Ahead of the premiere this year of Andrew Dominik’s fictionalized take on the life of one of the most eternally beguiling stars ever to light up the Hollywood firmament, Blonde, Netflix is whetting appetites with the nonfiction feature, The Mystery of Marilyn Monroe: The Unheard Tapes. That title suggests illuminating new material from a multiplicity of voices to clarify the whirl of controversy and conspiracy theories that have long surrounded Monroe’s death in 1962. But Emma Cooper’s film primarily regurgitates the findings of Irish investigative journalist Anthony Summers’ 1985 biography, Goddess.
Monroe’s sad life, from glittering highs to soul-crushing lows, would seem to be prime material for psychological reexamination in the post-#MeToo age. The daughter of an unstable mother who was in and out of psychiatric institutions, Norma Jeane, as she was named at birth, spent her childhood bouncing from orphanages to foster homes and was almost certainly sexually abused in at least one of them.
The Mystery of Marilyn Monroe: The Unheard Tapes
Fascinating material, questionable treatment.
Alongside her stratospheric fame as a worldwide sex symbol, she grew into a vulnerable woman; a private figure perhaps removed from the confident sensuality she transmitted, of someone entirely comfortable in her body. She sought the protection — and in cases like her third husband, Arthur Miller — the intellectual validation of important men. That makes the tragedy of her outcome resonate all the more. She was allegedly pimped out by Rat Pack actor Peter Lawford and passed between his brothers-in-law Robert and John F. Kennedy, for whom her far-left associations made her a political hot potato.
The major revelations of Summers’ book are the inconsistencies concerning the time of her shocking death from a barbiturate overdose at age 36, and the manner in which it was reported. Strong evidence suggests this was delayed in a cover-up to allow Bobby Kennedy time to get out of town and have all traces of their association removed from Monroe’s Brentwood home.
A brief opening montage includes Monroe’s voice from an audio interview, questioning how one goes about telling a life story. “The true things rarely get into circulation,” she says. “It’s usually the false things.” Cooper then jumps to Ireland, where Summers explains how he was commissioned by a British newspaper editor to cover Monroe’s story in 1982, when the Los Angeles County district attorney reopened the investigation into her death, looking for evidence of foul play.
That’s certainly a valid starting point, but it establishes Summers as the dominant voice of authority, and therein lies the film’s problem. The author reveals that he has 650 taped recordings of interviews stemming from that assignment and from the three years of research that went into Goddess, none of which have been heard before. Those interviews are presented in low-light, grainy “reconstructions,” with half-unseen actors lip-syncing the tapes, like connective scenes from a lost film noir.
If that weren’t enough to give the project a whiff of sleazy sensationalism, there are also Summers’ prosaic voiceovers, which often border on self-aggrandizement. “The truth and Marilyn, it’s like going into the lion’s den,” he says early on, casting himself as the sole slayer of falsehoods in a public life soiled by behind-the-scenes obfuscation. “I started work. Finding people, knocking on doors. Dig, dig, dig, in that chatterbox of a place called Hollywood.” Seriously, this stuff is not only insufferable, it cheapens the sorrowful subject it purports to dignify.
What saves the doc to some extent is the wealth of fabulous archival material, expertly assembled by editor Gregor Lyon and accompanied by Anne Nikitin’s melancholy score. And of course, there’s Monroe herself, whose magical allure and haunting loneliness transcend even this ham-handed treatment.
While Cooper’s film is clear in its focus on the gray areas around Monroe’s death, its most consistent rewards are in the more general overview of her life, often heard in the star’s own words from interviews. Recollections of falling in love with movies during long childhood afternoons seated alone in the front row of theaters are lovely, revealing that Jean Harlow was her favorite.
Mentions of some of the influential men from early in her Hollywood career — agent Al Rosen, Fox executive Joseph M. Schenck, William Morris vp Johnny Hyde — touch on the predatory side of a male-dominated industry in which women were often treated as merchandise.
But there are also welcome reminders of how Monroe from the start was serious about the craft of acting. John Huston describes the untrained newcomer digging into her personal experience to pull out an authentic character in The Asphalt Jungle, the film that marked her transition from model to movie star. Huston also notes that women, as well as men, responded to Monroe, moved by something in her, while Jane Russell recalls her being bright and eager to learn on Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, following her days on the shoot with nightly coaching sessions to work on her performance.
The explosion of her fame is tracked alongside evidence that success and celebrity never allowed her to forget her troubled childhood, its issues explored with her longtime therapist, Ralph Greenson. The psychiatrist’s family members recall her frequent mentions of an important person in her life she referred to as “The General,” believed to be Bobby Kennedy. Her marriages to Joe DiMaggio and Miller intensified the glare of public scrutiny, but it was the return of the Kennedys into her life following JFK’s inauguration that started her downward spiral.
Summers dismisses the frequent speculation that Monroe’s death was a CIA hit job, but he goes into considerable detail about the wire taps and surveillance, the FBI files and private investigators hired to keep tabs on her. Part of this is attributed to labor leader Jimmy Hoffa’s determination to bring down Bobby Kennedy, who went after Hoffa for his Mob connections when he was U.S. attorney general.
The documentary does draw out a picture of Monroe as a fragile person caught in the crossfire, who felt passed around and used by eminent men. But in light of the conversation in recent years about women being taken advantage of by men in power positions, its impact remains disappointingly diffuse. The film is affecting, because it outlines the saddening end of an adored American icon. But for all its promises of unheard insights, it seldom goes much deeper than an E! True Hollywood Story.