Liz Garbus, Academy Award nominee for Best Documentary Feature (The Farm: Angola, USA) in 1999, takes a treasure trove of personal papers, diaries, and letter that have never been seen and fashions a beautifully rendered re-creation of Marilyn Monroe, largely in her own voice that allows the icon to address a new generation.
Marilyn is Legion. She is a fractured persona that speaks to us in cacophonous bursts – the quiet innocence of Norma Jean and the sexualized front that was “Marilyn Monroe” as well as other voices that remained nameless, faceless, known only to those closest to her. Which means that not only is she Legion, but so too are the countless friends, lovers, and critics of Marilyn.
And, in this documentary, Garbus opens up a forum for the two competing legions to have their say. The seemingly endless parade of Marilyns – young (Evan Rachel Wood), classically older (Glen Close, Ellen Burstyn), contemporary (Uma Thurman, Elizabeth Banks, Marisa Tomei), and even a tantalizing hint of diversity (Viola Davis) – creates an illusion of sorts, a sense that we are still enthralled by her singular persona, but I wonder, are we?
Her beauty endures, certainly, and a mystique, more than mere sexuality and attraction. It is not surprising, even, to hear celebrated acting guru Lee Strasberg praise the sensitivity of her spirit, as it informed her acting (although I fail to be moved by her performances in the ways I am by some of the women “speaking” in her voice in the film). But does she truly merit the iconic status, the elevation to personal memory that past generations have bestowed upon her? She died before I was born, so I can’t play the game of recalling where I was when I heard the news of her death, but should I, or anyone born decades later? Did she contribute more to the national consciousness than slain Presidents or influential leaders (Martin Luther King, Malcolm X)? Should she continue to be held in such regard?
I questioned that, oddly enough, when hearing Davis intone choice words from Marilyn’s journals and letters. Was she really so transcendent a figure as to speak to and for all of us?
I appreciated the searching curiosity in Garbus’s interpretation, especially in the distinctively nuanced readings from Ben Foster (as literary luminary Norman Mailer) and Adrien Brody (as Truman Capote). Foster captures the tough guy crush that Mailer had for Marilyn in its most offhanded casualness, but it is in Brody’s breakdown of Capote doing Marilyn where a higher degree of performative effort comes into play. There is real genius in this presentation and despite my ambivalence, I know Marilyn deserves to be the focus of such adoration. I think what trips me up is the question of whether or not there will ever be anyone else like Marilyn, that iconic a presence to take her place. With the recent deaths of Michael Jackson, Roger Ebert, Nelson Mandela, and Peter O’Toole, we’ve witnessed the passing of pivotal figures, transcendent and transformational in their fields, but were any of them as truly iconic as Marilyn?
It has less to do with these individuals. It speaks to our society, overly-connected through social media, so intensely plugged in to a whole that is at once massive (limitless) and yet fragmented, segmented into niches of niches. Where would Marilyn even reside today? She wouldn’t be able to dominate the scene because there is no one scene to rule.
And then maybe the issue is also the use of the term “iconic,” which has joined “genius” as a devalued signifier. Here an “icon,” there an “icon,” everywhere an “icon.” But Marilyn Monroe was something else entirely. The last of her kind. We hear it in her words, in all those voices in Garbus’s film – the would-be Marilyns and the endless line of commentators, in our own responses to her. By the end, we are all Marilyn Monroe, like a matrix full of Agent Smiths with no Neo to save the day.
Love, Marilyn had its broadcast premiere on HBO in June of 2012 and kicked off its home entertainment rollout on DVD and Digital Platforms on December 31, 2013 (Cinedigm).
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Bernie Rowe said:
A sex symbol of the 1950s, Marilyn Monroe managed to capture the heart of every man on the Planet through her gorgeousness and sex appeal. A girl who knew how to use her sensuality, Marilyn Monroe managed to make her name immortal as she is still known as a sex symbol, 40 some years after her death. Marilyn Monroe took the world by surprise with her gorgeous figure, beautiful platinum blonde hair and a bubbly personality. A controversial woman who was not afraid to show off her femininity, Marilyn Monroe managed to become the first cover girl for the famous men’s magazine “Playboy”. Around this time, Marilyn Monroe managed to become a style icon for many women on the planet and a dream girl for many men.
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