At NYFF: Michelle Williams Talks Up Wry, Romantic My Week With Marilyn

It almost wouldn't be the New York Film Festival these days without Michelle Williams, whose My Week With Marilyn marks the actress's fourth effort in five years to grace Manhattan's venerated fall-movie showcase. It's inarguably her highest-profile work to splash down here -- a world premiere debuting in the festival's prestigious Centerpiece slot, glowing with awards-season ambition and hinging almost entirely on Williams's risky interpretation of Marilyn Monroe. But come on: We're talking about Michelle Williams here. Of course she pulled it off.

Based on a pair of memoirs by Colin Clark, My Week With Marilyn breezes around the pitfalls of the modern biopic, instead bringing to life a notorious cultural moment -- the making of The Prince and the Showgirl, the troubled Monroe/Laurence Olivier collaboration from 1956 -- through Clark's disarming coming-of-age perspective. An art historian's son with designs on a filmmaking career, Clark (played here by Eddie Redmayne) persists and finagles his way into Olivier's inner circle ahead of Showgirl's production. Finally (almost punitively) assigned the deceptively titled job of third assistant director, the 23-year-old finds himself fetching tea, booking accommodations and, before he knows it, retrieving the tardy, insecure American sexpot from her dressing room at Pinewood Studios.

Thus begins a simmering courtship between the two, chaste at face value but unswervingly romantic in its coalescence of privilege and damage. The whole film, directed with aplomb by Simon Curtis, inhabits and traverses the space between those dynamics: Monroe exhausts the vexed Olivier (Kenneth Branagh), alienates her new husband Arthur Miller (Dougray Scott), captivates her great British co-star Dame Sybil Thorndike (Judi Dench), and is the perfumed gust that sends Olivier's wife Vivien Leigh (a beautifully vulnerable Julia Ormond) tumbling over the precipice of middle age. (In real life, Leigh originated Monroe's Showgirl role on the London stage in Terrence Rattigan's source play, The Sleeping Prince.) Fully aware of and thoroughly destabilized by her effect on this pedigreed class, Monroe's confidence in Clark comes as a threat to some and a surprise to all.

Yet the duo's connection enables Monroe to pursue crucial moments away from her doomed screen persona. Williams thrives in both modes, to say nothing of her performance of Monroe as Showgirl's titular Elsie Marina. Combining the three -- often in the same scene, directed by Olivier within direction by Curtis -- proves a nimble feat of craft that eschews convention, mythology and everything we think we know about Marilyn Monroe.

In a press conference following this morning's screening, Williams emphasized the subtleties separating Marilyn onscreen and off -- nuances lost in the unfortunate tradition of, as NYFF programmer Scott Foundas put it, "bad impersonators" who've reincarnated Monroe for the camera.

"Because the previous representations of her were more of that ilk, it felt like that was kind of the first thing that made me think, 'Well, maybe I can explore this,'" Williams said. "It was a decision made kind of in the safety of my own home; I didn't really consider the larger implications of it. And it was a very, very slow process. It all started at home. It all started with watching movies, listening to interviews, poring over books. It was just something that I put on in my living room -- mimic a walk, or figure out how exactly it is she's holding her mouth.

"The first sort of big discovery that I stumbled on was that [for] Marilyn Monroe herself, 'Marilyn Monroe' was a character that she played," Williams continued. "The image that you're most familiar with? There's a person underneath there. That was the first big discovery: That it was carefully honed, but it was artifice. It was honed to where you couldn't tell that it was artifice. It felt so real, but it was something that she'd studied and perfected and crafted. So once I discovered that that was a layer, I was finding out what that layer was and getting underneath it. It was a long and ungainly process."

But it pays off. I enjoyed the hell out of My Week With Marilyn, from its intermittent song-and-dance interludes ("It still comes up on my iPod all the time -- all the Marilyn Monroe," Williams said of the songs she sang for the film) to its wry period infatuations to its clipped classical austerity laid waste by Monroe's woozy compulsions. Mostly, though, Marilyn succeeds as a loving movie about movie love -- the lightness of its bliss, the heartache of its illusions. None of the film's personal infatuations (particularly that of an extraneous wardrobe girl played by Emma Watson) yield quite the charge of the lush moving pictures they serve.

It's almost ghostly in a way -- and to hear Redmayne tell it today, maybe not by accident.

"I think one of the great things of the whole production was the sense that we shot in the same studio that The Prince and the Showgirl was shot in." turned to Williams. "And... your dressing room?"

"My dressing room was Marilyn's actual dressing room when she was making Prince and the Showgirl," Williams said.

"And Parkside House is playing Parkside House," Curtis said of the star's rented English residence. "So when Marilyn is sitting on those stairs having looked at Miller's journal, Michelle sat on the very stairs that Marilyn would have sat at. One of the great moments for me was when we shot that wonderful dance from The Prince and the Showgirl. We were actually seeing that on the same stage -- on the very spot -- where I think it was in 1956 that Marilyn actually danced. In that very spot! It was incredibly moving and incredibly special."

Indeed. Keep an eye on Movieline for more about My Week With Marilyn as its Nov. 4 release date approaches.

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