The public screening of Love Marilyn, the latest ritual exhumation of Marilyn Monroe, was packed at noon on a Thursday. I can only assume that most of the audience shared my same, simple expectation: an excuse to gaze at the twentieth century’s most perfect movie star for a little longer, and entertain the hope that this time through her story might somehow turn out differently.
Love Marilyn is one of several celebrity-focused docs screening at TIFF this year, others include Venus and Serena, about the tennis champions, Bad 25, Spike Lee’s intimate history of Michael Jackson’s Bad, an American Masters biography of music mogul David Geffen, and Roman Polanski: Odd Man Out, director Marina Zenovich’s sequel to her highly sympathetic inquiry into the decades-old rape prosecution of the director, Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired.
Gala presentations are rare for documentary at TIFF; Love Marilyn seems to have made it into the program by sheer volume of stars per frame. Lindsay Lohan, Hope Davis, Adrien Brody, Evan Rachel Wood, Ellen Burstyn, Jeremy Piven, Glenn Close and others appear, each one reading from either a piece of writing on Marilyn or a piece of Marilyn’s own writing. The effect is often awkward, especially where the star’s poetry and journal fragments (most of which were recently published in a book called, appropriately, Fragments) are concerned. Their nature is private and internal; not really green screen material.
And yet because it features so many images of its subject, Love Marilyn is captivating by default. Within its mix of performance, archival images, and talking head interviews, Marilyn herself rarely speaks in the film, an odd choice given director Liz Garbus’s (Bobby Fischer Against the World) aim of restoring the icon’s “voice.” Those intentions ultimately struck me as a contemporary version of what we have been doing to Marilyn Monroe for years: adapting her story and her image to our needs and values. Today it is the “real” and the “relatable” that we value most, and so we pretend it is possible to find and explore and define that side of her as well.
Which is not to say Love Marilyn doesn’t indulge in more traditional forms of revisionism. Arthur Miller emerges as this biography’s villain—the opportunistic father figure who devastated a vulnerable Monroe and drove her to drugs. The presence of Amy Greene—wife of Monroe’s business partner and confidant Milton Greene (portrayed by Dominic Cooper in last year’s My Week With Marilyn)—adds rare authority but also a distinct bias to the story. Greene is one of the few people close to Marilyn who is still alive, and her husband’s break with Marilyn following Monroe’s marriage to Miller obviously colors her opinion of Husband No. 3.
Wearing designer sunglasses and a hot mauve feather boa with socks to match, Greene was present at the Love Marilyn screening and joined Garbus on stage afterward for a short Q&A. Refreshingly lively and frank, Greene had no interest in perpetuating received ideas or indulging starry-eyed what if’s. Her answers to questions about what Marilyn was really like (“She was fine,” Greene shrugged, before revealing Marilyn’s joke about her tombstone epitaph: 36” 23” 36”) and what might have happened to her if she had lived (the first wrinkle would have been a disaster, Greene said; “I think she would have been an unhappy old lady”) had the salt and pragmatism of lived experience.
Greene is one of the few intimates—the few people in general—willing to suggest that what happened to Marilyn was sad but somewhat unavoidable and possibly even for the best. That is not to mythologise but to recognise that absolute beauty—a form of absolute power—exists on absolute terms. Pauline Kael once complained, in the wake of Norman Mailer’s biography published only a handful of years after Marilyn’s death, that we should just let her die. I agree to the extent that letting her die means letting fall the presumption that anything about the person she actually was can ever be known. But I hope we never stop imagining all the ways “she” lives.
About this writer
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