Marilyn Monroe was a study in contradictions. She was the giddy, cooing blonde who became one of America’s haughtiest sex symbols, as well as a woman haunted by a thorny relationship with her mentally ill mom and the pressures of fame. The Secret Life of Marilyn Monroe, a two-night mini-series on Lifetime, tries to peer into the woman behind the legend, opening up the scars that most viewers couldn’t see under the flash and sizzle of the big screen. However, the mini-series is too disjointed and melodramatic to completely work as a biopic. Nevertheless, Kelli Garner is masterful as Monroe, digging into the pain and vulnerability of a cultural icon without ever succumbing to mere impersonation. It’s a terrific performance, the magnetic core of an otherwise muddled misfire.
Based on J. Randy Taraborrelli’s biography, The Secret Life of Marilyn Monroe aims to be an all-encompassing retelling of the actor’s life and times. As a young girl, Norma Jeane Mortenson hid behind curtains to retreat from her mother, Gladys (Susan Sarandon), who suffered from severe paranoid schizophrenia. When she spent time with aunt Ida (Gloria Gruber) and guardian Grace (a wasted Emily Watson), the young girl would cut pictures of movie stars out of magazines, and dream of attracting the same stares that Jean Harlow received.
However, as Norma Jeane sprouted into a woman – and got assigned a new stage name – her mother continued to torment her. Upon getting a small wage to be a magazine cover girl, she showed these pictures to Gladys, who then tore up the issues, explaining that her modelling was far from what God intended. Regardless, the young Norma Jeane was destined to become Marilyn Monroe, as her playful flirtations at photo shoots and auditions soon found a steady group of admirers, including sleazy producers and casting agents.
Laurie Collyer’s mini-series is at its most engaging during Monroe’s rise from a winking pin-up girl to one of Hollywood’s biggest (and highest paid) starlets. She uses her sunny charm to break into the business, but also had to flaunt her body for a variety of powerful men. The film doesn’t flinch when depicting the predatory sexism of the film industry. Considering the mini-series spends some time (in its second installment) dealing with the physical abuse of Monroe’s husband, Joe DiMaggio (a near unrecognizable Jeffrey Dean Morgan), it is peculiar that the lewd attitudes toward Monroe during her ascent to fame barely seemed to trouble her.
A lot of this near three-hour mini-series feels haphazard as it stitches together various highlights (and low-lights) of an icon’s life. Thankfully, Garner is the cohesion that makes much of the film work beyond its flaws. As opposed to Michelle Williams, whose dazzle and exasperation seemed to be more of an imitation than a realized character in My Week with Marilyn, Garner plays around with the woman’s performativity. That flirtatious, giggling blonde she personified was an act for the cameras, and Garner tactfully approaches the role by moving back and forth between the Marilyn everyone wanted to see and the Norma Jean she hid away. Sarandon is also terrific as Gladys, a brittle woman often lost in a hundred-yard stare. Although the Oscar winner brings frankness and a smidgen of pathos to the part, she is too seldom used. Given the actor’s pedigree, one imagines there were some mother-daughter scenes that didn’t make the final cut.
In her sessions with DeShields, Monroe’s glow diminishes into trembling anxiety; here, Garner is eager to explore the common facets of the impenetrable icon. Even though the biopic is designed around un-peeling the layers behind Monroe’s psychology, some insight is missing. As a young girl, she was ashamed by the promiscuous women she lived with, but then became a hopelessly libidinous sexual icon. The source material likely has more connection between her early woes and her later successes. Stephen Kronish’s (The Kennedys) screenplay is also reluctant to explore Monroe’s mental illness and increased suspicions of the people around her with much depth, as if it would do too much to shatter the persona.
On the whole, the mini-series is too unevenly paced, hopping between tragic family scenes and moments on glitzy film sets without a clear connection outside of progressing the biography. Meanwhile, the decision to structure her life’s retelling through a session with a new psychiatrist, Dr. DeShields (Jack Noseworthy), is not very compelling. DeShields looks far too youthful to be much a renowned expert in any field – even though the actor is in his mid-forties, he has the glow of a grad student – and is less an expert on psychology than a figure who can ask questions to keep the biography moving along.
The Secret Life Of Marilyn Monroe also bears its Lifetime roots a bit too proudly: many scenes end with an overwrought action, whether it be a slap or an angry toss of a pill bottle. Even worse, the first half of the two-night affair is filled with technical miscues. The arid, sepia-toned period details clash with obviously computer-generated backdrops, shiny and slick, which pointin to the artificiality and low budget of this production. (The unconvincing blue screen work also explains why so much of the biopic takes place indoors.)
Monroe’s acting coach, Natasha Lytess (Embeth Davidtz), often gave the star stealthy acting advice. One kernel of wisdom espoused in the mini-series: “Know yourself, and transmit that knowledge through that character to the audience.” Unfortunately, The Secret Life of Marilyn Monroe is more successful as a biography of its subject than an exploration of that painful interior life. Garner does what she can to un-peel the layers behind one of popular culture’s most fascinating women, but the mini-series is ultimately more infatuated with the legend of Marilyn than the life of Norma Jeane.
Kelli Garner gives a virtuoso performance as Marilyn Monroe, enlivening Laurie Collyer’s cluttered, superficial biopic.