Marilyn Monroe would surely be unsurprised by the morbid fascination that followed (and continues to follow) her shocking death at the age of 36 in 1962 — after all, the public’s insatiable appetite for her private dramas was a constant presence throughout the last 15 years of her life, and a contributing factor to the barbiturate overdose that cut it short. Monroe understood better than anyone how dehumanizing it was to become a symbol. She knew that titillation led to entitlement, that a single woman’s sexuality could spark an entire country’s schadenfreude, and that tabloids would breathlessly continue to report or invent new details about their most unknowable subjects until they ran out of column inches to fill. Even if she had lived to be 100, the obsession with Marilyn Monroe was always going to outlast the body of Norma Jeane Mortenson.
What Monroe may not have been able to anticipate is how that obsession would eventually outlast the mediums that had defined it — that not even the demise of cheap tabloids or the movies themselves would be enough to let her rest in peace. Hard as it was for her to be newspaper copy, Monroe could never have fathomed the absurdity of becoming internet content. It’s one thing for someone to be grist for the rumor mill, and quite another to be the subject of a feature-length Netflix documentary that lightly perfumes their memory across 100 minutes of hot air.
Watching Emma Cooper’s elegant but empty “The Mystery of Marilyn Monroe: The Unheard Tapes” — which essentially functions as the long-delayed audiobook of a biography called “Goddess” that Anthony Summers wrote about the star more than 30 years ago — I couldn’t help but imagine that even Hollywood’s most famous pin-up would be surprised to see her image stretched this thin. “Are you joking?” she might sigh in a soft breath of resignation. “Are people really so desperate for something to watch between seasons of ‘Bridgerton’ that they’ll settle for lip-synched re-enactments of some interview my housekeeper gave in 1985?”
That question won’t be answered until we see if “The Unheard Tapes” shows up on the Netflix Top 10, but it’s hard to imagine that anyone who does choose to watch this documentary will feel as if the juice was worth the squeeze. Despite the teasing promise that Summers’ bunker full of ancient cassette tapes will offer some rare insight into the life of America’s most self-evident celebrity — and the even more tantalizing hint that they might shine new light on the “mysterious” circumstances of her death — Cooper’s film does no independent research of its own, and therefore can’t possibly offer any tidbits that weren’t first reported in the pages of “Goddess.”
That wouldn’t be such a problem if “The Unheard Tapes” weren’t just as single-mindedly salacious as its title implies; if it made a genuine effort to ask why Monroe’s legacy has proven so irresistible, rather than simply exploiting the fact that it continues to be. But the groan-worthy opening shots of Summers poring over his old files under a swell of overly suspenseful music — as if that were something the author would ever feel compelled to do without the cameras around — anticipate the kind of flimsy and superficial true-crime exposé that’s made straight-to-streaming documentaries seem like such unserious business.
The film spends the first 70 minutes reiterating facts that anyone who’d bother to watch it already knows, and the last 30 minutes debunking conspiracy theories (did Bobby Kennedy have Monroe killed because she knew too much about America’s nuclear strategy!?) in a way that only reaffirms the suspicion that “The Unheard Tapes” is basically just new SEO for some very old news. Isn’t that what podcasts are for?
And despite the multitude of immaculately restored archival footage that Cooper threads into her film — much of it for ambiance, some for context, and too little for reference — “The Unheard Tapes” may have been richer and less restrictive had it remained a piece of audio (a possibility the riveting “You Must Remember This” episodes about Monroe make rather easy to imagine). Certain snippets from Monroe’s movies help set the scene, and the occasional news clip helps to isolate the lonely waif that was always cocooned within the outer shell of her stardom (I was especially moved by a broken smile glimpsed amid the press mob that broke out on the courthouse steps following Monroe’s divorce from Joe DiMaggio), but most of this movie is spent watching fuzzy shots of actors in early ‘80s drag as they mouth along to Summers’ phone interviews.
The intended effect is that of a platinum blonde “Citizen Kane” — a memory play that pushes its subject further out of focus with every subsequent detail — but the potentially compelling artifice of watching people lip-sync pre-existing conversations tends to clash against the stated mission of a documentary that strives to correct the record. “The true things rarely get into circulation,” we hear Monroe coo at the start of the film. “It’s usually the false things.” And yet watching someone pretend to be John Huston or Billy Wilder smacks of falsification to the point that their real voices start to sound fake, as if the actor playing Huston were doing an overly broad imitation of the director’s signature growl.
Even the most factual revelations of Summer’s book smack of self-serving fancifulness in Cooper’s doc, and the fun of filtering memories of Monroe through the egos and imaginations of those who knew her is further diluted by the extent to which all of these people basically say the same thing. She was a lifelong orphan whose daddy issues stemmed from her desperation for a family, and whose eventual miscarriage was a cruelty from which she never recovered. She was far smarter and more self-aware than most gave her credit for, and yet insecure about her value in a way that made her vulnerable to men like Arthur Miller and the Kennedy brothers. She was broadly disinterested in sex in much the same way that a porch light is disinterested in the moths that swarm around it.
Most of all, Monroe was surprisingly open about these things while she was still alive, perhaps in an effort to rescue herself from being suffocated inside her own celebrity. The most intriguing moments of “The Unheard Tapes” don’t stand out because they reveal secrets we didn’t already know, but rather because they mine unexpected degrees of intensity from within the things that Monroe never kept secret in the first place.
At one point, Monroe’s former dress manufacturer Henry Rosenfeld recalls that his late friend’s greatest fantasy was putting on a black wig, having sex with her own father after picking him up at a bar, and then asking him, “How does it feel to have a daughter you’ve made love to?” Despite this film’s ultimate emphasis on the invented details of how Monroe died, “The Unheard Tapes” can’t help but relate a kernel of truth about how she lived: in a spotlight so bright and lonely that she dreamed of sharing even the most unfathomable darkness. Here’s hoping that Netflix’s other Marilyn Monroe movie of 2022 — Andrew Dominik’s already controversial “Blonde” — does a better job of meeting her halfway.
“The Mystery of Marilyn Monroe: The Unheard Tapes” will be available to stream on Netflix starting Wednesday, April 27.