November 15, 2011

Michelle Williams watch a lot of Marilyn Monroe movies

When Michelle Williams got the role of Marilyn Monroe in the film My Week with Marilyn - a performance that is generating Oscar talk even before the movie has opened - the first thing she did was watch a lot of Marilyn Monroe movies.

"I started with The Prince and the Showgirl," she said. "I started watching that movie while my daughter was in school, absorbing as much as I could, pausing it, trying to emulate what I had seen, made a lot of mistakes, completely clueless, and then, one day, things started to come together."

Williams rigged up a costume of sorts - a tight dress, a pushup bra, high heels - then tied her knees together and tried to imitate Monroe's a famous walk, a slinky kind of wiggle that was almost a parody of sexuality. The way Monroe carried herself was far from what Williams was used to.

"As I talk to you now, I'm hunched over a desk, my shoulders are sloped, my posture is bad, my head is down," Williams said, talking by phone. "None of that is Marilyn Monroe. So I had a long ways to go from where I naturally live, from where my body, after 31 years, has learned to sort of settle."

Then she invited friends over to tell her how she looked, "to tell me when things were working and, when something felt good inside, it was also looking good outside."

That was only the start of the work -"There were other things that had to be got" - that results in a performance that not only captures Monroe's famous breathy voice and little-girl eroticism, but also goes beyond impersonation. Williams, who resembles Monroe only superficially, transforms herself on screen.

She started with the 1957 movie The Prince and the Showgirl because that's the subject matter of My Week with Marilyn. The film is based on the memoirs of the late Colin Clark, a young film assistant - and son of art historian Sir Kenneth Clark - who got a job with Sir Laurence Olivier's production company. Olivier (played in the movie by Kenneth Branagh) was about to direct and co-star with Monroe in the comedy about an American performer who meets a Balkan prince in London. Clark became third assistant director on the film. He ended up befriending Monroe and, in his telling, had a near romance with her, even though she had just married playwright Arthur Miller.

It's partly a love story and partly a mini-biography of Monroe, who clashes with Olivier at every turn:She was a student of the Method, and he was from the let's-just-make-the-damn-film school of no-nonsense acting. She was often late to the set, or bed-ridden with the many drugs she was taking to calm her fears that she wasn't good enough.

That backstage Marilyn was a person Williams had to discover, as well.

"I missed a major point about her in the beginning, which is that the Marilyn Monroe that we know and love is a character," she said. "It's a character that she created and played into perfection for all of us. But it wasn't her. And everything that I've read supports the idea that she was quite an ordinary-looking girl with an ordinary walk, an ordinary voice - that she had the kind of face that could fall apart in between glances, and that 'Marilyn Monroe' was a burst of energy that she put forth.

"And because she was as talented an actress as she was, she pulled it off seamlessly. So it makes you feel when you're watching her that that must be who she was, so it's very easy to get attached to this idea of a hyper-sexualized walk and a sort of babyish, kittenish voice, because we want that to be real, we want that to be possible. But in fact, there was an entirely different human being underneath all of that."

Williams says Monroe was able to switch between the two personas - from the lonely woman who was raised Norma Jeane Baker to the Hollywood sex symbol - almost like a magic trick.

"She would go from being a face in the crowd to having the entire crowd turn around and stare at her. It was an energetic switch she was able to make inside of her."

It's something all actors do, although most don't carry such an iconic image into public. Williams herself came to the public eye in the TV series Dawson's Creek. Her film work since then has been varied, but she has played her share of unhappy wives, such as:Academy Award-nominated performances as the wife of a gay cowboy in Brokeback Mountain and the unhappy wife in a strained marriage in Blue Valentine, as well as the murdered wife in Shutter Island and the woman torn between her husband and a neighbour in the upcoming Sarah Polley film, Take This Waltz. Monroe is another one.

Williams' own story also has a famous tragedy, the accidental drug overdose in 2008 of Heath Ledger, with whom she had a daughter, Matilda. But she was interested in Marilyn Monroe long before that. As a little girl, she decorated her room with a photograph of Monroe, a shot of the actress dancing in a field in Connecticut, where she was living with Miller.

"I grew up with her looking over me as I slept," Williams said. "I suppose I was inexplicably drawn to her from an early age, like so many people are. There is something about her."

Part of that was her elusive character.

"Contradiction is always a neat thing in any human being. And maybe it was the extremes in her that made her so irresistible, but also made her life so painful -because you can't portray those dramatics without experiencing them first."

I asked Williams if playing Monroe left her with similar feelings.

"I hate to make it sound like it was a hardship," she said. "Every movie that I make carves out like a new little space, and I kind of stay there for a while. Because it's not destructive for me to do it and I am able to manage some kind of separation.

"So yeah, there are ways that the characters play on you, or puppet you, or something. But . . . aside from having a healthy and happy six-year-old daughter, the greatest joy of my life is to be given these characters and be allowed to play them. So I feel super-friggin' lucky. Mostly."

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