Michelle Williams stars in a movie where she is sidelined by the plot- how did that happen? No one involved would ever admit it, but she is the sugar, the cherry, the charm, even the star, but playing Marilyn Monroe is viewed as an ornamental project. The irony here is extreme: a biopic film has been made about one of the greatest icons in film history, and, just as in life, she was treated like the frosting and not the cake.
Forgive my references to food. I just couldn’t help but notice that Williams plays Monroe with this extraordinary hunger. She is searching with her eyes and reaching with her limbs: awake and alive, and proud, yet fearful. She was Ms. Monroe. She was one of two things about ‘My Week With Marilyn‘ that made the movie bearable: the beauty, and the second was Dame Judi Dench (I bow- she’s magnificent). Why, then, was this a film about a boy who held her hand? Why do we start and end with a boy, when it is Marilyn’s film in performance (with Williams) and material (she is the title, after all)? Why must this film -of all the material out there- place the lady herself as a centerpiece rather than a full lead? There are so many ways to frame the same question, and still I can only assume, with what little clarity the exercise of rephrasing has afforded me, that the answer has something to do with history itself.
Our history, particularly in the West, if one of forefathers. We know about our presidents, but what of their wives and daughters? “What of them?” you may think. Logic says that if there are no mothers mentioned, they must not have done anything of worthy of being recorded. The truth (a problematic term, I know) is that there were women who influenced history, on record. They have not been included in the history books children read in school and not a whole lot has been devoted to their work specifically, let alone their influence alongside the men of their respective eras. If we have no foremothers to speak of, how can we understand the highly visible, but not much known, women of film history? I do not think we can. This is a problem.
Marilyn Monroe, and many other very public, sought after figures of the 20th Century (and arguably before), came to fame by way of sex appeal. The ladies are, therefore, not “mothers” to history, let alone foremothers, who could teach us much of anything on a serious level. They have entertainment value, which people do not really value, as it is so highly compartmentalized. Popular culture is, I might just go so far as to exclaim, completely a product of women and sex. Due to the nature of the appeal, women are all at once very important, as people become attached to their entertainment, and then again not to be taken seriously. I find this to be an intriguing paradox.
With Williams as Monroe, audiences may behold this paradox in all its absurdity. Williams is amazingly gifted and daring. She openly idolizes Monroe as one of the greatest screen actresses of all time. The actress herself was subject to the influence of this long-gone beauty, well before she ever considered playing her on screen. The wiggle, the voice, the slightest of mannerisms- Williams got it. You could even say that she is it. Williams has gone dark, and broken, and misunderstood, in her previously acclaimed roles, and after all of those deep parts, she was gifted a role that allowed her surface, entertainment value…and, in theory, undercover, much more. Monroe was dark, misunderstood, and broken– Williams had done it all, but she didn’t have the chance to experience the surface: to be objectified, even momentarily, something her character struggled with as a daily reality (which is what makes her so fascinating and sad all at once).
To return to the original point, Monroe is a product of history, as we all are, but she also lived as something “produced”, and is now, with this new view, also a production of our imagination: this film, and yet not Williams’s brilliant portrayal, reinforces the idea that Marilyn was not actually something worthy of being central without being sensualized. She is on a pedestal in “My Week” like never before, because today filmmakers should know better than to underestimate the power of feminine appeal as something deeper, worthy of carrying a storyline.
The girl-on-a-pedestal thing works like a charm, as does putting Monroe’s name on things. The story of a boy, who gets to go skinny dipping with and watch a goddess cry, is not so sweet and simple. Why did they choose his story of her, and not something of her own, in tribute to the depth Williams brings forth in that angelic face of hers? This questions haunts me, as it stands that Marilyn Monroe is better known to most people than Aphra Behn (England’s first professional woman writer), Hertha Ayrton (whose inventions saved thousands of lives in both World Wars), and Murasaki Shikibu (who penned the world’s first novel) combined, and we still do not see her full and deep on screen. Since we know of her, is she not worthy of this kind of remembrance? If women knew they had a historical presence, would we have more of an appreciation for actresses like Monroe- or even a new vision? I like to imagine that when a generation of children know the names of the women creators above, the female icons of popular culture will be absorbed with more respect, as will women off-screen, who express themselves in all of their beauty, inside and out.