Review: Half-Baked Documentary The Mystery of Marilyn Monroe Fails to Unearth Anything Noteworthy About the Star

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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Steve Prokopy

Steve Prokopy is chief film critic for the Chicago-based arts outlet
Third Coast Review. For nearly 20 years, he was the Chicago editor for
Ain’t It Cool News, where he contributed film reviews and
filmmaker/actor interviews under the name “Capone.” Currently, he’s a
frequent contributor at /Film (SlashFilm.com) and Backstory Magazine.
He is also the public relations director for Chicago's independently
owned Music Box Theatre, and holds the position of Vice President for
the Chicago Film Critics Association. In addition, he is a programmer
for the Chicago Critics Film Festival, which has been one of the
city's most anticipated festivals since 2013.

2 Comments

  1. I have just watched the new Marilyn Monroe documentary, which Emma Cooper directs and Chris Cooper is the executive producer, but I have to say that they left me unhappy. The story drags at an alarming rate, because it feels like it stops and starts along the way. Another point, is that this documentary left out some really fascinating points, such as the confession which Peter Lawford gave to Detective Mike Rothmiller about the night when Marilyn died. Why didn’t you use that? Instead, we hear a rather drunk Peter Lawford mumbling something incoherent on a static telephone line.

    I was a child when Marilyn and then the Kennedy men died, but I was so fascinated by this time in history, that I took it up on myself to learn as much as possible about them. She did have an affair with both of those men, but she was murdered and the way she died was covered up. To prove my point, she was forced to have an abortion on July 20, 1962. Her whole life, all she wanted was to have a baby, but Bobby and John couldn’t have her give birth to their child. She came out of the hospital and was a mixture of both unhappy and angry, and all she wanted was to know why. Why did that have to happen. John had hidden himself away with his wife and children, but after Marilyn called everywhere looking for him, John called Bobby ‘to take care of the matter.’ Bobby called Peter Lawford, who picked him up from the airport, and then they drove straight to Marilyn’s house. Yes they fought, because she was angry and alone. Bobby was trying to tell her not to talk to anyone at the White House again, but she wouldn’t calm down. She was screaming at him, saying that if he didn’t give her the answers she wanted, that she would tell the world what she knew. According to Peter’s own words, Bobby went into the kitchen and made Marilyn a drink. He then forced her on the couch and made her drink every drop. But before she could finish the glass, her words were slurring and her eyes were rolling around in their sockets. Again, this is according to the confess by a coherent and clear-speaking Peter Lawford. When Bobby felt that Marilyn was plenty ‘doped up’, these two men walked to the door. But while they were walking out, there were two men on the other wide who Peter didn’t know. As Peter was driving Bobby back to the airport (that was his alibi for not being anywhere near Marilyn that night), the two men put Marilyn upstairs and got her undressed. Please note that two other ex-girlfriends of John Kennedy also died in this same manner, but that also wasn’t addressed in this documentary. And what person in their right mind would leave a almost full container of pills near their hand, if they were trying to kill themselves??

    There are so many other points that I could name, but I wanted to tell you that this documentary did not give a full description of how or why she died. In short, she knew too much, and because it wouldn’t be good for the image of either Kennedy to kill her themselves, they got someone else to do it while they were far away.

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