Michelle Williams - At last, an actress brave enough to play Marilyn Monroe

Michelle Williams overcame qualms to play Monroe in a film about the star's battle with Laurence Olivier

Since Marilyn Monroe's untimely death, at only 36, in 1962, the Hollywood star has been the subject of many biographies and documentaries. Her chequered life-story has been told in TV movies, which delight in treating her as a macabre Cinderella figure – the waif-like would-be actress Norma Jeane Baker who, from being a Playboy centre-spread, blossomed as a major star only for her life and career to unravel in a tragic way.

Newer actresses, from Lindsay Lohan to Nicole Kidman, have done photo-shoots recreating famous Monroe roles and poses. She remains a source of fascination both to the public at large and to intellectuals and artists, who have sometimes waxed very pretentious about her. Norman Mailer, Joyce Carol Oates, her one-time husband Arthur Miller, Terry Johnson, JG Ballard and Andy Warhol are just some of the major cultural figures who have drawn on her life and persona in their work. However, very surprisingly, no major Hollywood film has yet been made about her.

"I suppose there is always a danger that people think [playing Monroe] is impersonation and there's not a huge amount to say," suggests David Parfitt, producer of My Week With Marilyn, a new film about Monroe. The film is based on two books by Colin Clark, son of Sir Kenneth (of Civilisation fame) and brother of Alan (of the Diaries notoriety), reflecting on his experiences as a young trainee assistant on The Prince and the Showgirl. The Eton and Oxford-educated Clark struck up an unlikely rapport with Monroe, escorting her round late 1950s England and even sharing a bed with her (albeit not having sex.)

Michelle Williams, who plays Monroe, is already being talked up as a front-runner for an Oscar nomination (something which Monroe never achieved.) Parfitt remembers that Williams was initially reluctant to take on the role. "I think she tried very hard to turn it down but, in the end, the script got her." Williams's performance received glowing reviews when the film premiered at New York Film Festival last month.

"Sexy, vulnerable, fragile, alluring, seductive, delectable, complex, and all things in between, she nails it," rhapsodised veteran critic and awards pundit Pete Hammond on website Deadline Hollywood. "Williams is a sure bet for Academy recognition," agreed Screen International's Howard Feinstein.

Long a favourite of US indie cinema, Williams is arguably better known to the wider cinema-going audience for her relationship with the late Heath Ledger than for the films she has made thus far. Her searing turn opposite Ryan Gosling as the young wife dealing with a crumbling marriage in Blue Valentine (2010) showed her capacity for bringing emotional depth to her performances. Internet gossip (denied by Parfitt) suggested that Scarlett Johansson had been in line to play the lead in My Week With Marilyn. However, Williams looks to have been astute casting. She is a character actor as much as she is a star: someone bound to explore Monroe's motivations and feelings and not to rely on mannerism or to try to trade too heavily on the star's glamour.

You can see, too, why a film like My Week With Marilyn might work when a full-blown biopic wouldn't. The film focuses on a very specific moment in Monroe's career. As accounts of the making of The Prince and the Showgirl have made clear, this was a famously troubled production. Its director and star Laurence Olivier (played by Kenneth Branagh) didn't hit it off at all with Monroe.

Arthur Miller, also with her during shooting, wrote in his autobiography Timebends of the "menace" Marilyn saw in Olivier: "Finally she came to believe he was trying to compete with her like another woman, a coquette drawing the audience's sexual attention away from herself." Neither Olivier nor Miller cared much for Paula Strasberg, Monroe's acting coach and Method guru. Miller accused her of weighing down Monroe, a "natural comedienne", with "half-digested, spitballed imagery and pseudo-Stanislavskian parallelisms that left her unable to free her own native joyousness". Olivier's antagonism toward his co-star was heightened, David Parfitt speculates, by his sense that she was out-performing him. "[The Prince and the Showgirl] is not Olivier at his best. It is very stagey, very staid and she is the one who shines out. Basically, she knocks him off the screen. There is no doubt the star power is there. She knew how to act for the camera."

Along with the poisonous psycho-drama being played out behind the scenes, there was comedy too in Monroe's presence in Britain. The glamorous and voluptuous star was an incongruous figure in stuffy, class-obsessed 1950s England. The reaction she elicited from the Brits anticipated Beatlemania a few years later. "Such was the frenzied lusting to get near her – the all-American dream girl, the celluloid embodiment of erotic fantasy – that she had to be wrapped in a cocoon of protection like a head of state, and her rented home at Egham was more like a military fortress," cinematographer Jack Cardiff later recalled.

You can understand Williams's initial qualms. Portraying the film world's biggest sex symbol is a stretch, even for major stars. They must fear that they will come up just a little bit short. (It was noticeable last year how quickly Angelina Jolie sought to scotch the rumours that she had been cast as Monroe in a film.) Moreover, any truthful biopic would be a chronicle of dysfunction, disappointment and broken relationships as much as of glamour and achievement.

