A documentary has to work hard for me not to like it. So imagine my reaction to seeing how hard director Emma Cooper worked (or rather, re-worked) journalist Anthony Summers’ 1985 Marilyn Monroe biography, Goddess, and turned his massive collection of taped interviews into a film that draws the same conclusion in Monroe’s death, which isn’t nearly as shocking as anyone connected to this film would have you believe. But before we get to the juicy bits, Cooper pieces together a fairly standard-issue life story, complete with Monroe’s stories of bouncing from orphanage to orphanage as a child and man to man as an adult, including baseball superstar Joe DiMaggio, playwright Arthur Miller, and both Robert and John F. Kennedy.
There’s no denying that there were a number of years in the 1950s when Monroe was the most famous woman in the world, and I’ll even go so far as to say she was growing and improving as an actor, taking her craft seriously and aligning herself with a more serious group of actors, writers and filmmakers. Summers walks us through his impressive catalog of recordings, most of which have never been heard, talking to Monroe’s friends, work associates, and even actors and directors she worked with closely, including John Huston, Billy Wilder, and Jane Russell. But while these interviews certainly paint a more vivid portrait of Monroe as a performer, they don’t really give us more insight into her motivations to succeed or her approach to her craft.
Then there are also the more tawdry details about being pimped out to the Kennedy brothers by Rat Pack affiliate member Peter Lawford (whose widow was interviewed), as well as any number of former law enforcement types and private detectives who knew her activities all too well. Summers’ interviews and biography began when the L.A. County district attorney reopened the investigation into Monroe’s death (which was ruled a death by overdose, though either intentionally or accidentally isn’t clear) in 1982, so most of the interview subjects are long dead. But the speculation and conspiracy theories never stopped coming. After about hour of backstory, director Cooper finally gets to the point of the film, which is to either prove or disprove the cause of Monroe’s death and explore why there is still such confusion about it.
In fact, no one really disputes the coroner’s assessment as to the cause of death. Instead, the revelations have more to do with what happened after her body was found, or more specifically, exactly what time her body was found and how long it took authorities to declare her dead. If the film is to be believed, multiple accounts of the evening’s events include a significant gap in time and even speculate that she was still alive (but in a coma) when her body was found. The rest I’ll let the movie tell, but the bottom line is that none of it is difficult to believe, especially the story of covering up certain connections Monroe had to the Kennedys. Just how deep that cover-up went is alarming but not surprising.
The unintentional upshot of The Mystery of Marilyn Monroe: The Unheard Tapes is that it reminded me of what an absolute presence Monroe was when she had her act together and turned everything all the way up. More than just a looker, she was a charmer and in complete control of each and every performance in a way few actors are even today. The documentary made me eager to watch more of her films, if only to erase the memory of this half-baked investigative piece. The movie also reminds us what a fragile and emotionally driven person Monroe was and all that that entails, good and bad. She was only 36 when she died, and I sometimes wonder what she would have become as a performer if she’d lived on for decades longer. This work is a sloppy scrapbook that may feature some lovely images but in the end doesn’t come close to telling a complete, respectful life story.
The film is now streaming on Netflix.
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