In its opening minutes, the documentary “Love, Marilyn” establishes a gimmick that seems destined to fail: Chronicling the rise and fall of Marilyn Monroe, director Liz Garbus unleashes a collection of movie stars who mainly read excerpts from her personal diaries throughout the film. Watching these contemporary faces dramatize Monroe’s attitude initially creates a grating disconnect from the subject matter. Over time, however, the approach blends into an immersive account of the actress’ career that both deconstructs her celebrity while interrogating its impact on her troubled existence.
Not content to let the actors carry the whole movie, Garbus also includes interviews with Monroe acquaintances and scholars as well as rare archival footage. Nevertheless, Monroe’s distinctively introspective voice does emerge from the collection of actresses who deliver her thoughts in a series of first-person monologues. The script mainly draws from unpublished material discovered in recent years, allowing “Love, Marilyn” to move beyond the speculative arena and investigate Monroe’s character through her own private lens.
In recent years, it has become a cliché for the mystique surrounding Monroe’s legacy to emphasize her offscreen intellect. Her bibliophilic tendencies and non-commercial creative ventures (which included poetry and sketches) have melded with the rest of her mythology. But “Love, Marilyn” avoids fetishizing Monroe’s reported brilliance by relying on empirical evidence for a balanced view of her under-appreciated mind.
For context, Garbus turns to numerous critics and historians, including Molly Haskell, Thomas Schatz and Donald Spoto, as their insight deepens the movie’s perspective and also underscores its raison d’être. Despite her success, Monroe’s true legacy remains murky at best, clouded by the constant emphasis on her downfall as the ultimate American tragedy. “The Greeks had Oedipus,” says one professor interviewed in the movie. “We have Marilyn.”
While “Love, Marilyn” goes through the usual motions of exploring the actress’ humble beginnings and rapid ascent to national sex symbol, Garbus effectively avoids wasting time on the most obvious aspect of Monroe’s tale — namely, her death. Instead, “Love, Marilyn” touches on the actress’ alleged 1962 suicide and then proceeds to unearth a more calculated representation of her fleeting career than any surface rundown of her filmography could provide.
As Garbus sifts through Monroe’s writings and the candid stories of those who knew her, a credible image of the woman formerly known as Norma Jeane Mortensen slowly comes together. The movie assembles a portrait of a shrewd businesswoman who walked away from her 20th Century Fox contract to pursue smarter roles, read Mabel Todd’s “The Thinking Body” to construct her onscreen sensuality, and kept intensive notes on her literary experiences to compensate for her lack of traditional education.
By detailing Monroe’s sophisticated pursuits, Garbus foregrounds the actress’ disdain for her public image. The documentary occasionally suffers from overemphasizing Monroe’s less flattering roles, at one point even superimposing the words “sexpot” and “bimbo” over clips from movies where she plays those exact types. But the narrative flows so well that such indulgences are only momentary distractions.
Among the testimonies of people who knew Monroe, none delivers a greater amount of entertainment and insight than Amy Greene, wife of the late photographer Milton Greene and close friend of Monroe with innumerable anecdotes about the actress’ behavior behind closed doors — including discussion of her bedroom antics with husbands Joe Dimmagio and Arthur Miller.
While those two failed romances take up significant screen time for illustrating Monroe’s inability to settle down, they’re not the only puzzle pieces that help explain her relentless discontent. Seemingly everyone close to Monroe appears to leech off her fame, including her acting coach and psychoanalysts tasked with aiding her depressing. Their own telling reminiscences come through in fragments of memoirs and other revealing documents. Even Monroe’s great acting guru, Lee Strassberg, takes Monroe under his wing with dubious intentions and forces her into a new phase of unrealistic expectations. If “Love, Marilyn” makes any definitive statements on Monroe’s career, it’s that she couldn’t get a break.
When that grows clearer, the slew of actors peppering the movie finally have an impact by drawing out the shifting emotional tenor of Monroe’s rollercoaster career. Among them, Marisa Tomei stands out for embodying Monroe’s alternately inquisitive and shy musings on her state of affairs. Glenn Close, Viola Davis and Elizabeth Banks also deliver inspiring turns, while Lindsay Lohan briefly surfaces to recall the actress’ ill-fated experience while shooting the infamous billowing dress scene from “The 7 Year Itch.”
Extending beyond Monroe’s voice, a number of male actors provide faces for the reminiscences of the men in her life. Ben Foster provides Norman Mailer’s evocative account of the actress’ career, while Adrian Brody reads the memories of Truman Capote recalling his friendship with Monroe. Then there are the exasperated collaborators: Paul Giamatti as George Cukor and Oliver Platt as Billy Wilder both display those filmmakers’ ire over the whimsical Monroe’s onset antics, although others provide a counterpoint: The highest praise comes from “Bus Stop” director Joshua Logan, who describes Monroe’s skill as “a combination of Greta Garbo and Charlie Chaplin.”
If Monroe’s abilities truly contained that much depth, it helps explain her dwindling interest in the career opportunities thrust upon her. Outtakes from Cukor’s unfinished “Something’s Got to Give,” shot only a few months before Monroe’s death, display her apparent boredom when faced with material deemed beneath her interests. (The movie also provides fresh context on her classic birthday performance for JFK by pointing out that she left the Cukor production to appear before the president, resulting in her dismissal from the film).
Since “Love, Marilyn” opens with Monroe’s death, by the time it comes full circle the event arrives with fresh context. Apparently more upbeat at the time of her demise, Monroe’s death remains a tantalizing secret that the movie probes without getting conspiratorial.
Attempts to explore Monroe’s off-screen persona in narrative form, including last year’s “My Week With Marilyn” and Nicolas Roeg’s “Insignificance,” tend to embellish on the actress’ personality by nature of their interpretative format. “Love, Marilyn” achieves greater clarity by letting the actress lead the way. As her struggle congeals, the collection of performances gain a strong justification: For over a decade, the actress battled to reconcile her public image with her true self. Sifting through the many faces that play her in “Love, Marilyn,” so must we.
Criticwire grade: B+
HOW WILL IT PLAY? Destined for distribution with a company that can play up its potential on VOD, “Love, Marilyn” is also likely to find warm reception at numerous film festivals. Its next stop is in Toronto.