A new Netflix documentary released to commemorate the screen legend’s 60th death anniversary, bites off more than it can chew. But therein lies its most compelling bit — as it seeks to rake through a mire of inconvenient truths
It’s while watching The Mystery of Marilyn Monroe: The Unheard Tapes that you suddenly realise: Marilyn is perhaps the most famous woman ever to have lived. It’s been 60 years since she died — allegedly by ‘suicide’ — but it seems she’s hogged our collective senses even though she lived, and died, at a time when most of us weren’t born. And not because she was a movie star or a Hollywood icon. But because she remains an enduring enigma, cutting across civilisational, cultural and generational divides. In fact, if you had to ask someone, “Who, in your mind, is the most famous male personality who lived?”, the answers would be a multiple-choice, subjective one. Not so with females: Marilyn rules public consciousness.
Pulitzer-shortlisted Irish author Anthony Summers wrote a book in 1985 on Marliyn; it was titled Goddess, and he had framed the narrative based on 650 interviews he had conducted in the early 1980s — of those who had been part of her life: friends, co-workers, mentors, lovers, shrinks and so on. And then he had tried to put together an investigative timeline — along the lines of Jim Garrison’s On the Trail of the Assassins: One Man’s Quest to Solve the Murder of President Kennedy, that was made into an Oscar-winning movie by Oliver Stone — of Marilyn’s death. (And it’s interesting that John F Kennedy was among her most “famous” lovers; also interesting is that he would probably figure in the ‘Most Famous Male Personality’ list, even if it’s only one of the multiple choices.)
The Mystery of Marilyn Monroe: The Unheard Tapes is based on the book. It relies heavily on actual footage — photos and videos — gathered meticulously, and intersperses those with re-enactments of the real characters who formed the eco-system of Marilyn’s short-lived fame. Much of the ‘legends’ come to life, with “all she wanted was to be loved and cared for” and her searing vulnerability stealing a march over others. But what’s also revealed — what we maybe know already but were waiting for reinforcements — is how ambitious she was, how carefully-cultivated her persona of the ‘dumb blonde’ was (yes, we know the world’s most famous woman was a dyed blonde), and how her insecurity made her teeter on the verge of paranoia, schizophrenia even. The case of Marilyn Monroe is definitely not a Hollywood cliffhanger — it’s way more nuanced and politicised than that.
Full marks to Summers, who leads the spirit of the documentary, for revealing the composite structure to a life that’s been showcased in bits and pieces, with most people preferring to bask in Marilyn’s screen presence than scrutinising a case that has it in its armoury an effortless ability to qualify as the most complex mystery to have ever unfolded.