Love, Marilyn: HBO’s haunting documentary delves into the mind of Marilyn Monroe

Coinciding with the 50th anniversary of Marilyn Monroe¹s death, HBO presents the insightful and often heartbreaking documentary Love, Marilyn from Oscar-nomiated filmmaker Liz Garbus on Monday, June 17, at 9pm ET/PT.

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Filmmaker Liz Garbus has spent nearly two decades crafting acclaimed documentaries on a wide variety of social-justice issues — including 2007’s Emmy-winning Ghosts of Abu Ghraib. So dissecting the psyche of Hollywood’s ultimate sex symbol, Marilyn Monroe, wasn’t exactly on her radar for future projects. That is, until she encountered a trove of the actress’ letters, notes and diaries released by the estate of Monroe’s beloved acting coach and confidant Lee Strasberg and experienced an emotion she wasn’t expecting: kinship.

“I never read much or thought much about her,” Garbus says, “so when I was presented with her documents, I was floored by the difference between them and my sort of knee-jerk analysis of her. From a woman’s point of view, what she exuded was so relatable just in terms of my own life as a working woman that it was kind of stunning, and that’s what made me excited about the project.”

Interspersing previously unseen footage both on and off the sets of Monroe’s films, interviews with Monroe intimates and readings of her innermost thoughts, Garbus’ engrossing documentary, Love, Marilyn, skips the standard MM lore and instead presents a poignant portrait of an unloved child who grew up to become America’s most beloved sex symbol, even as she battled to be taken seriously as an actress, a life partner and an intellect.

As the film lays bare, the woman born Norma Jeane Mortenson carefully crafted her bombshell persona, using Mabel Elsworth Todd’s kinesiology study The Thinking Body to create her distinctive walk and vocal intonations. And then, though her films kept Twentieth Century-Fox in business and she worked obsessively to perfect her mind and her talent, she could not move beyond that persona — not in her personal life, not in her professional life. Finally she fled for Lee Strasberg’s Actors Studio and discovered in him someone who could accept her exactly as she was and still believe that she could be a star.

“In the mid 1950s for the biggest star in Hollywood to walk away from her contract, thumb her nose at her bosses and go and try to become a stage actress — that’s surprising,” says Garbus. “And then to try to form her own production company and take the reins on the content of what she was a part of — it shows something about her character and her desire for artistic excellence. Of course her life ended too soon, but I think she was on that journey.”

Rather than hire a single actress to convey Monroe’s words, Garbus assembled an eclectic group of actors to tackle the job, among them Lindsay Lohan, Uma Thurman, Marisa Tomei, Glenn Close, Ellen Burstyn and Viola Davis. Though the effect is startling at first, seeing the flickers of understanding on the women’s faces as they convey Monroe’s hope and anguish breathes life into her relentless ambition and self-reflection.

“To me it was all about representing these different thoughts and ‘flavors’ in her mind, and I feel like if you have one actor in a film like this, then you’re constantly looking at that actor and they have to be Marilyn Monroe,” Garbus explains. “In this sense, you’re relieved of that and then you can just listen.”

Love, Marilyn premieres Monday, June 17, at 9pm ET/PT on HBO

Photos courtesy of HBO

About Lori Acken

Lori just hasn't been the same since "thirtysomething" and "Northern Exposure" went off the air.
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