From Mary Burgan. Email her at [email protected].
The over-determined deaths of troubled figures in the world of entertainment leave us with varying reactions. Their talent may have awakened our sympathy at a critical age of stage in our lives. We may have been struck by their art as revealing new reaches of imagination. Or we may just be fascinated by the extremes of their lives. When they die, though, the details of those lives tend to flood the public consciousness, demanding attention and interpretation.
The world of entertainment has just suffered the loss of one of its most sparkling stars, Whitney Houston, and already public efforts to interpret her life have started. Houston’s entire career is now put up for display in never-ending tributes, or exposés. She is seen as either a saint or a sinner: “She had the voice of an angel”/”She should have sobered up and gotten off drugs for the sake of her daughter.” I suspect that before long some screenwriter will attempt to sum up Houston’s life in a script, and some gifted actress will try to act out her triumphs and struggles before the camera. It will be good if that actress is as successful as Michelle Williams has been in portraying a public icon of the past in My Week with Marilyn.
Williams has been nominated for an Oscar for Best Actress for her portrayal of Marilyn Monroe on the screen. And rightly so. But I think that there are limits to Williams’ achievement–mainly due to a film script that takes an extremely narrow view by treating only the limited time when Monroe was working on a film in England with Laurence Olivier.
Kenneth Branagh plays Olivier as a stick figure who is set up as a foil to Marilyn. But he cannot carry the film, and neither can the other actors who wander in and out of the movie. Zoe Wanamaker’s turn as Paula Strasberg, Marilyn’s coach, wears thin with its insistence on the contrast between Marilyn’s “Method” acting and Olivier’s down-to-earth approach. Judi Dench appears from time to time to comment on things as Dame Sybil Thorndike, and Derek Jacoby appears, momentarily, as the Queen’s librarian. There is even a small role for Emma Watson, suggesting that the movie is a minor jobs program for refugees from the Harry Potter series. Eddie Redmayne does enact a sympathetic version of Colin Clark, the rapt young Oxonian who gets the job of watching over Marilyn during the week when her husband had gone back to America. But the young man’s following the golden girl around does not make for much of a plot.
Nevertheless, Michelle Williams manages Marilyn’s walk, talk, and gestures so well that her performance gives weight to a very slim movie. Her enactment of the movie star on the verge of a nervous breakdown is memorable. Williams uses the many close-ups given her in the film to convey a blend of innocence, unease, dependency, and sexiness. By the end of My Week with Marilyn the audience had some sense of the complex mix of neurosis and sweetness that made Marilyn Monroe a public icon.
Efforts to express such mixed impulses in the lives of public figures frequently fail. And there is something hokey about concocting a film version of a famous life when we have records of the stars themselves that do a better job. To really “get” Marilyn Monroe, the viewer needs to see Some Like It Hot and The Misfits. My Week with Marilyn can’t substitute for the real thing.
Likewise, The Bodyguard “gets” Whitney Houston better than any memorial pastiche can. I saw that film several days ago, and its presentation of a star under threat explains Whitney’s lasting appeal. Of course, the film has a contrived plot that the stolid Kevin Costner barely manages to make work. But Whitney steadies the show with a voice that soars, a physical image that radiates glamour, and a glint in the eye that beguiles. The star doesn’t die in The Bodyguard, but the film suggests a tragic curve in her life. She may kiss the hero in the end, but she cannot settle down.
Whitney Houston, like Marilyn Monroe, was inimitable. That’s why it’s best to let their images speak for themselves.