As we head into the heaviest-duty part of Oscar bait season, we're going to look at some of the performances that are getting a lot of attention this year. We begin with Michelle Williams in the Marilyn Monroe tale My Week With Marilyn.
Michelle Williams' performance in My Week With Marilyn is both the best part of the film and the biggest challenge to the narrative that it unwisely tries to grab onto in its closing minutes.
The problem starts with Colin Clark, who parlayed a brief week he spent with Monroe while she was filming The Prince And The Showgirl with Laurence Olivier into a book. Clark was employed as the third assistant director — basically a gofer and an assistant to Olivier — and wound up wrangling and befriending Monroe for a period of about nine days, during which, the film would have you believe, he was able to know the real Marilyn Monroe, to see into her soul, and to fall a bit in love with her, only to have his heart broken.
In the film, Clark is presented as a young man who is painfully decent and kind beyond his years, on whom Monroe quickly comes to rely almost entirely. He is vulnerable and naive, and unprepared for the inevitable letdown of seeing this shining star for a brief moment. But of course, the up side is that he has this brief connection with her, this moment of grace, person-to-person, and while it can't last, it becomes a magical memory tinged with the pain of the youthful love affair (even though there's not much to it beyond a single chaste kiss — and Monroe was, after all, married to playwright Arthur Miller at the time). As Judi Dench, playing an older actress on the film who wisely understands both Clark and Monroe, puts it, "First love is such sweet despair."
What makes the movie mesmerizing is that Williams' performance as an often drugged, always insecure, fundamentally lost Marilyn Monroe makes it absolutely clear that there is no relationship at all. There is no give and take, no moment of grace, no bittersweet young love affair to be sighed over in years to come — for her, there is nothing. This Marilyn Monroe is a bottomless pit of need and fear and a severe drug problem, and this Colin Clark is a young man drunk on celebrity and fantasy, whether he convinces himself that spending nine days with her makes them really truly friends or not.
At no time is Clark dealing with a real, authentic person who has any capacity to have any real feelings about him — to care about him or miss him in years to come. Monroe (in the film) is a miserable, confused woman who seems to have lost all ability to connect with other people in a genuine way, precisely because she's adopted a persona — capital Marilyn, capital Monroe — that people respond to positively and lovingly, and the rest of the time, she suffers from a bundle of neuroses that drive her to simply seek one affirming man after another to give her the false sense that someone loves her. And for him, he feels important and special because he's basking in both her majesty (as when she turns on the Marilyn character) and her dependency (as when she doesn't). She's making him feel like Prince Charming to a damsel in distress who nobody else gets to touch.
What Clark, in both the film and the book, doesn't seem to understand is that this is precisely what devoured Marilyn Monroe. The Monroe he knows in the film is a projection of his fantasy; she is an object of desire and pity, but she is not a human being. (She is, of course, but not as she relates to him.) She is a canvas on which to paint his fantasies about beautiful, perfect, sought-after women. She represents the fantasy that if you really got to know that beautiful, glorious actress of your dreams, she would be a lost soul who would cling to you; she would need you, and because she looms so large, you would grow to be a giant.
This isn't Colin Clark's week with Marilyn Monroe; it's just his week of feeling like a giant — the one man who the world's most famous woman wants to be with. There's nothing in it for Monroe except the phoniest of fleeting comforts, in exchange for which Clark gets to walk away claiming that she broke his heart, meaning they had a relationship, meaning he knows Marilyn Monroe.
If this seems like an ungenerous interpretation, know that it comes straight from Williams' wonderful, unsparing performance. In one scene when Clark comes to her while she's semi-conscious and tries to have some sort of exchange of deep feelings, Williams plays Marilyn as so lost and baffled and desperate that anyone trying to engage her emotionally is taking advantage by definition; no sane man would see that moment as one for anything other than tucking her into bed.
Colin clearly means no harm to Marilyn in these scenes; he's 23 years old and he's blinded by being around a fantasy figure. It's not malice, but it's incredibly misguided, and in fact, it's exploitative. This is what is destroying her — this need for everyone else to project their fantasies upon her, to see what they choose to see, to take from her a feeling of having touched something magical but to give nothing back to her. Colin Clark desperately wants to believe that he gave Marilyn Monroe some kind of respite from the life that was slowly killing her, but in fact, he was part of it, and Williams' emptied-out performance makes it clear that her heart is in none of this. It's not first love, sweet or not; it's just meeting a celebrity and being completely transfixed by her, and then packing on a rescue fantasy you're imposing on her.
The Clark-as-wounded-innocent narrative, which the movie largely remains ambivalent about until sentimentally swooning over it in the final scenes, might have flown if Monroe had been played by an actress who wanted to be more superstar-Monroe throughout. But Williams isn't interested in that. Most of the time, she seems sad and restless and only about half tuned in to what's happening. Much of the time, she doesn't really seem like Marilyn Monroe at all. Then again, much of the time, neither did Marilyn Monroe.
My Week With Marilyn is a good film, but it's better for the resistance its unconvincing, gauzy narrative encounters from its fiercely committed and honest lead actress. The film is afraid to confront just how completely unhelpful, and perhaps counterproductive, encounters like this were for Monroe herself — the closing words note that she went on to be a big success in Some Like It Hot, rather than noting that various people who considered themselves devoted to her took big and small bites out of her until she died, whether accidentally or intentionally, from an overdose of the same kinds of medications she used to function when she knew Clark. But Williams knows, and that's what keeps the project afloat.