The mystery of Marilyn Monroe illuminates her sadness

In 1982, Los Angeles District Attorney John Van de Kamp reopened the case of Marilyn Monroe’s death, which had long been considered a “probable suicide”, only to close it a few months later, reaffirming the original coroner’s assessment from 1962 after the actress’s body was found. found in his Brentwood home. As the case was reopened, a British newspaper suggested that Irish-born journalist Anthony Summers might want to launch his own investigation, which resulted in 650 taped interviews and eventually led to a 1985 book, Goddess: The Secret Lives of Marilyn Monroe, which presented new and credible evidence on the events surrounding Marilyn’s death. These recorded interviews, never available to the public, were dramatized and shaped into the documentary The Mystery of Marilyn Monroe: The unreleased tapes, directed by Emma Cooper and featuring Summers as a guide. The results are often a little more lustful than they should be, and the film’s reveals aren’t so much earth-shattering as very, very sad. There are no definitively solved mysteries here. The effect is just another cloud of grief trailing in the wake of Marilyn’s complicated and troubled time on Earth.

The mystery of Marilyn Monroe is a beginner’s guide of sorts, tracing Marilyn’s life from her early years in foster homes and orphanages (she never knew who her father was, and as an adult she was haunted by memories of sexual abuse), to his ambitious Hollywood debut in the late 1940s and his rise to exaggerated stardom over the next decade. Every Marilyn we know is represented here, in film clips, newsreels and whispered voice-over recordings, in which the actress candidly shares her own anxieties and desires. She aspired to be taken seriously as an actress and studied at the Actors Studio. She was married to famous and respected men – Joe DiMaggio, Arthur Miller – who did not understand her and were sometimes cruel. Miller, in particular, was disappointed in the woman he thought was his personal goddess; the film claims that he once asserted that Marilyn was just as flawed as his previous wife had been. He also accused her of infidelity, although he used a much stronger and degrading term to describe her behavior.

And then there were his friendships with Robert and John F. Kennedy; evidence suggests she had sex with either over the years, before and after John was elected president. Actor and Rat Pack member Peter Lawford, the men’s brother-in-law, offered his Malibu home as a safe haven for these missions.

This three-way friendship points directly to the shady circumstances surrounding Marilyn’s death – there’s no real news out there, but even today the brothers’ degree of involvement with the star, and how that went down. could have influenced or even caused his death, is still a matter of speculation. In his research, Summers uncovered significant chronological discrepancies and other evidence strongly suggesting a cover-up: these findings were revealed in Goddess, and here their credibility is further bolstered, with the auditory proof of his taped interviews.

Summers’ methods and conclusions are sound, and as a journalist retracing the steps he took 40 years ago, he shows an appropriate degree of respect, and sometimes even angst, for his subject. But a large part of The Mystery of Marilyn leaves an unpleasant aftertaste. Summer conducted interviews with close friends and acquaintances of Marilyn, with the wife and daughter of the psychiatrist who treated her (and who was one of the first to know of her death) and with a certain number of old Hollywood gamblers biting cigars. Most of those people are now gone, of course, so the documentary uses actors to act out the words we hear on the tapes; these performers are seen in dimly lit rooms, sometimes barely glimpsed, wearing 80s-appropriate clothing.

On the one hand, this approach solves an important problem: how to make a visually dynamic film drawn mainly from audio sources? But on the other hand, there’s no kind way to put it: it’s cheesy. It’s shocking to hear the ultra-famous voice of John Huston (who directed Marilyn in The misfits) from an actor who has none of the brutal charisma of Huston. Worse still, it’s old-school Hollywood agent Al Rosen who tells us, in plain English, exactly how Marilyn became a star: by sleeping with various members of Hollywood’s old-guard power brokers. , including former 20th Century Fox head Joseph Schenck, then in his seventies. Rosen, played by an actor in a barely visible suit holding a telephone receiver, first tells Summers about a “black book”, which lists all the young aspiring actresses who “might be in bed”. He says, “Oh sure, Schenck was a human being, you know what I mean? She had a bunch of them, he wasn’t the only one.

By now, the idea of ​​the casting couch should not shock anyone. And no one who loves Marilyn Monroe, or even just the image of Marilyn we know, is likely to judge her for everything she’s done to become a star. Plus, hearing this 40-year-old testimony from an Old Hollywood relic reminds us of how the business operated — and in that context, that it took until 2017 for Harvey Weinstein to fall seems all the more remarkable. .

Read more reviews from Stephanie Zacharek

And yet, hearing an old coot salivating over how Marilyn used to “fade away” is another example of how, even in 2022, we just can’t leave Marilyn alone. We can love her, we can pity her, we can feel deep and genuine sympathy for her, and the candid images of The Mystery of Marilyn forms a welcoming envelope for all these feelings: no matter how many times we see his face, it is impossible not to be struck by his physical radiance and the reflected intensity that illuminated him.

And yet, there is always the leering, insinuating observer lurking around the corner. The Mystery of Marilyn includes so many interviews – many with people who were deeply saddened by what happened to him – that it may seem unfair to single out some of the film’s grosser figures. However, I came out The Mystery of Marilyn feeling not only incredibly sad but also a little dirty. Maybe our collective fascination with her makes us all a little complicit. Maybe I’d rather not be called back.

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