Happy to be a tourist: What Michelle Williams doesn’t know about Marilyn

These days most of the Tokyo press conferences for Hollywood movie stars take place in Roppongi at either the Midtown Ritz-Carlton or Roppongi Hills Hyatt, which is good because it saves me the trouble of trucking out and up to the 35th floor of the Hyatt in Shinjuku (where Lost in Translation was filmed), which used to be the default venue for these events. The Hyatt, however, replaced the Imperial Hotel in Hibiya as the default venue, so it was like old times when it was announced that the press conference for Michelle Williams and My Week With Marilyn would be held at the Imperial. My Week With Marilyn is about Marilyn Monroe’s trip to England in 1956 to film The Prince and Showgirl, which was directed and by starring Laurence Olivier, and the Imperial is where, several years earlier, Monroe has spent her honeymoon with baseball great Joe Dimaggio.

The connection, or the “synchronicity,” as Williams, who played Monroe and was nominated for an Oscar for her effort, put it, didn’t really get as much play as you might expect, so those journalists who may not have known about the fact beforehand will have to work it into their stories through their own research. When asked how it felt to stay in the same hotel, the actress tried to give a useful answer. “I was 30 when I made this movie, and Marilyn was 30 when she made The Prince and the Showgirl. We shared a dressing room at Pinewood Studios. We shot at many of the actual locations, so being here in the same place, the same hotel, feels like another slightly magical event along the road.” Since she basically answered two question with that one answer, you could sense a rustle among the reporters as they tried to think of a different question than the one they had already prepared.

It was probably all the same question, too. It shouldn’t have been difficult to come up with something about the movie, which was proficient and entertaining in that it showed us some famous people (Olivier, Vivien Leigh, Arthur Miller, Paula Strasberg) in a slightly different light, but Monroe is such an icon, in every sense of the word, that to talk about something other than the late screen siren’s impact on the world and how that impact affected Williams’ life seemed inconceivable. The problem is that Williams had only limited things to say on the topic, and as courteous and helpful as she wanted to be she had trouble satisfying the media’s desire to know just what it was like to inhabit Marilyn’s persona for a full month.

Though hardly reticent, the soft-spoken Williams, dressed somewhat incongruously in a formal, bright-red dress that matched Monroe’s lipstick shade, wasn’t always able to articulate her feelings toward the role, and was honest enough to own up to the failure. When asked if, like Monroe and the crew of Showgirl, she had any trouble getting along with the British on set, she said with subtle candor, “I imagined I felt very much as Marilyn did at that point in time, though the Brits of 2010 were far more hospitable than the Brits of 1956. But I did feel like a fish out of water. I was in awe of their history, their tradition, their training, but never for a moment did they say anything that made me feel separate.” But that wasn’t really what the questioner wanted. “Anecdotes?” she said when the query was pushed a little harder. “No, I have a terrible memory for anecdotes. I’m sure there were a million things that happened, but…” As for as what on earth she thought Marilyn might think about Williams playing her, she answered as best she could. “I couldn’t put words in her mouth,” she said. “I would never be as presumptuous as to say whether she liked it or not. I’m afraid it’s a boring answer but it’s true.” So what would she ask if she could? “I don’t know. ‘Did you like it?’”

She was on steadier ground about her methodology, though it hardly seemed unique in terms of what any actor does to prepare for a role. “I saw everything,” she said. “Everything was important to me, from her very early appearances in TV commercials and radio; even some of her movies that aren’t as artistically successful. Like, I think River of No Return is not a great movie by any stretch of the imagination, but I love her performance in it. I love her voice in it. So everything is good material, as far as I was concerned. And the singing, I spent probably ten months preparing to play this role and probably there’s three weeks of actual singing rehearsal in those ten months.” When asked what her favorite Monroe film is, she answered, “Some Like It Hot,” which, of course, is everyone’s favorite Monroe film.

Williams was able to dig a little deeper about the difference between her and Monroe in terms of emotional resilience, which hardly seems an issue. Few movie stars were as famously vulnerable as Monroe, and any identification would have been anathema to an actor with similar vulnerabilities. “I feel that I have a better internal support system than Marilyn did,” Williams said, as if describing the engine of the car she just bought. “I think I’ve learned to make a support system wherever I go. Typically when you make a movie you don’t know a lot of people, but the experience of being in a location together, working long hours on a creative task, that bonds you and definitely I always find two or three people that I’ll know for the rest of my life. I don’t travel with constant hair and makeup people, but I definitely make those relationships once I’m on the set.” In other words, she doesn’t have an entourage, but except for Strasberg, neither did Monroe.

In the end, Williams didn’t really have anything to add to our understanding of Monroe, which is taking nothing away from her as a professional. She’s an actress, not a historian or a psychologist, and the fact remains that few movie stars have been analyzed and memorialized as thoroughly as Marilyn Monroe. I was much more interested in learning about Kenneth Branagh’s caustic portrayal of Olivier, or whether Emma Watson, in her first serious post-Harry Potter job, is fun to be around. I think it would have livened up the proceedings and loosened up Williams. When someone finally asked the inevitable question about what she wanted to do in Tokyo, she said, “I’m so happy to be a tourist and go wherever somebody takes me. I just want to follow along.” The problem is that no one in the room had any interesting places to take her.

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