Why Netflix Chose a Marilyn Monroe Documentary Director Who ‘Wasn’t Hugely Interested’ in the Star

Emma Cooper had never seen a Marilyn Monroe film when she was approached to make a documentary about the star.
"The Mystery of Marilyn Monroe: The Unheard Tapes"
"The Mystery of Marilyn Monroe: The Unheard Tapes"
Courtesy of Netflix

When making a documentary about Marilyn Monroe and the Kennedys, there’s more to sift through than mere facts. They occupy such prominent roles in the public consciousness that our idealized images of them have impacted pop culture just as much as their real selves. How can a documentarian possibly cut through preconceived notions and say something new about people who serve as foundational bricks in our national narrative?

In Emma Cooper’s words, “it’s quite helpful that I’m British.”

“Of course I knew who they are,” she said in an interview with IndieWire. “But I know way more about Prince Charles.”

Cooper, the director of “The Mystery of Marilyn Monroe: The Unheard Tapes,” admits she never understood the mystique surrounding Marilyn Monroe before she began work on the film. Nor did she have any sentimental attachments to the idealized America that the Kennedy presidency represented.

When she was approached by Anthony Summers, a longtime Monroe biographer whose lifelong investigation into her death serves as the backbone of the film, she never expected to spend three years of her life making a Marilyn Monroe documentary.

“I had never seen any of her films. I wasn’t hugely interested in her,” Cooper said. “I found those stock images of her in the white dress, and I thought, ‘What is there for me to know? What is there for me to say about this?'”

But once she began digging into the story, she found herself fascinated with Monroe, falling under the same spell that so many others have. And she quickly learned that, if anything, her lack of prior knowledge was a benefit.

“It was kind of helpful because I had no baggage,” she said. “And so I felt like I could really connect with the arc of her life. And also being questioning and not just accepting why certain things happened in certain ways.”

Marilyn Monroe
“The Mystery of Marilyn Monroe: The Unheard Tapes”Netflix

Cooper’s film exists somewhere on the spectrum between reverent documentary and pulpy true-crime flick, luring viewers in with a promise to reopen the case of Monroe’s death, but ultimately spending more time examining who she was as a person than debating who (if anyone) killed her. Cooper’s blank slate approach is apparent: Rather than lecture viewers on who Marilyn Monroe was, she opts to sit back and listen to the people who knew her best.

The film is notable for the mountain of new audio footage it unearths. Previously unheard interviews with some of the closest people in Monroe’s life — studio executives, the family of her psychiatrist, even the private investigator paid to violate her privacy — give their honest, unfiltered opinions on Hollywood’s biggest star.

“My obsession was to try and show her in a more multifaceted, more multidimensional way than I had ever known her,” Cooper said. “And I felt like the resources of those tapes, of all those people who had known her, really drew me into figuring out who she really was.”

One of the film’s major themes is the inherent tension between who Marilyn Monroe was and who the world wanted her to be. Some of the revelations are standard fare — sexual harassment from agents and executives, filmmakers and press trying to pigeonhole her as a sex symbol — but the most compelling parts deal with Monroe’s relationships with the Kennedys.

Her romance with John F. Kennedy is extremely well-known, her affair with his brother Bobby slightly less so. But Cooper was less interested in “Happy Birthday, Mr. President” than she was in the Kennedy family’s activities on the night of the star’s tragic death. She takes a close look at the way Monroe’s relationship with both brothers deteriorated as the star became more politically aware and comfortable voicing her disagreements with them.

While it makes no definitive judgment about their role in her death, the film gives oxygen to the theory that the Kennedys were deeply concerned about the star’s increasingly left-wing views, combined with the massive cultural platform that she had. A star of her stature, at the height of her fame, speaking out against something like nuclear war could have been politically catastrophic. It is this line of thinking, combined with the never-before-heard footage, that leads the film to its wild conclusion, which unfolds with the energy of a scripted political thriller.

Marilyn Monroe
Marilyn MonroeEverett Collection

The trope of a Hollywood star feeling pressure to stifle controversial political opinions in order to preserve their career is not new. Unfortunately, it is not entirely old either. While progress has undeniably been made, and performers undeniably feel more comfortable expressing themselves now than they did in the 1950s, Monroe’s problems are almost certainly faced by many actresses today.

It raises the question, how would Monroe fare in today’s celebrity-obsessed culture?

“I think she was probably built for modern stardom,” Cooper said. “She would probably have had more support… She was very single-minded, she was very goal-driven, she was very talented, and she worked her ass off in a way that now, as you see on everybody’s Instagram feed, is very admirable. And she also was vulnerable and soft and was a complex human being. So I think she would have fared better today than she did then, and she probably would have fared better than a lot of other people today.”

While Cooper regrets that Monroe never got to live and work in a media ecosystem that gave her permission to be a complete human being, she hopes that her film takes a small step towards rectifying that.

“As a modern, middle-aged woman, I was surprised at how I could relate to her story,” she said. “I really felt like there was a modernity about her as a woman that I had not realized. And I felt that her vulnerability, plus strength, plus being a very determined woman who clearly had problems with love affairs in her life, was something that now you would say ‘that’s the completeness and complexity of a woman.'”

“The Mystery of Marilyn Monroe: The Unheard Tapes” is now streaming on Netflix.

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