Liz Garbus takes a well worn subject — Marilyn Monroe — and brings a whole new substance and understanding to this woman through her own words. Using material that has never before been seen or heard, Garbus provides a glimpse into this complicated and very misunderstood woman using well known actors like Viola Davis, Ellen Burstyn (who knew Marilyn) and Lindsay Lohan (what must have Lindsay been thinking reading the words of a woman who died so untimely) among many others. A truly interesting and engaging film. The film opens to today in limited release and will air on HBO in 2013.
Women and Hollywood: There has been so much material written about Marilyn. What made you believe that there was a new and difference story waiting to be told here.
Liz Garbus: I considered myself your typical audience member. Marilyn had never made a huge impression on me. I guess I assumed she was probably cleverer than we all gave her credit for, as you don’t become so intensely famous by accident, but I didn't think about her much. But when I read Marilyn's texts – her notes, letters, diaries and poems – and plunged into the tomes of great authors who had written about times with her – like Truman Capote or Norman Rosten – I saw a woman who I actually could relate to. Someone who was a tremendously dedicated performer, a tireless worker, and was actually quite brave and modern in terms of her attitudes. Of course she had her darker and more difficult sides that we all know so much about, but this sense I got of her as a devoted, hard worker, trying to balance work and family, challenging expectations about sexuality – this was interesting to me.
WaH: You really give us a very different picture of this woman. What was the one thing you learned about her that surprised you the most?
LG: Her honesty and openness about sex – in the grey flannel suit 1950's! I mean, we all think of her as of course one of the world's greatest sex symbols, but the word "symbol" itself implies a passivity to that role. She was quite actively pushing the envelope, for personal gain, yes, but with a massive effect on our culture.
WaH: What made you decide to use actors to read her words and not a narrator or a single actress or actor?
LG: I wanted to release the audience from comparing the single actress to that singular icon. Relieved of PLAYING Marilyn, maybe you can just listen to her words. You don't need to compare the actress to her predecessor – oh she's more this, or less that. Maybe then we can just listen.
WaH: Knowing what you know about her now do you think had she lived she would have benefitted from the feminist movement and would she have been a feminist?
LG: I don't know. But I do know Marilyn Monroe in the late 1960's would have been a TRIP.
WaH: Why do you think that people remain so fascinated with her even 50 years after her death?
LG: She represented sex bursting at the seam of the repressive 1950s. She came to define a new era of American femininity. She died young and beautiful. And then influential writers stoked conspiracy theories around her death. All of this makes for a potent cocktail.
WaH: What was the biggest challenge for you in making the film?
LG: It's all a challenge. And we were doing something out of the box, combining performance with archive and interviews, and that always raises eyebrows.
WaH: You had a successful career as a director. Can you share some advice to other women directors?
LG: I never really thought of myself as a "woman director" until recently. Actually, directing this film, which is so much about women in the Hollywood system, made me much more aware of that role. I can't say anything specific to women as directors except to just DO IT!
WaH: Documentary is a genre full of women directors. Why do you think women have more success in this area than in studio features?
LG: Economics and the glass ceiling. Docs are in general lower budget thus more open to women. But this is all going to change. There are so many phenomenally talented women directors in my generation, doc and fiction alike, busting through that glass.