Thursday, December 15, 2011

My Week With Marilyn

It's time to look at this Michelle Williams thing. In the history of the Academy Awards, 162 performers have received at least three nominations for acting. Say what you will about the Oscars and lord knows they take some weird swings and misses…but they don't take three swings and misses on one person. It's safe to call anyone with three nominations a legitimately good-or-better actor.

With nods already in the bag for Blue Valentine and Brokeback Mountain, and a third nomination looking very likely (hell, maybe even a win) in line for My Week With Marilyn, some will argue that I'm very late to the party in acknowledging that Williams is already a hell of an actress. This is no doubt true, but I'm just continually stunned by the fact that seven years ago, Williams was known as nothing more than the weak link of the Dawson's Creek cast. Now she has two-going-on-three Oscar nominations?! What an upset. It's not like the Van der Beek/Holmes/Jackson triforce of power were known for being great actors or anything, but given how little focus Williams got in comparison to those three, this is like if Ringo had been the Beatle with the best solo career.

And make no mistake, Williams is a legitimately terrific actress, MWWM being the latest example. Given the supremely tough challenge of playing Marilyn Monroe, Williams could have chosen to just do an imitation (sticking to the Monroe personality quirks that we all know from 60 years of pop culture) or she could've gone the other familiar route of playing 'Norma Jeane,' in order to portray the 'real woman' behind the persona and then basically done whatever she wished. Instead, Williams goes for about a half-and-half mix of the Monroe persona and another character that basically represents a distilled "Marilyn" that is more human yet no less charismatic and attractive.

It's a tough balancing act, particularly since the movie is all about how this budding filmmaker named Colin meets and has a relationship with Marilyn while she was shooting 'The Prince And The Showgirl' in England in 1957. So Williams has to play her take on the role while still being "Marilyn Monroe" enough to live up to the fantasy image of the Colin Clark character. Yet Williams is more than capable of the task and does about as well as one can while playing one of the most well-known figures of the 20th century. Off the top of my head, only Jamie Foxx's Ray Charles or Morgan Freeman's Nelson Mandela have delivered comparable biopic performances in recent memory. It's an easy thing to screw up --- Joaquin Phoenix as Johnny Cash and Will Smith as Muhammad Ali both didn't *really* hit the mark as their targets, but were still applauded for coming reasonably close.

Four paragraphs in, I should probably mention that MWWM as an overall film is pretty average. Clark is such an empty vessel that nobody really cares about his week as Monroe's companion. In a way, Williams' performance sort of works against the story in this respect; she's so alluring that the movie's premise of "gee, what would it be like to spend a week with Marilyn Monroe?" is immediately answered as, "well duh, it's awesome." Then again, another actress in the lead role likely wouldn't have been as good, dooming the whole project to the level of a second-rate TV movie.

Much in the way that Homer woke up in the dead of night screaming about how he hates Ted Koppel, I think I had a similar realization about Kenneth Branagh. I just do not like the guy's acting style. Other than his performances in Hamlet and Much Ado About Nothing, I have not enjoyed a single Branagh performance. He played a terrible Woody Allen avatar in Celebrity, muffed the hard-to-muff role of Professor Lockhart in the second Harry Potter movie, and just when you think Branagh at least has Shakespeare in his wheelhouse, he hams it up as Iago in the Oliver Parker adaptation of Othello. In MWWM, he plays Laurence Olivier and does exactly what Williams doesn't do with Monroe. Whereas Williams is playing a character, Branagh basically just goes a MadTV-caliber impression of Olivier's voice and calls it a day. It boggles my mind that Branagh himself actually has a bit of Oscar buzz for this role. Actually, let me check the records…ok, if he did get nominated, it would only be Branagh's second nomination --- after Henry V, which I impossibly have yet to watch --- so my whole "actors with three Oscar nods are the tops" premise wasn't just blown to bits within this very post. If Branagh is nominated over my man John Hawkes (who is just phenomenal in 'Martha Marcy May Marlene'), there will be hell to pay.

So in short, My Week With Marilyn has a great lead performance, lovely British scenery, nice period costumes and art direction, and that's about it. Williams' shot at an actual win on Oscar night will be hampered by the lower quality of her picture, but given that nobody is exactly going crazy about Albert Nobbs (Glenn Close's entry), The Iron Lady (can even Meryl Streep make Margaret Thatcher sympathetic?), Viola Davis in The Help (despite its high likelihood of a Best Picture nomination) or Young Adult (Charlie Theron's entry, which I REALLY still want to see), Williams will still carry a lot of momentum into the race. If she does win, I will personally send her $5 if she begins her speech with, "Fuck you, Pacey!"

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