Of all the screen goddesses that Hollywood has produced, there is no more enduring icon than Marilyn Monroe. Her career spanned just 16 years, but she remains the gold standard of sex symbols. From souvenir kitsch to Warhol silkscreens, her face is ubiquitous. Everyone from Madonna to Lady Gaga pays her homage. And when Lindsay Lohan needs to transfuse her impoverished glamour with some hard currency, she strips for Playboy, cloning the cover pose that launched the magazine, and Monroe’s career, in 1953. But an actress who actually dares to play Marilyn onscreen faces a huge challenge, not just in simulating how she looked, talked and moved, but in breaking through the platinum icon to find the woman behind it.
In My Week With Marilyn, Michelle Williams does that. She doesn’t just get away with it, she incarnates Monroe with such delicate precision and luminous depth that it’s thrilling to watch. She may not seem an obvious choice. The indie gamine—cast as troubled wives in Brokeback Mountain, Blue Valentine and Sarah Polley’s upcoming Take This Waltz—lacks Marilyn’s ample curves, and hasn’t exactly cultivated herself as a sex symbol. Which makes her transformation that much more miraculous. “You have to have courage to take on a part like this,” British director Simon Curtis told Maclean’s. “It’s like a young actor taking on Hamlet. People’s excitement in seeing her performance is palpable.”
Williams pulls off this feat of acting in a movie that is about acting. Based on memoirs by Colin Clark—who fell under Monroe’s spell while serving as a 23-year-old gofer on The Prince and the Showgirl—the story spans just a narrow slice of her life while shooting the 1957 comedy at London’s Pinewood Studios. She’s cast opposite an imperious Sir Laurence Olivier (Kenneth Branagh), who’s also directing. Terrified by Olivier, and paralyzed by anxiety, Marilyn seeks refuge in pills and the maternal comfort of method acting coach Paula Strasberg (Zoë Wanamaker). With her fresh marriage to Arthur Miller (Dougray Scott) already crumbling, she takes a shine to Clark (Eddie Redmayne), a callow kid who’s sharp enough to appreciate her dilemma: “Olivier,” he tells her, “is a great actor who wants to be a film star. You’re a film star who wants to be a great actress. This movie will not help either of you.”
The friction between Monroe and Olivier illuminates the classic split between two schools of acting—the American method, which works from the inside out, and the British reliance on external technique. “Acting is all about truth and if you can fake it you’ll have a jolly good career,” says Olivier, adding that “trying to teach Marilyn how to act is like trying to teach Urdu to a badger.”
But Monroe’s inability to fake it is what made her a much greater actress than she gets credit for. My Week With Marilyn dramatizes her missteps, her flubbed lines. But to look at The Prince and the Showgirl now is to see her acting circles around Olivier. As the kindly Sybil Thorndike (Judi Dench) tartly reminds her Brit colleagues in My Week, “None of the rest of you really know how to act for the camera. It’s a rare gift.”
Williams conjures that presence; you can’t take your eyes off her. She captures many Marilyns: the fluttery public persona, the siren who melts on camera—and the heartbreaking fragility of a woman lost to her own fame. The irony is that Williams, an actress in consummate control of her craft, has to pretend to be an actress petrified she can’t act. “Michelle is a brilliant investigator of complicated psychology,” says Curtis. “That’s what gives the performance such nuance and texture.” Adding to the resonance is the fact that Curtis filmed at Pinewood Studios. Williams, who turned 30 during the shoot—the same age as her character—even used Monroe’s old dressing room.
Marilyn was one of the first test pilots of modern celebrity. Now that her image is cemented into the firmament, it’s easy to forget that in her time, fame was a more innocent, and dangerous, game. Expect Michelle Williams to win the Oscar. She has redeemed the icon by revealing the actress Marilyn never had a chance to be.