Monday, May 16, 2011

Some Like It Hot Cold: Margaret vs. Marilyn

I have a confession (albeit perhaps an unsurprising one): I dislike biopics. They tend to focus too intensely on historical events of impact and perceived pivotal moments to chart a person's character, instead of actively trying to dissect who that person was, and what they represented. Two biopics slated for release later this year have me a little worried, but the women at the head of them are enough to ensure that both are required viewing.

When Meryl Streep signed on to play Margaret Thatcher in a biopic of her period as Prime Minister of the U.K, I was more than a little sceptical. It can often be difficult to separate feelings towards an actor and the real-life role they are portraying - especially if said role is somebody you heavily resent. Streep's generosity and warmth as a personality and Actress so heavily contravene the icy, dutiful stubbornness of the aptly-titled "Iron Lady," and so imagining her in the part instils a degree of trepidation. In Streep's few misjudged and overly-mannered performances (most recently in "Lions For Lambs" and "Doubt") she seems to be too sure of her character's misgivings, and their inability to restrain them. As Sister Aloysius Beauvier this is a particular problem, as she telegraphs the motivations of the nun as a tyrannical catalyst of drama more than she alludes to her genuine concerns for colleagues, dependants, and the church itself.

Without painting too harsh an impression of Mrs. Thatcher, one does have to concede that she was a formidable, disconcerting presence, and was legitimately hated by a large portion of the people she governed. If Streep can generate empathy while maintaining the lady's harsh exterior and cut-throat approach to politics, and do it with more fluidity than Helen Mirren brought to Queen Elizabeth II, then it could be a genuine triumph. In terms of Awards probability, the film would have to be a complete disaster to prevent Streep grabbing a record 17th nomination at next year's Oscars, and even with "Mamma Mia!" director Phyllida Lloyd at the helm, I highly doubt that the reviews will be negative enough to deter voters. Think Cate Blanchett in 2007 (or don't, if you're still squeamish about that Jolie snub.)

In the second of the big 2011 biopics, Michelle Williams might have a more difficult time getting people to accept her efforts, as she has the burdening task of embodying screen siren and Hollywood icon Marilyn Monroe. Simon Curtis' "My Week With Marilyn," will focus particularly on the time Monroe spent filming "The Prince and the Showgirl" with Lawrence Olivier, and the arc of their relationship together.

Oft-portrayed on screen, Monroe probably possessed more sexuality as an Actress than any other, which was as inclined to rub people up the wrong way as much as it loosened them to her undoubted comedic charm. As an actress, I don't think Williams has shown enough attitude and panache in the Scarlet side of her character to suggest that this is, on the face of it, a wise casting choice, but her record in recent years speaks for itself. She has shown herself to be the Queen of picking projects, even capable of elevating the worst of them (Martin Scorsese's shoddy "Shutter Island") with a small, but introspectively devastating turn.

In addition to "My Week With Marilyn", and having already featured in Kelly Reichardt's "Meek's Cutoff" (the April release that, for me, remains the film to beat in 2011), she also features in Sarah Polley's forthcoming romantic comedy, "Take This Waltz." The biggest obstacle to Williams' chances might be that she actively seems to avoid films that the media can get excited by, and which can gather steam at the box-office. Personally, I think that's a great way to approach acting, but I'm fairly convinced she wouldn't get the populist support that Portman did last year for "Black Swan," unless the film somehow turned out to be a huge hit. She's in her early Thirties, but she isn't in the "star" bracket quite yet (whether she should be is an entirely different argument) and so I wonder how people will take to her tackling this enormously familiar persona.

While it remains ridiculously early to call either of these a lock for major nominations, too often it comes down to the role as much as the performance. I'd give the edge to Streep, since it has been nearly thirty years since she last won a golden guy, but Williams has been steadily becoming a brilliant actress, and I can't wait to see what she does with one of cinema's greatest comediennes.


Alex in Movieland said...

I'm super excited about both of the films, especially Iron Lady - very curious about that.

In my Oscar predictions previously posted on my blog, I said Meryl is winning, but they're definitely both in the mix.

Michelle could be in trouble because Marilyn was such an icon, and it probably won't click for many Oscar voters.

Cal said...

Well Marilyn herself sadly wasn't popular with the Oscar voters, but I think that this is a gem of a role for Michelle. Surely if we're going on Curtis vs. Lloyd then 'My Week...' has a better shot at working?

Alex in Movieland said...

I'm not judging that lady on Mamma Mia! there was no way that film wouldn't have been cheesy, regardless of who directed it. The key of its success will be in the screenplay, that will be the dealbreaker.

On My Week, I'm a bit worried on who's taking most screentime. I usually don't appreciate stories focused on the naive young one in presence of greatness of scary, and what he learns from the experience. that bores me most of the time

Alex in Movieland said...

and I dunno who chose the photos to be released for Iron Lady, but I love the first one with Meryl, and also this one: