Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Birthday Take: Michelle Williams in "My Week With Marilyn" (2011)

Michelle Williams in My Week With Marilyn
Welcome to The Birthday Take, a column dedicated to celebrating Oscar nominees and winners' birthdays by paying tribute to the work that got them noticed. This isn't meant to be an exhaustive retrospective, but more of a highlight of one nominated work that makes them noteworthy. The column will run whenever there is a birthday and will hopefully give a dense exploration of the finest performances and techniques applied to film. So please join me as we blow out the candles and dig into the delicious substance.

The Facts

Recipient: Michelle Williams
Born: September 9, 1980 (35 years old)
Nomination: Best Actress (nominated) for My Week With Marilyn as Marilyn Monroe

The Take

If there is an actress that I feel has unfortunately not gotten a lot of attention lately, it's Michelle Williams. While yes, there's a lot that's more indicative on her being more selective about work, I do feel that she hasn't gotten the due that is often given to Carey Mulligan or a contemporary that takes on very similar roles. While everyone else has done more mainstream fare, I think that it's interesting to see her in the independent cinema that sparkles. For what it's worth, it's hard to imagine anyone but her playing the roles in films like Blue Valentine, Meek's Cutoff, or the underrated Take This Waltz. She brings a certain charisma to the role that is quite exceptional. 

While I don't consider My Week With Marilyn to be her peak as an actress, I do think that it is reflective of her capabilities as a performer. In one of those few instances where an actor gets nominated for playing an actor who hasn't received an Oscar nomination, she delivers a spot on impersonation of the style icon during a very vulnerable shoot for a movie co-starring Laurence Olivier, played by Kenneth Branagh. While we get plenty of the familiar behind the scenes moments with their comical joy, this film mostly works because of those moments in which Monroe is vulnerable and falling apart. We see it from the perspective of an outsider, played by a then unknown Eddie Redmayne. It's full of the familiar struggles to be accepted and taken seriously.

To diverge for a paragraph, I do think that Monroe was far more talented than everyone gives her credit for. While she was typecast as the "dumb blonde," I do think that it was actually a great character that she played. Her job was to convince people she was dumb while being the smartest person in the room. This is entirely evident in films like Gentlemen Prefer Blondes or the inferior Bus Stop. Her jokes may be occasionally dumb, but she inevitably is smart because she's playing a ruse on us all. She doesn't appear to be as confident or strong as she actually is to protect her identity. In a large sense, I do think that Monroe was the better embodiment of female roles in the 50's. Her only issue is that she was misunderstood as that character without the subtext.

Which is what I think Williams brings to the role. If you are a fan in general of Monroe, you can understand her struggles within My Week With Marilyn. You recognize that she is a performer who wants to be accepted. She has the familiar problems that plague a lot of artists. Yet her desire to pull off a ruse that earned her the fame is necessary. She is so much more. Even if Williams has done better, I think that she did justice to Monroe by giving her that diversity that I don't think that most performers would have. It's not only a reflection of why Monroe is in general underrated, but why Williams deserves more credit. Yes, her contemporary roles give her far more enriching ideas, but it is here where she's allowed to cut loose and be something far more complicated.

I do hope that we'll be hearing from Williams sooner than later. She has been such a charismatic performer for so long that her momentary absence only makes her next project all the more promising. Here's hoping that whatever it is will be worthwhile, packing a punch and making us believe in her. In some ways, she is a less subversive type of Monroe. She has earned that success, but now I think she is fighting for a bigger credit to her impressive career. For now, we can look back and at least admit that she's done some great work, which is enough to make her vastly underrated.

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