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 The script mainly draws from unpublished material discovered in recent years, allowing "Love, Marilyn" to move beyond the speculative arena and investigate Monroe's character through her own private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.