'm not speaking in absolutes here, as there are "mimicry" performances that work and others that no one is particularly fond of, but it's a general trend in "important" movies that, after witnessing My Week With Marilyn, I have realized is getting completely out of hand.

Michelle Williams is an actress I respect and admire far more than I actually love. Her work with director Kelly Reichart, which consists of Wendy and Lucy and Meek's Cutoff, is good for what it is (cerebral and naturalist actressing pushed to the extreme), but it is rarely the kind of work that elicits any sense of excitement from me. Last year's Blue Valentine, which gave Williams' much more narrative to hang her introverted, low key acting style on, was the first time I truly loved a performance of hers, unbiased by the "Genius!" cries that usually surround her. With that said, how sad will it be that after that revelatory performance Williams will probably win the Oscar for her Marilyn Monroe in My Week With Marilyn? She's not bad by any means, but, my God, could people get any more worked up about such an inconsequential, run-of-the-mill performance? Williams does not nor will she ever possess the movie star mojo necessary to carry off the Marilyn Monroe needed for this film. If she was playing "The Actress" in a remake of the Nicolas Roeg's Insignificance, which relies on the Marilyn essence but asks for far more from its leading lady than My Week With Marilyn does, then I can easily see why Williams would be an appropriate choice. But My Week With Marilyn is such a flimsy, superficial film, it never asks for Williams' Marilyn to be anything other than Effervescent Star or Overwhelmed, Depressed, Close-to-the-Edge Star. You can tell Williams is straining for something, practically anything to really sink her teeth into, even if this something challenges the straining-to-be-sophisticated narrative. During one "crucial" scene, Marilyn and her confidante Colin run into a group of fans wanting to meet her. "Let me give them Marilyn," she remarks to Colin, before going into a parody of the Marilyn as sexual bimbo routine. The problem is that she's not giving us a different take on Marilyn, merely recreating the one she has played for the previous 80 minutes or the one we know from history or a quick Wikipedia search. We already know everything about this Marilyn.

The same thing could be said about Kenneth Branagh's much ballyhooed take on Sir Laurence Olivier. He gets the accent right, and even looks like Larry at certain angles, but what does he add to the role that we don't already know about him? He's vaguely funny at times, and he's a bit of a douche. That's all we've got. We learn nothing new about his character that we didn't already know from minute one. And he's hardly interesting enough to be a vivid sidekick, like Melissa McCarthy in Bridesmaids. "But, but, he practically becomes Olivier!" you'll hear supporters cry. So? The SNL cast members "become" various celebrities every week, yet you don't see people rushing around giving them Emmy's for every convincing De Niro or Denzel. Don't get me wrong, mimicry is extremely difficult and, given the chance, I don't even think I could do a proper imitation of myself, but it's only one component of a performance. If we don't connect to a performance on any other level, whether intellectually, emotionally or according to any other criteria, then what in the hell does it matter if they sound like Olivier? It's not a complete performance. And, in Williams' case, she doesn't even get the mimicry right, for she sounds and acts like how you would imagine Michelle Williams straining to be upbeat and perky at a party after her mother tells her to stop being such a Gloomy Gus all the time. In a blonde wig, of course.

Listen, I'm all for biopics with a point of view and stars playing stars, and I understand the appeal. But we can't continue to place "playing a real person" on a pedestal while ignoring acting that is either less showy, more difficult or funny. Especially when said acting fails to elucidate anything new about the person they are playing or about some grander theme. Mimicry can help an actor find their character, but let's not continue to mistake it for an actual character. My Week With Marilyn: D-, Williams *, Branagh *

1 comment:

Walter L. Hollmann said...

One month after seeing the film, which I enjoyed, I realize the only thing I remember is Zoe Wanamaker, who actually made Paula Adler into both a pretentious Svengali *and* an actual mother figure trying to protect her crazy charge. Otherwise, I eventually found myself realizing that Williams' take on Marilyn was surprisingly superficial. And you're right, it all came to me when she "did" Marilyn. She's been "doing" Marilyn all day! What's so different now? Saddens me to say this, but of all the nominees for SAG *and* Globe, she's at the bottom of my list.