With the discovery of Marilyn Monroe’s treasure trove of letters in her Actor’s Studio coach Lee Strasberg’s house comes this documentary that attempts to dispel Monroe’s blonde bombshell public persona and demystify the real Norma Jean Mortenson as a human being and her inner life. Liz Garbus’s gambit here is to hire a panoply of actor-veterans to give a variety of readings and lip-service to the icon, the likes of Uma Thurman, Viola Davis, Glenn Close, Ellyn Burstyn, Evan Rachel Wood, Elizabeth Banks, Marisa Tomei and Lili Taylor – all of whom elucidate passages from Monroe’s enlightening written diaries and Ben Foster, David Strathairn and Adrien Brody all serve as conduits to the voices of the male figures that surrounded Monroe’s life. It’s a risky approach met with varying degrees of success and failure. At its best, the readings provide human emotion at its most heartfelt, Glenn Close being a prime example, resisting mimicry of Monroe’s breathy, sexpot voice and went for interpretation of content. But at its worst, the collective becomes a self-congratulatory actorly thesping more akin to middlebrow casting auditions made even more visually off-putting by Garbus’s choice to shoot these actors against green screen.
In several instances, the camera jitters uncontrollably (hey, it’s a documentary, let’s do hand-held!), as the actors are ridiculously superimposed against vintage photos of Monroe and her handwritten scripts. The result is visually disastrous, cheapening the documentary ito amateur-level aesthetics. Which is a shame since Monroe’s actual letters have so much insight and beauty – revealing a person in conflict with the persona she’s built for Hollywood and the public. That the sexy pin-up icon we’ve seen posturing and winking, whose brasserie and derrière have stapled many men’s walls more than half of a century, actually have some innate depth. Brimming with wit, intelligence and self-awareness, Monroe the Person manipulated the image to which she becomes and imprisoned with, detailed her romantic affairs with her husbands and lovers, wrote scathingly against studio bosses who devalued and underpaid her, and illuminated her own private existential suffering as an actor and human being. It still remains inconclusive the truth about Monroe’s death, but what’s been made certain is her anxiety and struggle to become a great actress, the sole reason she enrolled herself in Strasberg’s studio, braving the frown of her peers. This was a woman who strived to become better, who tried to change the rules in an industry who capitalised on sexism. Listening to her words and voice, it’s hard to fault the intellectual grace and the beautiful mind beneath that mop of wildly sensual champagne hairdo.[separator type=”space”] DIRECTOR: Liz Garbus | CAST: Uma Thurman, Viola Davis, Ben Foster, Elizabeth Banks, Marisa Tomei, Glenn Close | WRITER: Liz Garbus | DISTRIBUTOR: Studiocanal | RUNNING-TIME: 107 mins | GENRE: Documentary | COUNTRY: USA