The Reel McCoy

The Reel McCoy

There’s a moment,early on in My Week With Marilyn,which might be considered defining.

The best biopics are those that balance the real and the not-real

There’s a moment,early on in My Week With Marilyn,which might be considered defining. Not in any climactic manner,but in the way it sets the tone for the film,and the character. After a breathless build-up,we see the stunning star emerge from the doorway of a plane. There she is. Marilyn,forever blonde bombshell,eternal temptress,with that ineffable air of being the one on whom the light shines. Wait,isn’t that Michelle,though? Michelle Williams being Marilyn Monroe?

When an actor plays a famous person,dead or alive,of whom we all have an image,he or she is in for some serious work. It could involve the actor immersing herself in historical fact: how exactly did,for example,Marilyn strike that famous hip-shot pose,leaning slightly into the frame,eyes shining,lips inviting? In the film,Marilyn is this woman whom everyone adores,including the newbie who declares himself smitten,but who has difficulty living with herself. She’s nervous,unsure,needing constant affirmation. There’s a sort of reassurance coach at hand,a stern woman who hides herself behind thick glasses and an overweening concern of the kind which makes you ask: was she more than just a coach and constant companion?

Michelle’s performance is wonderful. She makes you believe. Not that she is Marilyn,no. But that she could be. Yes,she,Michelle,could be a Marilyn we can all fall in love with again. That’s the hallmark of a superlative performance. Acting is basically a lie exploring the truth. The physical tools are all in place,the blonde curls,the eyelashes tweezed outwards,the breathy little-girl voice,but what makes this an act to remember is not in the way Michelle disappears into Marilyn,but in the infinitesimal gap she leaves between Marilyn and herself.


Superb as she is,there’s something missing from Meryl Streep’s performance in The Iron Lady. This veteran actress has made it a habit of doing other people so well that we swallow the deception wholesale and hand out awards to her for doing so. Her Margaret Thatcher is so close to the real thing that you are swept back to the time when the “first woman prime minister of the Western world” ruled the Conservatives and the United Kingdom with a set of beliefs that nearly ruined her party’s chances of ever being elected again. And made Thatcherism an ugly byword. The fidelity that Meryl shows towards Margaret is truly amazing: the hats,the pearls,the twin sets,and more than anything else,that voice. But her performance becomes a prisoner of its own virtuosity,where all too often we are left on the outside,admiring the twitches and the flourishes,the verbal and visual tics,and left wondering about the inside.

That Streep is a master impersonator,speaking in tongues in role after role,is a fact so well known that it practically needs no iterating. Just recently,she was Anna Wintour as the devil wearing Prada and other designer accoutrements. Then she was the high-pitched Julia Child,a middle-aged woman trying to find herself through baking and cooking,inspiring another,younger Julia to do the same thing. You look at her and want to marvel. But for a while now,she’s left me wondering if the essential Streepness of her somehow got lost in all the make-up,the prosthetics,the accents.

It’s a tricky thing,the biopic. If Meryl hadn’t made us buy her Margaret,The Iron Lady would have failed. As it is,the film is a bit of a drag,not just because real life often is,but that reel life can’t break through. The best biopics usually turn out to be those which manage the balancing act of the real and the not-real while keeping everything else intact: the scenery,the bit parts,the lines.

Watch Irrfan in Paan Singh Tomar. Neither a powerful politician nor a gorgeous actress,Paan Singh was an Army jawan who was lifted from obscurity because he could run and win medals for his country. And then he gained notoriety because he couldn’t run fast enough from the people who meant him harm. His was also a documented life,but not at the manic pace generated by constant media attention that these others garnered so effortlessly. Irrfan makes of it a thing of heart and craft: when he is leaping across the air,he is a perfect running machine,and the thing that he does with his finger,twirling it as he meets a hurdle,becomes a part of him. Did the “real” Paan Singh actually twirl his finger in exactly the same way? I don’t know. And it doesn’t really matter. Because like Michelle,Irrfan makes you believe. In Paan Singh Tomar,the athlete and the outlaw. And in himself. shubhra.gupta