J. Edgar and My Week With Marilyn, two major studio releases that peer into the very private lives of two very public people, are stark examples of why biopics require fancy footwork while negotiating the red carpet toward an Oscar. One movie sweeps the screen with grandiose themes, and the other offers a peek at a snapshot in time, but both provide bravura performances. While Leonardo DiCaprio’s Hoover forcibly fills every frame of J. Edgar, Michelle Williams’ Monroe teases us to want more. A brief scene in director Clint Eastwood’s J. Edgar (and there are too many to count in this fast-paced, tightly edited film), shows us Hoover quizzing a series of FBI underlings.
“Who do you consider the most famous man of the 20th century?” he asks.
Of course, it’s a trick question. The answer could readily be Hoover (or at least a short list that might include Hoover, Churchill, Einstein, FDR and Hitler). And there you have the film’s weakness—any valid attempt to map out the life of a man whose career bumped up against no less than John Dillinger, the Mafia, two world wars and eight U.S. presidents is a fool’s errand. Add in the controversies surrounding Hoover’s secret files, which allegedly contained dirt on everyone from Roosevelt to Nixon, and you easily have the material for a half-dozen films. Instead of a straightforward narrative, Eastwood’s J.Edgar is more of a collage, quickly ricocheting through history. Sometimes the dots connect; quite often, they miss the mark.
But J. Edgar is worth the price of admission for a singular reason: Leonardo DiCaprio. His Hoover, whether accurate or not, is not to be missed. DiCaprio portrays the all-powerful G-Man as someone possessed by power and haunted by inferiority. Unfortunately, his performance is clouded, almost literally, by terrible makeup that might be more appropriate for a wax museum.
In My Week With Marilyn, Michelle Williams looks nothing like Monroe. In the first few frames of the film, I struggled to reconcile the actress with the role. However, by the end of the film, I was utterly convinced that I had indeed been watching the real Monroe. Williams’ performance is a complete transformation.
My Week With Marilyn is based on two memoirs by Colin Clark, who claimed to have had a brief fling with the actress when she traveled to Britain to co-star with Laurence Oliver in 1956’s The Prince and the Showgirl (which, by the way, is a pretty horrible film). Clark’s memoirs have been routinely challenged over the years, tagged as “flawed” and “half-truths” by critics. Presuming that few of the events portrayed in the film are true, director Simon Curtis wisely treats the source material with comedic flair. In spite of its questionable source material, the movie works just fine.
Kenneth Branagh, long absent from the big screen, turns in an outstanding performance as Olivier. He’s certain to be singled out in awards season. The supporting cast is stellar: Judi Dench, Emma Watson, Derek Jacobi and Julia Ormond. But it is Williams who is a wonder. Consider, for a moment, her performances of just the past few years—Meek’s Cutoff, Blue Valentine, Wendy and Lucy. She’s at the top of her game at the young age of 31.
If pressed, I heartily recommend Marilyn over J. Edgar. But for master classes in acting, visit both.