Thoughts on this year's crop of biographical performances, from Keira Knightley to Meryl Streep

By Libby Gelman-Waxner
February 10, 2012 at 05:00 AM EST

It takes a very special actor to portray a real-life superstar. In A Dangerous Method, Keira Knightley keeps shrieking and bugging her eyes out, and her hysteria is totally understandable since she’s the patient of Carl Jung and the colleague of Sigmund Freud, played by the überhotties Michael Fassbender and Viggo Mortensen. I’m telling you, it’s as if Chippendales was staging a Pioneers of Modern Psychotherapy All-Male Revue at the Borgata, and I kept waiting for Keira to announce, ”I’m sorry, but if you really want me to dredge up any major childhood trauma, I’ll need to see both of you in Speedos.” Of course, both Viggo and Michael prove that they’re playing important, educated visionaries by slicking their hair back and sprouting little mustaches and beards, which made me imagine that someday, if Jessica Biel ever gets cast as Golda Meir, she’ll wear a bun and sensible shoes.

As for Michael, all I can say is, if he was my shrink, I’d stay in therapy seven days a week for the rest of my life. But after seeing Michael’s nude scene in his other recent movie, Shame, I don’t think the word shrink really applies. I’m still not ready to talk about Michael’s full-frontal penis, but let me just say this: I was healed. People in the theater were holding up their crippled children and senile grandparents, and I saw one woman leave the cineplex, throw away her cane, and howl, ”I can see! I can see! Behold the power of Michael’s Fassbender!” And I swear, from somewhere far away, I could hear Ewan McGregor muttering, under his breath, ”I used to have a penis.”

A Dangerous Method is very elegant and sedate, and the characters speak in full grad-student paragraphs while they stroll past stately homes, and there are always excruciatingly well-dressed extras posed in the background, with a nursemaid pushing a pram or someone in a bowler hat wheeling his bicycle. Keira and Michael compete to see who can have the tiniest waistline, but even when Michael spanks Keira into an orgasmic frenzy, it’s like Masochism Nite at Downton Abbey.

My Week With Marilyn plays a nasty trick on Michelle Williams, who portrays Marilyn Monroe while she’s shooting a picture opposite Laurence Olivier in 1956. Michelle is a terrific actress, but there are way too many scenes where the other characters watch clips of Marilyn on screen, and their jaws drop and they gush about how luminous Marilyn is, and about how she’s such an extraordinary movie star. The trouble is, when we see the clips, where Michelle is painstakingly lit and made up to look as much like the real Marilyn as possible, Michelle just seems like a nice girl.

You’d never cast Michelle in any of Marilyn’s signature roles, like in Some Like It Hot or Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, because she’s not sexy and funny in that deliciously helpless way; probably no one is, which is why Marilyn is still such an icon, and why drag queens and Madonna and the actresses in that new series Smash are still dressing up like her. My Week spends most of its time showing us how lonely and neurotic Marilyn was, which isn’t exactly big news. Most of the great movies about show business are fictional, like All About Eve or Sunset Boulevard; My Week feels like someone’s junior-college term paper on the Tragic Cost of Stardom. Kenneth Branagh has fun playing Olivier as a haughty priss-pot, but after a while the script makes him offer big thoughts on art and life while coloring his eyebrows in his dressing-room mirror.

Playing Margaret Thatcher in The Iron Lady, Meryl Streep really nails her superstar. Meryl is so smart and witty that, against all my better judgment, she made me fall in love with Maggie, and she somehow makes a British prime minister feel funnier and sexier than Michelle’s Marilyn. It’s also been a treat to watch The Iron Lady drive feminists into a tizzy, because Meryl’s playing an unapologetically powerful woman who wasn’t a liberal. Meryl is so fantastic that I began to think, even if the real Maggie is suffering from dementia, wouldn’t she still be a better Republican presidential nominee than any of the current candidates, who don’t have any excuse for their behavior?

The rest of The Iron Lady is muddled, and Jim Broadbent, who plays Denis Thatcher, is so twinkly and harmless that he feels like a supportive leprechaun. But none of that matters, because Meryl’s accent and impersonation are flawless, and she looks like she’s having a blast and getting her revenge for not being cast as Evita. At this point Meryl is so matchless that I can’t wait to see her play Michael Jackson, if you ask me.