Oscar and Indie Spirit Best Actress Nominee: Michelle Williams in My Week With Marilyn

This is a guest review by Danielle Winston. 
“My Week With Marilyn” is set in 1957 London; the film is told through the eyes of Colin Clark, a twenty-three-year-old Londoner who lands a gopher job as a third assistant to the director, Lawrence Olivier (Kenneth Branagh) working on a film that would later become “The Prince and the Show Girl.” There he meets Marilyn Monroe, newly married to Arthur Miller, and has a relationship with her that lasts a week.
In the film, Michelle Williams resists the urge to make Monroe into a familiar cartoon, even though the script is rich in both the icon’s clichés and complexities, with expected poses, lines and mannerisms we’ve come to know as Marilyn-isms.
Williams–who has a naturally earthy presence–digs beneath Monroe’s facade and chips away at the woman underneath. In a subtly drawn performance, she lets us a glimpse into the personal world of not just the movie star–but also the massively powerful woman. This Monroe, with her soft whispery voice, does not lull us into thinking her a victim. Instead she portrays a woman so uncomfortable with her own strength, she’s continually battling opposing forces inside her own psyche and projects the demeanor of a frightened child, wrapped in an overtly sensual woman’s body. We have the sense that she is always silently asking permission for something–but we’re not sure what or why. With her pale blue eyes and sweet girlie smile, Williams’ Monroe is eternally blameless for her actions, no matter how she inconveniences those working with her: forgetting lines, showing up hours late or not at all…it seems as though she could set the film set on fire and we would find a way to excuse her. 
Michelle Williams as Marilyn Monroe
So raw, sensitive and utterly vulnerable, Monroe has us and the characters in the film, wound around her finger so airtight, it leaves us wondering if it’s all just a clever act, and if there isn’t really a manipulative diva in there someplace, acting her pants off just to get what she wants. But then…she twists us yet again, and we decide, no woman could really be that good. Or could she?
Not quite everyone is so accepting of Marilyn’s careless ways. Olivier is at his wits end trying to direct her and repeatedly tries to wrangle Marilyn into his version of what he expected he was getting when he ordered up this particular blonde bombshell to star in his film. He doesn’t realize how terrified she is of him: in awe of his talent, Monroe’s hoping to learn all she can from such a great master. Unfortunately, when she bumbles lines in rehearsal, on the verge of tears, Olivier interprets it as a personal affront and never truly understands how much respect she has for him.
When Marilyn is running late for the first table read, young Clark, smitten with Marilyn on sight, goes to her dressing room and finds her acting coach Paula Strasberg, standing guard at the door. Strasberg attempts to shoo him away like a mosquito, but Marilyn, seated by her mirror, studying her lines, barefaced, smiles at him kindly and says, “Excuse the horrible face.” It’s as though she revealing a secret: she’s unacceptable in her own skin, and asks to be forgiven the discretion of being human. 

Williams’ Monroe is a riddled with contradictions. Without any attempt to hide her insecurities, she’s a woman on a path to self-discovery. Even while being subdued by her handlers with pills and alcohol, she still yearns to be more than a male-centric view of femininity. And yet interesting enough, it’s that very fabricated celluloid image, which she switches off and on like a neon stop sign, skillfully working to her advantage.
After only being married three weeks to Arthur Miller, the couple have a nasty argument: Monroe feels betrayed and believes Miller’s stolen bits of her for his writing. Frustrated with his new wife and her unruly personality, Miller leaves the set, and Marilyn, to her own devices.
We’ve all seen those blasé versions of Monroe where she can’t exist without a man to fill the void and they make us wonder how much was true…here’s where the film takes on a different tone: no longer the plaything to be conquered by an older man, this time Monroe decides to call the sexual shots. After discovering Colin is only twenty-three, she tells him, “I’m 30. I guess that makes me an old lady to you.” In ‘57 being thirty was a milestone in a female’s life. No longer thought of as a blushing girl, Monroe was now a mature woman who had already been married three times.
Monroe was older, yes, although nearly as ancient as Olivier’s wife, Vivien Leigh, who at 43 was considered too over the hill to reprise the role which she originated on stage in, “The Prince and the Showgirl.” When Monroe tells Olivier she thought Leigh was wonderful in the role, he quips that she’s far too old for the film. At that moment, we see sadness wash over Monroe’s carefree expression, and we’re not sure whether it’s compassion for her fellow actress she feels or the impending sting of her own expiration date looming on the horizon.
As we watch Monroe ensnare the naive Clark within her charming web, we know he doesn’t stand a chance against this force of womanliness; all we can do is hope she’ll be kind when she’s finished with him. The seduction begins when Clark innocently walks in on her naked in her dressing room. Instead of covering up, she very slowly wraps her towel back on, making sure he’s had an eyeful first, and then asks, “Are you afraid of me?” And even though he answers “no” we wonder if he should be.
When Clark is ordered not to see her or he’ll be fired, Monroe takes the upper hand once again, showing us she’s not one to be pushed around. In a ballsy move, she hides in the backseat of a car and has Clark picked up and whisked away to a nearby lake where she takes him skinny-dipping. Whimsical and irresistible are her methods, but after Clark is warned to stay away from her or risk getting his heart shattered, it’s clear that while Monroe may’ve looked soft and delicate, this blonde sure wasn’t stupid, and she was much more resilient than she appeared. 

