Feminists have long been fascinated by the life and death of the self-made siren, who came from nothing and became anything Hollywood wanted her to be so she could rise to fame. (Gloria Steinem wrote a book about her at the peak of her own notoriety as a women’s lib leader.) What Hollywood wanted, of course, was a sex symbol of mythic proportions, and it got just that from her. If it also wanted a source of endless material for years after her death, it got that, too: Reams of books have been written about her from every vantage point imaginable, from Steinem to Joyce Carol Oates to murder conspiracy theorists to Norman Mailer and the many men who admired her. Smash dedicated two ill-fated seasons to a fictional musical about her life. Michelle Williams, Ashley Judd, Mira Sorvino, and Madonna are among the many who have played the star in one way or another.
What’s well-covered territory feels fresh again in HBO’s new documentary, Love, Marilyn. I started watching it out of a sense of obligation, as a feminist and pop culture writer. But I came away feeling, for the first time, what it was like to be Marilyn, a sensation strangely absent from every other depiction I’ve ever seen. I loved Michelle Williams in My Week With Marilyn, but even that performance, which depicted her exquisite sadness and loneliness, still couldn’t convey to me why she was so sad and lonely. It also couldn’t show me how smart she was, and, perhaps more poignantly, how smart she wanted to be in a world that wouldn’t let her.
Filmmaker Liz Garbus uses recently unearthed diaries of Monroe’s to fill in the one piece of her mystique that has so far eluded would-be biographers: Monroe’s interior life. It’s fitting that this would remain a vacuum for so long: No one during her life wanted to hear her thoughts, so it figures that it took so long for us to notice we still didn’t know anything about her actual brain.
We learn here that Monroe fell somewhere between Madonna and Britney Spears — or at least what we know of those women — on the spectrum of self-made sex symbols. The film, through dramatic readings of her writing by several actors (Evan Rachel Wood, Lili Taylor, Elizabeth Banks, Glenn Close, Viola Davis), makes the case that she did, in fact, sleep her way to the top in the early days. But more interestingly, it also makes the case that she created the very persona that later imprisoned her, reading books about body control and breath control and voice control to finally make that quintessential sexy-talking, sexy-walking icon we still worship.
The film also reveals her Gatsby-esque, Type-A tendencies, an obsession with self-help, exercise, books, teachers, programs, and discipline. In another life, this woman would be writing for women’s magazines and writing Why Men Love Bombshells.
The device the film relies on — those readings by A-list stars — adds another interesting layer to the portrayal. More than anything, we learn here that Monroe longed to be taken seriously more than anything else, and never felt that she got there. To now see a wide swath of recognized actors lending depth and weight to her words makes Monroe into a poet and playwright on par with her onetime husband Arthur Miller. I particularly loved Evan Rachel Wood’s authoritative take — she seemed to be playing Monroe as that hypothetical self-help guru, pacing a stage in an auditorium dashing off bits of life advice to earnest students with notebooks. The diversity of age and race among the readers helped, too — it said, “We’re all Marilyn, and we love her for something more than her body.”
It’s hard to imagine this will be the last we ever see of Marilyn captured on screen, but if it were, it would be a definitive place to end the discussion. If only Marilyn could see this, she would know: We did not just see her, we heard her, and we loved her more for it.