Just what we need?
The HBO documentary “Love, Marilyn” is yet another take on the tragic life of the star who has been assigned more symbolic import than a butterfly, or a dove, or a phoenix, or, well, a star. Since her death a half-century ago, in 1962, Marilyn Monroe has been used to represent everything from the predatory nature of Hollywood and the double-edged sword of open sexuality to the vulnerability of women in power and the lonely spiral of public self-destruction. Andy Warhol, Joyce Carol Oates, Norman Mailer, Gloria Steinem, they’re only a few among the hundreds of artists and thinkers who’ve negotiated the tragedy and mystery of the woman who embodied the overused words “icon,” “bombshell,” and “myth.” In death, Marilyn Monroe has been an all-purpose intellectual curio.
But yes, more Marilyn is just what we need, when the project is as exquisitely done as “Love, Marilyn.” The new HBO documentary, which premieres Monday at 9 p.m., is an elegant pastiche based on the boxes of Monroe’s own writings that were discovered a few years ago. It’s not a traditional biographical film of the “American Masters” variety, because director Liz Garbus doesn’t attempt to be all-inclusive or to impose chronology onto the material. There are only hints about Monroe’s childhood as foster child Norma Jeane Baker, and no mention of her first husband. Instead, Garbus adeptly patches together fragments of a life narrated, in a way, by Monroe herself. She inventively pieces together an impressionistic, revealing, and ultimately moving version of the story that so many of us know already.
Garbus has brought together a long list of actresses — including Uma Thurman, Jennifer Ehle, Glenn Close, Viola Davis, Marisa Tomei, and Evan Rachel Wood — to read pieces from Monroe’s notes and journals. The actresses face the screen and perform Monroe’s words, many of them syntactically twisted, while images float behind them of the actual pages featuring Monroe’s handwriting. The camera seems to sweep toward the actresses, then swerve away, so the film is never in danger of becoming a static line of talking heads. Garbus also features a number of actors performing writings about Monroe by people such as Mailer (Ben Foster), director Elia Kazan (Jeremy Piven), and Truman Capote (Adrien Brody).
Surrounding all of these little performance gems are countless photos, film clips, and snippets of footage of Monroe at various stages in her life, as well as interviews with her friend Amy Greene. If this description of “Love, Marilyn” makes it sound chaotic or disjointed, by the way, it’s not; all the elements hang together beautifully, cohering naturally into a whole.
Most of the performers bring life to the written passages with just the right amount of affect. None of them are hammy, unless it’s appropriate — Foster, for instance, who appears to have a good time with Mailer’s strong opinions. Thurman nails some of the grammatically unsound, tense Monroe lines such as, “must must must make more more more effort.” In one compelling passage, Tomei delivers the pain and humor of Monroe contemplating jumping off a bridge, but then not wanting to mar a beautiful bridge, but then realizing, “I’ve never seen an ugly bridge.” In one scene, Lili Taylor reads a recipe that Monroe wrote down, and through Taylor’s interpretation you can see Monroe straining to be the domestic woman her second husband, Joe DiMaggio, wanted her to be.
But of course, none of the voices of the interpreters can match that of Monroe, whom we hear throughout the movie, in her little-girlish Jackie Kennedy-like tones. And the clips of Monroe are stunning, as always; you feel as though you can see right through her façade, as if she’s transparent like a child. In one press conference after her separation from DiMaggio, she is crying and looks like she’s about to pass out. But even when she’s feeling more together, her famous fragility remains in play on her face. Watch her try to be smooth in public after third husband Arthur Miller announced their engagement to the press before he’d asked her to marry him. She was a bad
There is some sensationalism here and there, involving Monroe’s contract issues with Fox, her poor treatment by Miller, and her bad behavior on a few movie sets. There is an angry letter from director Billy Wilder — brought to life by Oliver Platt — that he sent to Miller regarding the filming of “Some Like It Hot.” “Had you, dear Arthur, been not her husband but her writer and director and been subjected to all the indignities I was, you’d have thrown her out on her can, thermos bottle and all, to avoid a nervous breakdown. I did the braver thing — I had a nervous breakdown. Respectfully, Billy Wilder.” It’s priceless.
“Love, Marilyn” doesn’t significantly alter what we already know about Monroe. But it certainly deepens the well, as we listen to Monroe’s scattered, dreamy, and often astute thoughts and follow her private struggle to find and hold onto self-love.Matthew Gilbert can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter@MatthewGilbert.