In 1957, women didn’t have meetings or marches to unite them; instead they were separated, competitive and envious of the physical attributes of each other, left to suffer in isolation at the hands of men who shaped their images, dictating what was “desirable.” Monroe took that glittering image, ran with it and used it to become a sensation.
Monroe’s sexual onscreen presence, combined with her blonde hair and baby-voice had studios and audiences typecasting her as dumb. In her own quiet way, she had been studying method acting with Lee Strasberg at the actor’s studio for quite some time, hoping to elevate her stature as a serious dramatic actress. Even though she was already a movie star, at the height of her career, she saw the chance to work with Olivier, one of the greats, as her chance.
Monroe and her teacher, Paula, Lee Strasberg’s second wife, had a strong mother-daughter dynamic in the film. Strasberg, an earnest, and intelligent woman, greatly admired Monroe’s raw talent. However when she’d express herself, telling Monroe she was truly a brilliant actress, Monroe would simply listen politely but took her words as no more than generous flattery.
Monroe’s dedication to method acting is a constant annoyance with Olivier. Not at all what he envisioned the kittenish actress would be; he was baffled by her contrary behavior. Stuck in old-school actor mode, he tells her, “Just be sexy. Isn’t that what you do?” Perhaps that’s one of the things she was apologizing for: not always being sexy.
While acting, with great focus, she searches for the truth in every line. To such an extent, if the realness isn’t there, she can’t even utter the words. Often what’s perceived as, “difficult behavior” is actually Monroe’s sincere desire to understand her role and deliver the best performance possible. 
Marilyn Monroe
Ultimately her involvement with Clark is a very safe choice. It borders on passionless, and seems to be more a spiritual connection than a physical one. In the end Clark is able to give the world’s biggest star a rare gift: solace in his innocence. And for a brief point in time the chance to recapture her own adolescence.
When Monroe asks if he’s in love with her, Clark replies, “You’re like some Greek Goddess to me.” In many ways Colin isn’t so different from all the other men Monroe has known; he still sees her as larger than life.
She tells him, “I don’t want to be a goddess. I just want to be loved like an ordinary girl.”
Marilyn may believe she longs for normalcy but what she demonstrates is the opposite; when Clark tries to rescue her by saying she can quit working and he’ll take care of her–without hesitation she refuses–not even sure what he’s saving her from or why. Clark tells her, maybe then she’d be happy. But Marilyn is confused. She already believed she was happy and doesn’t want to stop acting. Right then, Monroe is not a child but a strong woman who knows exactly what she wants.
Ultimately Williams’ portrayal of Monroe is so understated it appears effortless. It’s a performance that could only emerge by finding the character’s inner truth within each word, a thought-provoking performance that Monroe herself, who struggled to understand the realness in her acting, and her own life, would likely appreciate and perhaps even envy. 


Danielle Winston is a Manhattan based screenwriter and playwright. Her articles are regularly published in regional and National Magazines. She’s also a yoga teacher and creator of Writer’s Flow Yoga.

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