I was a little surprised when I learned that Michelle Williams would play Marilyn Monroe in The Weinstein Company’s film My Week with Marilyn due to hit theaters on November 4. I wondered how successful can a meek actress, albeit a good actress, portray an iconic sex symbol who was bigger than life.
Norma Jean Baker was an intelligent and conflicted brunette who came to Hollywood to become a serious actress after years of living in foster homes. She arrived in Hollywood emotionally damaged. What she eventually became was largely a product of the studios. I wouldn’t have been able to envision Norma Jean as Marilyn Monroe, yet that is exactly who she became. Michelle Williams has received a tremendous amount of praise for her acting talent, most notably in Blue Valentine and before that in Brokeback Mountain where she had to utter the nearly impossible-to-authentically-deliver line, “Don’t try and fool me no more, Ennis; I know what it means! Jack Twist. Jack Nasty! You didn’t go up there to fish!” Michelle has the respect that Marilyn has been quoted as saying she was never given the opportunity to truly earn. Monroe states, “Some people have been unkind. If I say I want to grow as an actress, they look at my figure. If I say I want to develop, to learn my craft, they laugh. Somehow they don’t expect me to be serious about my work.”
Marilyn’s early work in The Asphalt Jungle and All About Eve was well received and she earned a Golden Globe nomination for her acclaimed work in Bus Stop. Unfortunately, her type casting as a ditsy blonde limited her roles even though she studied and became an exemplary actress. I believe Michelle has the subtleness and the vulnerability to capture Marilyn’s personality, but does she have the sex symbol quality that epitomized Marilyn Monroe? Ironically, the very thing that Monroe detested, “A sex symbol becomes a thing. I hate being a thing.”
So much about Marilyn Monroe was her beauty, her ability to seduce men with an innocence that was anything but innocent. But herein lies the rub, if Norma Jean could be transformed into Marilyn then why not Michelle? Only time will tell. Monroe’s star power was undeniable and her continued popularity 49 years after her death is indicative of not just a star, but an icon. These are very big shoes to fill and I have to believe that Michelle is feeling a little of that pressure.
In contrast to Marilyn’s presence, Michelle has always been quiet with subtle performances. In fact, I have never seen Michelle appear larger than life in any of her roles or public appearances. She’s good at what she does, but at this point I am asserting that she is not Marilyn. However, Williams claims that she has never felt so liberated as when she was playing Monroe. Stating that being Marilyn has helped her find her true voice. She is less shy, less meek, less introverted than she has ever been before. I have to admit that the photograph of Williams as Monroe lying on the sofa required me to do a double take. Nevertheless, Williams still does not quite exude the charisma of the iconic Monroe. This concerns me as I wonder how authentic her performance will be if we don’t believe that she embodies Marilyn. This movie will not open with a wimper. Word of mouth will make or break this film. Her portrayal will either garner Academy attention or she will be blasted by the critics. There will be nothing in between, there simply can’t be.
Near the end of her career Monroe stated, “Being a sex symbol is a heavy load to carry, especially when one is tired, hurt and bewildered.” I believe that Williams can capture tired, hurt and bewildered as good as any actress out there. But none of that will work if we do not believe her to be not just a sex symbol, but the sex symbol of the 20th century.