Monday, June 01, 2015

getting it right

  credit © 2015 Kevin Lynch Inc.
Kelli Garner, focused and uncanny, as Marilyn

Traditionally, the bio-pic has been a tricky bit of filmmaking business.

It's a very a delicate balance. When the casting is on target, the genre works.  But those occasions have been extremely rare.  Extremely. More often, the bio-pic simply doesn't work, the casting being the key problem.

The Lifetime channel's recent telecast of "The Secret Life of Marilyn Monroe," based on the book by J. Randy Taraborrelli, is an excellent example of a rare case where the bio-pic worked because director Laurie Collyer (of the Maggie Gyllenhaal indie, "Sherrybaby") kept the focus tight and her narrative, despite its three-hour-plus running time, nicely lean.

And a terrific actress was cast - make that well-cast - in the lead role.

Monroe's life is hardly a secret by now, but Collyer and her scenarist Stephen Kronish (of "24") zeroed in on the fact that Marilyn's tragically mentally-ill mother was very much alive during her daughter's spectacular ascendance to stardom. The publicity mill of 20th Century-Fox, the studio that made (and later abused) Monroe, had the world believing its star was an orphan - that her mother, Gladys Monroe Mortenson, was deceased.

The fact is, Gladys outlived her doomed daughter by 22 years.

She was severely impaired and institutionalized throughout just about all of Monroe's life, and the driving force behind the film is that Marilyn and Gladys were irrevocably intertwined - that Marilyn became her mother.

Collyer lucked out with the actress who plays the title role.  Kelli Garner never stoops to an impersonation (as the wildly miscast Michelle Williams does in the unfortunate "My Week with Marilyn') but, somehow, managed to inhabit the role of Marilyn.  This young actress, who was so memorable in the indies "Lars and the Real Girl" and "Thumbsucker" and the TV series, "Pan Am," so immerses herself here that she is unrecognizable. 

And Garner's remarkable performance is abetted by Susan Sarandon's as Gladys.  The push-and-pull, love-hate dynamics of their scenes together creates a satisfying acting duet.  And serving as a sharp contrast are Garner's moments with Emily Watson, as Monroe's "Aunt" Grace - tiny moments that come with the warmth, empathy and acceptance that otherwise evaded Marilyn throughout her short, sad life.

And I appreciate the fact that Collyer largely eschewed the usual temptation of having supporting actors perform tacky impersonations of the celebrities who shared Monroe's universe.  (This conceit always seems like Halloween.) Clark Gable and John F. Kennedy are just  two examples of famous names who are referenced in the film but never shown.

Coincidentally, a week earlier, Lifetime aired an acquisition, "Grace of Monaco," a film-fete discard about the '50s film star Grace Kelly that, to put it mildly, is cinematic torture and something of an embarrassment even to watch. There's no question that Nicole Kidman was a bizarre choice to play Kelly but she wasn't entirely the problem.

Aside from being poorly cast (Tim Roth as Rainier!), the film was poorly conceived, poorly written and poorly directed.  It's a mystery why this mess was selected to open the 2014 Cannes Film Festival (so much for the credibility of film festivals) but understandable why it was booed after its premiere. Around the same time, Kidman's Aussie BFF, Naomi Watts, appeared in "Diana," a film about Princess Diana that came and went in such an inconspicuous way that no one even remembers it now.

Watts as Princess Diana?  More bizarre casting.
Playing celebs in bio-pics is Oscar catnip for actors.  Reportedly, the powers behind "Grace of Monaco" thought Kidman would be a shoo-in for the award. And some actors do pocket the gold, even if they don't quite deserve it.

Michelle Williams was nominated in 2011 for her typically somnambulant turn in "My Week with Marilyn" and Cate Blanchett actually won in 2004 for her curious take on Katharine Hepburn in "The Aviator."  It's not really a great performance. But Blanchett as Hepburn - how on earth could the Oscar voters resist?

And Philip Seymour Hoffman, of course, won for his 2005 caricature of the fey writer in "Capote," even though his delineation of the role is inferior to Toby Jones' Truman Capote in "Infamous" a year later.  Jones' got it right, as did Sissy Spacek as Loretta Lynn in "Coal Miner's Daughter" (1980) and Jamie Fox in "Ray" (2004), both of whom won Oscars.
Jones would outshine not only Hoffman but also Anthony Hopkins.  In 2012, both played Alfred Hitchcock in separate projects - Jones in HBO's "The Girl," which details the director's unhealthy obsession with Tippi Hedren, and Hopkins in the theatrical film, "Hitchcock," about the making of "Psycho."  Hopkins is the better-known actor but Jones is the better actor.  His Alfred Hitchcock is an acute, subtle representation of the man, while Hopkins simply makes the most of another example of a major actor who's been miscast.

Upcoming, we have "Love and Mercy" in which both Paul Dano and John Cusack play the Beach Boys singer Brian Wilson at different stages in his life.  Both are capable actors, but their casting illustrates another bio-pic issue:  They look nothing alike.

It's difficult to believe that Dano ages into Cusack or that Cusack looked like Dano when he was younger. Matching up actors who play the same role is presumably a difficult process, but Hollywood rarely takes it seriously.  However, one recent title comes to mind. "The Age of Adeline," the Blake Lively film, got it right.  Anthony Ingruber, the actor cast as the young Harrison Ford, was a perfect match-up.  He had just the right look and he mimicked Ford's vocal inflections perfectly. Well done.


Alex said...

Joe- I couldn't agree more. Garner as MM was charming, sexy and rather romantic. Also complicated. None of this came through in Williams' performance as the actress. I was floored when she was Oscar-nominated. Hollywood's relentless marketing machine always trumps good filmmaking.

Sheila said...

I watched "The Secret Life of Marilyn Monroe" with some skepticism. I mean, it's a Lifetime movie, but was pleasantly surprise. I went into it never thinking that I would make it through the first part, let along watch the second part. I was not at all committed. But I loved every minute of it. I was impressed that it wasn't sensational at all, or exploitative, but a good old-fashioned bio-pic. This was a breakout role for Garner and should make her a star. At least, I hope so.

Charlotte said...

You are so right about those tacky impersonations of famous actors. I'm thinking specifically of James Brolin as Clark Gable in "Gable and Lombard." Also, the actor who played Hitchcock in "Grace of Monaco." (Don't know who he is.) Terrible!

Brian Lucas said...

My opinion is that actors in films never have to look exactly like the famous person that they're portraying, so long as they capture their essence, what made them unique. Not easy. Ashley Judd and Angelina Jolie tried this in an HBO movie about MM - Judd as Norma Jean and Jolie as Marilyn the star. Interesting concept. Not sure it worked, but it was sure different. And neither one looked like MM. Looking forward to watching my tape of the Lifetime movie. Thanks for the nudge.

jbryant said...

I thought Williams did a good job as Marilyn, despite the lack of physical resemblance. She did good vocal work, and her performance was open and emotional. But now I need to see this Garner version. I picked the wrong year to dump cable! Maybe an iTunes rental, or wait for Netflix?

I agree about Blanchett's Hepburn though. Just mimicry based on Kate's film persona. I never felt that I was watching a real person.

wwolfe said...

Among the handful of successful lead performances in a bio-pic, I'd add Gary Busey as Buddy Holly. He, too, received an Oscar nomination, which was well-deserved.

Garner was also good in a small role in "Taking Woodstock."

joe baltake said...

Thanks for the heads up about Kelli Garner in "Taking Woodstock." Yes, she was memorable in a tiny role.