Remove the comma from the title and Love, Marilyn plays like the command it is. A redundant command, of course. In the more than half-century since her death, the constant stream of films, paintings, photographs, pop songs and more than 1,000 books testifies rather loudly to our enduring fascination with the myth of Marilyn Monroe, or at least with the myth’s endless dissection. By now, you might be excused for thinking there’s nothing left for the scalpel to probe, but director Liz Garbus disagrees. Armed with a couple of hitherto unrevealed journals and diaries, Garbus adds another documentary to the pile, one that promises a look into the “carefully guarded inner life.” Sorry, but the guards have long gone, the inner has been thoroughly outed, and the look feels more like a 107-minute stare into the familiar. A revelation this isn’t. But it’s definitely a a worthy summation, presented by a skillful counsellor for the defence.
Garbus’s skills come with a touch of gimmickry. To read from the precious journals, she has recruited a coterie of actresses veteran and young who appear before blown-up replicas of pages filled with Marilyn’s handwritten scrawl, with its misspellings and anxious parentheses and frantic crossings-out. Occasionally, the writings reveal a little about the writer. Too often, though, they say a lot more about the readers.
To a woman, across a spectrum that stretches from Ellen Burstyn and Glenn Close to Uma Thurman and (gasp) Lindsay Lohan, the actors declaim and whimper and gesture and generally over-emote every damn syllable, perhaps hoping to chip off some of the legend for themselves. The apparent goal is to suggest that Marilyn’s confided worries – “My work is the only trustworthy hope I have,” or “You do things out of fear and you must do things out of strength. My question: Where do I get the strength?” – are timeless concerns that cut across the generations. Maybe, but, in these ham-hands, it just seems like so much theatrical excavation, with nothing as precise as a scalpel at work – the women are all brandishing shovels.
Much better is the carefully edited overview of the life that Garbus weaves through and around the readings. Drawing upon the abundant archival footage, along with interviews old and new, she revisits the stations of Marilyn’s cross. Yes, each one separately has attracted its share of those 1,000 books, yet to see them here succinctly laid out – the foster home childhood, the early years of screen tests and casting couches, the transparent cultivation of her breathy sexpot persona, the ascent to stardom, the attempt to discard that persona in New York’s Actors Studio, the return to Hollywood and her Art, the quick descent into pills and illness and premature grave – is to confront the familiar with a renewed appreciation. Which is: Like all the richest myths, hers endures because it is so open to interpretation, and misinterpretation. From chauvinist to feminist, Norman Mailer to Gloria Steinem, we can all peer into the many-mirrored legend and find the Marilyn that best suits our needs.
Garbus is no different. She wants to find an Everywoman trapped between the competing tensions of love vs.career, confidence vs. insecurity, power vs. weakness, and to a certain extent the journal entries allow her that luxury, what with similes like “Strong as a cobweb in the wind” and confessions like “The monsters come, my most steadfast companions.” Consequently, she commiserates with Marilyn for being sadly used by all manner of men – moguls, directors, politicians, the athlete, the playwright – only to lionize her for shrewdly using them in turn.
The result is a film that means to take down its subject from the Tragic Goddess pedestal, then to stick her atop another, the one marked The Tragedy of the Common Woman. In that sense, at least, the doc finds a truly new wrinkle in the Arthur Miller stage of the legend – depicting Marilyn as a distaff Willy Loman, selling all of herself while singing All of Me. It’s not a wrinkle I’m buying, but give Garbus her due. She’s a good and persistent saleswoman hawking a product that, despite a half-century’s worth of hucksterism, just refuses to grow old.
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