My Night With Marilyn
Tuesday, 21 February 2012
My Observer column this week was about (among other things) a certain sort of person for whom international stardom is a vocation: hugely talented, deeply broken, motivated towards fame (I theorised) by a desire to “perform” as their best self yet also a desperate need to let millions see their inner suffering - and who become legends, because we respond to the vulnerability which deepens the performance. Judy Garland, Marilyn Monroe, Elvis Presley and Michael Jackson were such people; as were, I think, Amy Winehouse and Whitney Houston. You might say that some or all of these people were just addicts, but I’m subscribing to the psycho-therapeutic view that most addicts are broken first and addicted later (the substances, often, taken up as a sort of glue in a misguided attempt to patch the fractured bits together.)
Coincidentally, the day my column was published I saw My Week With Marilyn, the film about a week in the life of Monroe, for which Michelle Williams has been nominated for an Oscar. It’s a perfectly enjoyable film, and a good performance from Williams, but here’s my problem: she doesn’t look like Marilyn Monroe. I think it’s a flaw that basically destroys the movie. It’s one of those cases where it really matters - it’s not like Morgan Freeman not looking much like Nelson Mandela - because Marilyn Monroe being the most beautiful woman in history* is absolutely intrinsic to everything else about her. The scenes of her vulnerability / bipolarity / alternate desperate sobbing and euphoric flirting, were a bit meaningless without, didn’t you think? In terms of telling us anything about Marilyn Monroe, that is, not about people generally. It must be a very particular kind of loneliness when you’re fractured inside yet so astonishing on the outside that nobody can believe it; charismatic, funny and stunning enough to achieve worldwide stardom when you run towards it in the hope of curing that loneliness, but finding (when you get there) that even the love of millions can’t plug the gap in your soul.
(*You may say she’s not the most beautiful woman in history. Wars were fought over Helen and Cleopatra. But they weren’t on film. The ready availability of real-Marilyn footage, her massive familiarity to us, is quite relevant here.)
It reminds me of a column I wrote a few years ago, when Bryan Ferry had told a German style magazine that he was inspired by the Nazi aesthetic. He’d issued an apology (possibly in an attempt to hang on to an advertising contract with Marks & Spencer, who weren’t happy) in which he spelt out that this was purely a style question - he had no sympathy for the Nazi IDEOLOGY, he just liked the smart uniforms, clean lines and beautiful symmetry of those marvellous parades. I tried to explain in the column, which was a sort of verbal version of knocking repeatedly on Bryan Ferry’s forehead with my knuckles, that you can’t have one without the other. The “perfect” symmetry IS the ideology. (That Ferry/Nazi column’s here if you’re curious.)
Anyway, it reminded me of that. Michelle Williams is very pretty, of course, and perhaps the sadness she’s suffered in her life helped shape that very touching performance - but the fact remains, if Marilyn Monroe had looked like her then she just wouldn’t have been Marilyn Monroe. I thought that was an insoluble flaw at the heart of the film. This is a terribly visual medium, after all. It’s like seeing a white man play Othello; he might be the greatest actor in the world, but something would always feel hollow and missing.
Or, to put it in Twitter terms: “MEH-rilyn, more like” …