Love, Marilyn allows Marilyn Monroe to tell her own story, in her own haunting words, through the mouths of actors, her friends, and colleagues.
In many ways, Marilyn Monroe is the blueprint for celebrity iconography and idolatry as we know it. She was an enigma of a woman, a creation she herself forged from within herself, seemingly made of fragile glass that would serve as her own ceiling, and later, her tomb. Much has been written, documented, and speculated about the late actress, and in death it's so much easier not to let herself. In Love, Marilyn, director Liz Garbus attempts to let Monroe speak for herself through a series of letters, diary entries, and various documents recovered from a storage box. Like Monroe herself, the box had been shoved away and its physical contents long-forgotten -- all that remained was the mythology of hearsay.
Love, Marilyn is a documentary that strives to attempt the impossible, to allow the dead to tell us their story -- a story that is and was never ours to truly know. Her private documents, including studio memos and letters from directors, are read by a variety of actors, with notable standout performances from Jennifer Ehle, Marisa Tomei, Evan Rachel Wood, Viola Davis, Glenn Close, Ellen Burstyn, Elizabeth Banks, Ben Foster (as Norman Mailer), and Adrien Brody (as Truman Capote). The actresses reading her words are able to aptly capture the many sides of Monroe, from her mania to her depression, her insecurity and her obsessiveness, her confidence and her fear. It's fascinating to watch these actresses at times seemingly fold in on themselves as they read Monroe's words, allowing themselves to experience the feelings of someone they never met and could never possibly know.
Like Sarah Polley's Stories We Tell, Love, Marilyn is an engrossing example of the way a story becomes different depending on the teller. At times, actresses will read the same lines in succession, and their different emotional interpretations and readings of those lines not only insinuate the various sides of Monroe herself, but intimate to us that we can never truly know what she meant or how she felt, but we can understand how much beauty there was in her desperation to reconcile her own life and identity with the identity of this actress she created.
But the beauty of Monroe, beneath all the artifice, is that we can all relate to her. As much as we idolized her and held her to impossible standards, and as much as we bought into the persona she sold with calculated effortlessness, she was still a human being with a beating heart -- so fragile yet so resilient, and buried deep within a desperation that was, and is, not so difficult to understand.
It's interesting to look back on Monroe's nude photograph scandal and place it in the context of modern celebrity. Fame-hungry women strike deals with distributors to release "sex tapes" under the guise that they are unwilling participants, whereas Monroe's sexy calendar photographs surfaced at a time when their release could hurt her image, and she took ownership of their existence, saying, "So what?" She manipulated the media by playing into the Cinderella, rags-to-riches story everyone so desperately wanted her to embody. She took the photos because she needed the money, she said, and everyone understood that the poor little orphan girl was lost and didn't know what else to do.
Monroe raised, and continues to raise, questions about self-exploitation, and whether this concept is valid at all. If you are entering a system that is designed to exploit you and exists in disservice of your entire gender, isn't it better to take control of the system from within? Isn't it better to say, "Here, let me do that for you" and maintain some sense of identity and self-control? So that's what Monroe did, and she created a persona that played into the studio ideal of an actress in her era -- she was effervescent and coy, an aloof temptress that was at once both a child and a sex symbol. Women wanted to be her, men wanted to be with her, and like the films in which she acted, she was tangible but never quite within reach. Monroe invented herself as someone to be admired, coveted, and a symbol of some greatness to which women could aspire.
But her persona was also her undoing, and she was crushed under the weight of herself when her adoring public refused to let her be anything but the manufactured Monroe. The truth is that Marilyn refused to let herself be anything but the Marilyn she created for the public, and through acting classes and difficult on-set experiences, she started to understand that she didn't really know who the real Marilyn was anymore -- because Marilyn was a figment dreamed up in a studio. Marilyn felt trapped by her own design. Truman Capote found her staring at herself in a mirror once and asked what she was looking at, to which Monroe replied, "I'm looking at her." And it's through this falsified persona that Marilyn helps us understand the cultural obsession with celebrity, and this idea that they somehow belong to us because we buy movie tickets and gossip magazines; we pay for them and so nothing is sacred.
Monroe studied with Lee Strasberg, who pioneered the sense memory approach of acting. Through sense memory, the actor is asked not to find the emotion in a scene, but to become the character by empathizing with the character's circumstances and experiences. The actor does this by recalling their own similar set of experiences -- a time when you smelled fresh grass, a time when you felt desperate, a time when you experienced fear or loss, the ringing of a door bell as you waited for someone or something important, and how it made your stomach fold in on itself. The actor mines his or her own feelings and must relive them in order to become the character; they do not mimic, they recreate. Acting then becomes about empathizing with a character, much the same way we, as the audience connect with a film via our own individual set of experiences. But how could Marilyn recreate herself -- her true self -- with sense memory? Had she thrown away and forgotten so much of herself in the creation of the Marilyn Monroe persona that Norma Jean Dougherty was lost forever? Had she permanently become Marilyn Monroe?
Her emotional and existential struggles are beautifully detailed, as she asks contemplative questions like, "You began and ended in air, but where was the middle?" She writes of her own insecurity and depression: "Remembering when I couldn't do a god damn thing, then trying to build myself up with the memory that I had done things right. And I've had moments that were excellent, but the bad is heavier to carry around." She was not so out of reach or difficult to understand, after all.
The words in these diaries and letters are sometimes written in sloppy and childish loose-hand scribbles, sometimes in deliberate and sharp shorthand, or in dreamy and romantic cursive, as if she had a handwriting style for every person inside of her. They tell the story of a woman who struggled to be herself, who was scared to know or feel who she really was, buried so deep inside of herself like a Russian nesting doll. She struggled the way we all struggle to be our truest selves and look inward with honesty and bravery, and like the rest of us, she stumbled through it clumsily because there's just no right way to live -- and as she later admitted in her own words, "Life is to be lived, and since it is comparatively short (maybe too long), the only thing I know for sure, it isn't easy." We are all different to so many people, that sometimes it's difficult to remember who we really are. We feel that we are what we show to our friends, family, and loved ones, and that we are what they make of us, so we try and surround ourselves with people who see the best versions of us -- those who see us as we want to be seen.
And that's all Marilyn ever did -- she chose a side of herself to share, only she chose to share this person with an entire world. She surrounded herself with an audience that saw the best and brightest parts of her, just as she chose husbands who could validate her existence and reinforce her in times of weakness. There is nothing wrong with who Marilyn was or who she pretended to be, only the tragedy of her inability to reconcile the two halves and find a wholeness within herself. She relied on all of us, as if this were a large-scale co-dependent relationship; we would be the ones to break her, and the ones to put her back together again. But through her celebrity, so little of her life became her own, consistently blurring the line between the Marilyn Monroe she presented to us, and the Marilyn Monroe who was lost and aimless, reaching out for a lifeline from deep within. Not even her personal tragedy -- two miscarriages, released by the press -- was her own, a fact that was ultimately proved the moment she relented to death and gave herself over to us in full.
We still obsess over Marilyn -- who she really was, what she meant to us as a pop culture icon, a sex symbol, and a woman who took control of her image like so many women still struggle to do, and what her life might have been. As Gloria Steinem said of Monroe, "One simple reason for her life story's endurance is the premature end of it. When the past dies, there is mourning, but when the future dies, our imaginations are compelled to carry it on."
And yet Marilyn herself hauntingly begged in her own plaintive handwriting, "Please don't talk about me when I'm gone."