Some actresses who've either played Monroe or drawn on her inspiration have achieved magical results. Jessica Chastain's glamorous but very naive housewife in early 1960s Mississippi in The Help is based directly on Monroe. It's a brilliant performance precisely because it goes beyond the cliché of wiggling the hips and speaking in a cooing voice. Equally striking is Theresa Russell in Nic Roeg's Insignificance, adapted from Terry Johnson's play, which throws together versions of Monroe, senator Joe McCarthy, baseball player Joe DiMaggio and scientist Albert Einstein in the same hotel.

In contrast to such work are the tawdry made -for-TV biopics, for example Marilyn: The Untold Story, in which Catherine Hicks plays her as a slightly more emotional version of one of Charlie's Angels, or gossipy, speculative dramas like Marilyn & Bobby: Her Final Affair, exploring her alleged relationship with Bobby Kennedy. In Timebends, reflecting on his own play After the Fall (which many people saw as a veiled account of his marriage to Monroe) Arthur Miller hints at why the actress has proved such a difficult figure for film-makers to portray in anything other than the most superficial light. There was a huge gulf between her public persona and her private life: "In life, as far as the public was concerned, Marilyn was practically barred from any conceivable connection with suffering; she was the 'golden girl', the forever-young goddess of sexuality, beyond pain and anxiety, a mythically anaesthetised creature outside the reach of ordinary mortality, and hence of real sympathy." To make a truthful film would be to risk betraying the image she had worked so hard to create – and audiences still prefer to think of her as she was on screen.

'My Week with Marilyn' is released on 25 November

Arts and Entertainment
Beyonce, Boris Johnson, Putin, Nigel Farage, Russell Brand and Andy Murray all get the Spitting Image treatment from Newzoids
tvReview: The sketches need to be very short and very sharp as puppets are not intrinsically funny
Arts and Entertainment
Despite the controversy it caused, Mile Cyrus' 'Wrecking Ball' video won multiple awards
musicPoll reveals over 70% of the British public believe sexually explicit music videos should get ratings
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister and Ian Beattie as Meryn Trant in the fifth season of Game of Thrones

TV
Arts and Entertainment

book review
Arts and Entertainment
It's all in the genes: John Simm working in tandem with David Threlfall in 'Code of a Killer'

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Far Right and Proud: Reggies Yates' Extreme Russia

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West was mobbed in Armenia after jumping into a lake

music
Arts and Entertainment
The show suffers from its own appeal, being so good as to create an appetite in its viewers that is difficult to sate in a ten episode series

Game of Thrones reviewFirst look at season five contains some spoilers
Arts and Entertainment
Judi Dench and Kevin Spacey on the Red Carpet for 2015's Olivier Awards

Ray Davies' Sunny Afternoon scoops the most awards

Theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Proving his metal: Ross Poldark (played by Aidan Turner in the BBC series) epitomises the risk-taking spirit of 18th-century mine owners

Poldark review
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne is reportedly favourite to play Newt Scamander in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

film
Arts and Entertainment
Tom Hardy stars in dystopian action thriller Mad Max: Fury Road

film
Arts and Entertainment
Josh, 22, made his first million from the game MinoMonsters

Grace Dent

Channel 4 show proves there's no app for happiness
News
Disgraced Top Gear presenter Jeremy Clarkson
people
Arts and Entertainment
Game face: Zoë Kravitz, Bruce Greenwood and Ethan Hawke in ‘Good Kill’

film review

Arts and Entertainment
Living like there’s no tomorrow: Jon Hamm as Don Draper in the final season of ‘Mad Men’

TV review

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

    Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

    A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
    How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

    How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

    Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
    From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

    The wars that come back to haunt us

    David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
    Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders
    Heston Blumenthal to cook up a spice odyssey for British astronaut manning the International Space Station

    UK's Major Tum to blast off on a spice odyssey

    Nothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
    John Harrison's 'longitude' clock sets new record - 300 years on

    ‘Longitude’ clock sets new record - 300 years on

    Greenwich horologists celebrate as it keeps to within a second of real time over a 100-day test
    Fears in the US of being outgunned in the vital propaganda wars by Russia, China - and even Isis - have prompted a rethink on overseas broadcasters

    Let the propaganda wars begin - again

    'Accurate, objective, comprehensive': that was Voice of America's creed, but now its masters want it to promote US policy, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Why Japan's incredible long-distance runners will never win the London Marathon

    Japan's incredible long-distance runners

    Every year, Japanese long-distance runners post some of the world's fastest times – yet, come next weekend, not a single elite competitor from the country will be at the London Marathon
    Why does Tom Drury remain the greatest writer you've never heard of?

    Tom Drury: The quiet American

    His debut was considered one of the finest novels of the past 50 years, and he is every bit the equal of his contemporaries, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace
    You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

    You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

    Dave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
    Beige is back: The drab car colours of the 1970s are proving popular again

    Beige to the future

    Flares and flounce are back on catwalks but a revival in ’70s car paintjobs was a stack-heeled step too far – until now
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's dishes highlight the delicate essence of fresh cheeses

    Bill Granger cooks with fresh cheeses

    More delicate on the palate, milder, fresh cheeses can also be kinder to the waistline
    Aston Villa vs Liverpool: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful,' says veteran Shay Given

    Shay Given: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful'

    The Villa keeper has been overlooked for a long time and has unhappy memories of the national stadium – but he is savouring his chance to play at Wembley
    Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own - Michael Calvin

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own