Judge Michael Nazarewycz cannot get "Candle in the Wind" out of his head, and that song doesn't even appear in this film.
"My god, how I wanted to improve, to change, to learn. I didn't want anything else. Not men, not money, not love. But the ability to act…"
Over 1,000 books have been written about Marilyn Monroe, says a title card at the beginning of this Love, Marilyn. With so much documentation about one person, from so many different creators and featuring so many different contributors, there seems to be little else that can be said about the Hollywood icon. And yet…
Facts of the Case
Recently, a discovery was made of a collection of Monroe's private documents ("diaries" isn't exactly right but is about as close as you can get to the spirit of the collection). Oscar-nominated documentarian Liz Garbus (The Farm: Angola, USA) uses this collection of journal entries, poems, letters, and other writings as the foundation for this biography. She then incorporates the memoirs and writings of other Tinseltown luminaries to flesh-out a more concise story.
The film, which includes new interviews of people who knew Monroe as well as archive interviews, spans the time in the actress' life from her arrival in Hollywood to her death, with a brief mention of her childhood.
Garbus takes some interesting risks with Love, Marilyn, to varying results. Her first risk is to abandon the traditional documentary structure of narration over clips/pics/interviews, which is smart. When dealing with a subject who has been so well-covered already, even though you are introducing new material, presenting it in a tired format could do more harm than good. (There is some narration written by Garbus where pre-existing dialogue cannot easily transition from event to event.)
Her next move is a little riskier. The format she chooses as her alternative is one where the text presented is done as a collection of readings from current Hollywood stars. Garbus then adds a twist to this by having the celebrities "act" their readings—essentially, to play each writer as if that writer were reading (or reciting) the work from their own tomes. This is dicey because the talent is not in any kind of costume or setting. For example, Ben Foster (X-Men: The Last Stand) reads from the writings of Norman Mailer as if he is playing Mailer, but he is still Ben Foster. It's almost like a collection of solo table readings in advance of actual acting.
In addition to Foster as Mailer, Jeremy Piven reads Elia Kazan, Paul Giamatti reads George Cukor, Adrien Brody reads Truman Capote, Hope Davis reads Gloria Steinem. The results are mixed. Foster and Giamatti and quite good, as is David Strathairn as Arthur Miller. Many of the others, though, struggle to be convincing, even to the degree that you can clearly tell they have cue cards. Had they fully acted or fully read, I think it would have worked better, but the in-between is the worst possible outcome. Still, the strong players are very strong.
Garbus then takes the risk too far by casting a list of actresses to read as Monroe. This ultimately fails, which is a shame, because it's also the film's biggest hook. Among the actresses who read Monroe's words are Marisa Tomei, Uma Thurman, Viola Davis, Glenn Close, and Evan Rachel Wood. Each brings a different level of talent, execution, and interpretation of the text to the film, so it's never easy, as a viewer, to engage in Monroe's "voice." Wood is far and away the best, with Thurman and Tomei bringing up the rear and everyone else battling for mediocrity.
As for the content, it is all very fascinating, delving deep into Monroe's desire to improve herself as an actress (she was an acolyte of famed acting teacher Lee Strasberg); her marriages to Joe DiMaggio and Arthur Miller; and her popularity and worth to 20th Century Fox. Interestingly enough, there was barely a whisper of her relationship with President John F. Kennedy. It was mentioned that she (scandalously) left the set of her final film to sing the now-infamous birthday song, but Kennedy is only ever mentioned as "the president" (never by name), and his image is barely used. (There are two photos—one where he is in the distance and without knowing he is the subject would be hard to identify, and one of the back of his head.) The scene feels obligatory and nothing else. Given Monroe's fragile mental state and her death not long after that event, surely her Kennedy period was an important one in her life; it's too bad they glazed over it.
Technically, there are many source images of varying quality—video footage, photographs, and the like. I found that, for the most part, the images are very clear in their presentation, factoring in that the source imagery might be rough. But some images really outshine others, in particular the footage pulled from 1953's Niagara, which pops with Blu-level clarity and color. The audio blends nicely; the background noise, be it music or film footage, never interferes with the narration, which is key.
The absence of extras is disappointing. The film uses so many spectacular images of Monroe throughout the film that at least a slideshow of those would have great. I'm also curious to know how the actors—male and female—prepared for their readings.
As I am not a Monroe-phile, I cannot say if any of Love, Marilyn offers anything of substance beyond the 1,000+ books' worth of information on the icon. That being said, it is a fascinating watch, a unique exercise in story presentation, and a great collection of clips and pics.
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