Marilyn Monroe is the most enduringly fetishized celebrity in movie history, her cultural cachet outlasting similarly worshipped contemporaries like James Dean, Humphrey Bogart, and even Elvis Presley. Fifty years after Monroe’s death, she remains a lucrative entertainment property with every new book, film, or documentary (not to mention prints, knickknacks, and assorted paraphernalia) guaranteed a built-in audience/marketplace of nostalgics, fans, and prurient lookie-loos. It’s because she’s a woman, of course, and the preeminent sex symbol in movie history—and because the decades of stories created about her have allowed the public to cast her in their own narratives of sex, fame, and victimhood.
So the question must be asked upon the broadcast of the new documentary Love, Marilyn, premiering on HBO: Is there anything new here to justify another film about Monroe? And while the film crafts an all-too-similar narrative of Monroe’s short, copiously rehashed life (an onscreen graphic states that over 1,000 books have been written about her at this point), it does offer a pair of unique rewards for viewers.
First, the film relies on what it claims are “two boxes full” of Monroe’s recently discovered journals, poems, and assorted writings, selections from which are interspersed throughout the documentary’s well-trod march through the details of Monroe’s life and career. And second, Love, Marilyn has recruited some twenty more-or-less illustrious modern actors and actresses to provide dramatic readings of the unearthed documents, their presence both ramping up the entertainment factor of the film and reinforcing the abiding cult of Marilyn.
Written and directed by Oscar-nominated documentarian Liz Garbus (The Farm: Angola, USA), Love, Marilyn isn’t especially revelatory about its subject when the famous faces aren’t speaking Monroe’s words. Starting out on a breathless note of hagiography (phrases like “a mosaic of her inner world,” and “like colored pieces of glass inside a kaleidoscope” set the tone), the film ultimately settles into a familiar rhythm of talking heads, with Monroe scholars and contemporaries portraying their subject in all-too-familiar, and invariably complimentary, light. An author rehashing platitudes about “the ancient Greeks having Oedipus and us having Marilyn” might be compellingly expounded upon at book length (although it’s not promising), but as an isolated sound bite it’s facile and dull. Similarly, the film presents two contradictory childhood self-portraits as conclusive evidence that the young, unloved Marilyn was of two minds about her self worth. Sure—but, well, sure.
Throughout, the film refutes nearly every negative stereotype leveled against its subject, presenting her as smarter, more intellectually curious, stronger of character, and more ahead of her time than she’s generally given credit for. The arguments are sensible and passionately presented, but certainly nothing that hasn’t been covered in most of those hundreds of previous Monroe-centric books. (Although her late, successful power play which forced 20th Century Fox to release Monroe from her confining contract and grant her unprecedented creative control over her own projects was a piece of impressive news to me.) It’s not that there’s any doubt there was an actual, complex woman hidden inside the public’s distorted image of Marilyn Monroe: It’s that the film isn’t interested in presenting anything but another limited, if unfailingly flattering, take.
It’s through the celebrity voice-overs that Love, Marilyn makes its points most persuasively, if somewhat unfairly. While the purported treasure trove of papers penned in Monroe’s own hand offer their own insights into what the star was seemingly going through at various times in her life (especially when juxtaposed to refute or reinforce a contested point), it’s the dramatic force of the amassed talent on hand that provides much of the film’s weight. I’m not saying that anyone’s diaries would seem singularly moving and insightful if they were read out by the likes of Glenn Close, Ellen Burstyn, Elizabeth Banks, Lili Taylor, Viola Davis, Hope Davis, Marisa Tomei, Jennifer Ehle, and Uma Thurman but, well, yes I am. It’s an impressive lineup, and each actress is clearly invested in the project—Jennifer Ehle is frankly stunning, especially while embodying Monroe’s fragile mental state while filming Some Like It Hot—and the fact that these actresses of different generations share such apparent reverence for Monroe is as convincing evidence of Marilyn’s relevance as anything they actually say. One suspects that each of these women relate, in greater or (one hopes) lesser degrees to Monroe’s embattled journey to stardom, and her ordeal once she’d achieved it, and that’s what draws them to identify with her, even now.
- The unfortunate beneficiary of the sort of invasive, insatiable public hunger for both the most private details and most public disgraces of the stars they profess to adore, Lindsay Lohan’s two brief snatches of narration provide less insight in themselves than does her very presence as one seemingly destined to be destroyed by it.
- The equally accomplished male narrators (Ben Foster, F. Murray Abraham, Paul Giamatti, Adrien Brody, Oliver Platt, Stephen Lang, Jeremy Piven, David Strathairn, and Jack Huston—whose grandfather directed Monroe in The Misfits) while invariably entertaining (if occasionally hammy) are set up either as Monroe antagonists like George Cukor, Billy Wilder, Arthur Miller, or Marilyn worshippers like Truman Capote and Norman Mailer (whose odes often slip into the purple).
- Emblematic of the film’s prosaic style is the portentous weight lent to the title of Marilyn’s uncompleted final film…Something’s Got To Give! Bum…bum…bummmmmm…
- Equalling Ehle (whose intensity recalls Meryl Streep here) are Lili Taylor (employed to voice Monroe at her most twinklingly anxious), and a luminous Thurman. Also, Viola Davis’ reading of the word “vagina.”
- Respected newsman he may be, but Edward R. Morrow’s first interview question, “Does Marilyn know her way around the kitchen?” is a depressingly evocative sign of the times.
- Reinforcing the enduring kinship of all involved are the alternating outtakes during the end credits where Monroe, and the actresses portraying her, are seen obsessing over fluffed lines and alternate line readings.
- My choice for best cinematic act of Marilyn worship: Theresa Russell’s turn as the unnamed Monroe character in husband Nicholas Roeg’s typically oddball Insignificance. Russell’s breathy, stealthily intelligent Monroe manque, while not the most accurate Monroe impression, hauntingly embodies playwright Terry Johnson’s vision of Monroe as fame’s eternal victim. Plus, the scene where Russell, with a bag full of dime store props, demonstrates her understanding of the theory of relativity to Michael Emil’s Einstein character remains mesmerizing.