The brief, brilliant career of Marilyn Monroe has haunted Hollywood for more than 50 years, her life and work and untimely death the subject of endless litigation and debate. A new Netflix documentary, “The Mystery of Marilyn Monroe: The Unheard Tapes,” dives back into the lurid lore surrounding Monroe, tapping into all too familiar themes of trauma and addiction before landing right back where it began.
Directed by Emma Cooper, “The Mystery of Marilyn Monroe: The Unheard Tapes” focuses not directly on Monroe herself but on writer and journalist, Anthony Summers, author of the book “Goddess” (about who else but Monroe). “Goddess,” published in 1985, is a requisite biography, full of conversations with Monroe affiliates and allies. Cooper’s documentary, in turn, pulls from the audio used for that book, hours of Summers in conversation with people who knew Marilyn (or who knew people who knew Marilyn). What follows is more like a podcast, unfortunately, than a film.
Summers’ interrogation of Monroe’s associates and directors — John Huston, Billy Wilder, the daughter and wife of her psychiatrist, Ralph Greenson — is dogged and curious, but it doesn’t make for particularly engaging filmmaking. “The Mystery of Marilyn Monroe: The Unheard Tapes” stages these moments of conversation and interrogation with actors in chintzy ‘70s and ‘80s costuming lip-syncing the audio against even chintzier ‘70s and ‘80s decor. Summers himself gets no flashback avatar, but rather only appears in the present day with a grim and desperate malaise.
Given how much of the new material on Monroe is audio-based, one is left wondering why a project like this wouldn’t work better as a podcast. There is little that’s visually compelling about Cooper’s work, the type of investigation perhaps best listened to in the background of another activity. The most engaging parts of the film emerge from the archival footage of Monroe, either from her films or interviews, in which her natural charm and talent shine through. In the decades-long fascination with her death and the time leading up to it, it’s almost as if the actual person on screen has been erased.
Summers’ and Cooper’s portrait of Monroe is that of a well-meaning striver, an underdog and an accidental genius, who knew how to turn it on and turn it off. When she was on, she was the most likable, enigmatic and charismatic figure in any room, whether she was around a group of journalists or the President of the United States. When she was off, she was plagued by trauma from past abuse, seeking prescription medication to ease her anxieties. She was also, according to Summers, a paranoid person who feared abandonment at every turn.
Like several post-#MeToo streaming documentaries, “The Mystery of Marilyn Monroe: The Unheard Tapes” seeks to contextualize Monroe’s career and life within the context of varying degrees of “bad men” she hung around with. Cooper’s documentary and Summers’ research bounce between Monroe’s liaisons with men, like the Kennedy brothers, her marriages to Joe DiMaggio and Arthur Miller, and her worsening mental stability. The mystery of Monroe doesn’t seem all too mysterious at all, and though the film continues to tease a type of reveal, the information presented is not all that different from what’s already common knowledge.
Though Cooper and Summers touch on conspiracy theories — including the idea that Monroe was, perhaps, murdered for her associations with the Kennedys — no great weight is given to any of them, just minutes on screen. The result is not some great revelation so much as it is a repetition of misery. How much longer will the suffering of Monroe be re-litigated and reaffirmed?
Summers is open enough about Monroe’s mental health struggles and believes the actress’ death to be an accident. Then why does the final act of the documentary center around possible alternatives? Perhaps it’s to indulge a process of elimination, but really, it only expands upon the lurid fascination with the notion that Monroe’s life was tragically unfair instead of unfairly tragic.
To acknowledge the humanity in her death is to acknowledge the humanity in her life, and “The Mystery of Marilyn Monroe: The Unheard Tapes” only proves that what went unheard in Monroe’s life was her own voice.
“The Mystery of Marilyn: The Unheard Tapes” premieres on Netflix April 27.