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The Sneering Documentary The Mystery of Marilyn Monroe Reveals More About Us Than the Star

6 minute read

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 coroner’s original 1962 assessment after the actress’s body was found in her Brentwood home. As the case was being reopened, a British newspaper suggested that Irish-born journalist Anthony Summers might want to launch his own investigation, which resulted in 650 tape-recorded interviews and eventually led to a 1985 book, Goddess: The Secret Lives of Marilyn Monroe, which presented new and credible evidence about the events surrounding Marilyn’s death. Those taped interviews, never available to the public, have been dramatized and shaped into the documentary The Mystery of Marilyn Monroe: The Unheard Tapes, directed by Emma Cooper and featuring Summers as a guide. The results are often a little more prurient than they need to be, and the film’s revelations aren’t so much world-rocking as very, very sad. There are no definitively solved mysteries here. The effect is just another cloud of sorrow trailing in the wake of Marilyn’s complicated and troubled time on Earth.

The Mystery of Marilyn Monroe is a beginner’s guide in a way, tracing Marilyn’s life from her early years in foster homes and orphanages (she never knew who her father was, and as an adult was haunted by memories of sexual abuse), through her ambitious start in Hollywood in the late 1940s and her ascension to over-the-top stardom in the following decade. All of the Marilyns we know are represented here, in film clips, news footage, and whispery voice-over recordings, in which the actress candidly shares her own anxieties and desires. She longed to be taken seriously as an actor, and studied at the Actors Studio. She was married to famous and respected men—Joe DiMaggio, Arthur Miller—who didn’t understand her and were sometimes cruel. Miller, especially, was disillusioned with the woman he had thought would be his personal goddess; the film asserts that he once claimed Marilyn was just as flawed as his previous wife had been. He also accused her of infidelity, though he used a much stronger, debasing term to describe her behavior.

And then there were her friendships with both Robert and John F. Kennedy; the evidence suggests she had sexual relationships with one or the other 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 house as a hideaway for these assignations.

This three-way friendship points directly to the shady circumstances surrounding Marilyn’s death—there’s no real news there, but even today, the degree of the brothers’ involvement with the star, and how it may have influenced or even caused her death, is still a subject of speculation. In his research, Summers discovered significant timeline discrepancies and other evidence that strongly suggest a coverup: those findings were revealed in Goddess, and here their credibility is reinforced further, with the aural evidence of his taped interviews.

Marilyn Monroe in The Mystery of Marilyn Monroe: The Unheard TapesCourtesy of Netflix

Summers’ methods and conclusions are sound, and as a reporter retracing the steps he took 40 years ago, he shows a suitable degree of respect, and sometimes even anguish, for his subject. But much of The Mystery of Marilyn leaves an unpleasant aftertaste. Summer conducted interviews with Marilyn’s friends and close acquaintances, with the wife and daughter of the psychiatrist who treated her (and who was one of the first to know about her death), and with a number of cigar-chomping old-Hollywood players. Most of these people are now gone, of course, so the documentary uses actors to mime the words we hear on the tapes; these performers are seen in low-lit rooms, sometimes only half-glimpsed, wearing ‘80s-appropriate clothing.

On the one hand, this approach solves a significant problem: how do you make a visually dynamic film drawn mostly from audio sources? But on the other—there’s no kind way to put it: It’s cheesy. It’s jarring to hear the ultra-famous deep-gravel voice of John Huston (who directed Marilyn in The Misfits) emanating from an actor who has none of Huston’s brutish charisma. Worse yet is the old-school Hollywood agent, Al Rosen, who lays out for us, in no uncertain terms, exactly how Marilyn became a star: by sleeping with various members of Hollywood’s old-guard power brokers, including former 20th Century Fox chief Joseph Schenck, who would have been in his seventies at the time. Rosen, portrayed by a barely visible suit-clad actor clutching a phone receiver, first tells Summers of a “black book,” which listed all the young, fresh aspiring actresses who “could be laid.” He barrels on: “Oh sure, Schenck was a human being, you know what I mean? She had a bunch of ’em, he wasn’t the only one.”

By now, the idea of the casting couch should shock no one. And no one who loves Marilyn Monroe, or even just the image of Marilyn that we know, is likely to pass judgment on her for anything she did on her way to becoming a star. What’s more, hearing this now 40-year-old testimony from a relic of old Hollywood serves as a reminder of how the business used to work—and in that context, that it took until 2017 for Harvey Weinstein to fall seems all the more remarkable.

Read more reviews by Stephanie Zacharek

And yet hearing an old coot salivating about how Marilyn used to “put out” comes off as yet another instance of how, even in 2022, we just can’t let Marilyn alone. We can love her, we can pity her, we can feel deep and genuine sympathy for her, and the candid footage in The Mystery of Marilyn forms a welcoming envelope for all those feelings: no matter how many times we see her face, it’s impossible not to be struck by her physical radiance and the thoughtful intensity that informed it.

And yet, there’s always the leering, insinuating observer lurking in the corner. The Mystery of Marilyn includes so many interviews—many with people who were deeply pained by what had happened to her—that it may seem unfair to single out a few of the movie’s more crass figures. Still, I came away from The Mystery of Marilyn feeling not just incredibly sad but also a little dirty. Maybe our collective fascination with her makes us all a little complicit. Maybe I’d just rather not be reminded.

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