Hello again, Norma Jean, as the 60th anniversary of Marilyn Monroe’s death brings renewed opportunities to revisit her life and legacy, without really bringing anything substantially new to the party. “The Mystery of Marilyn Monroe: The Unheard Tapes” has one hook in recorded interviews with those who knew her, but offsets that with a clumsy device to illustrate those conversations.
The recordings come courtesy of Anthony Summers , author of the 1985 book about Monroe, “Goddess.” The interviews include a wide range of those who crossed her path, offering the old-Hollywood kick of hearing snippets of his chats with directors John Huston and Billy Wilder and Monroe’s “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes” co-star Jane Russell.
The documentary undermines that, alas, with the unnecessary wrinkle of having actors “play” those people by lip-synching the audio, a pointless attempt to create the impression that the viewer is seeing the other side of those conversations. Given that there’s plenty of video and film footage of Monroe to weave in, it’s an indulgence that’s far too cute for its own good, adding a sense of showbiz pizzazz that does nothing to buttress the project’s credibility.
Beyond that, director Emma Cooper devotes much of the latter half of the film to the “mystery” part of the title, and the decades of speculation about whether her death in 1962 was a suicide, an accidental overdose or, as Summers puts it, “something more sinister.”
Inevitably, that conversation turns to Monroe’s reported relationships with John and Robert F. Kennedy, the subject of a seemingly endless number of documentaries and salacious (mostly TV) movies through the years.
As well documented as all that was, it’s hard to avoid a certain sleaze factor in the telling, and the cheesy reenactments surely don’t help. There are also some puzzling choices, like showing Monroe famously singing “Happy Birthday” to the president months before her death, but not including his amusing response.
In truth, the emphasis on the Kennedys almost plays like a distraction from hearing more intriguing observations, such as Huston citing Monroe’s downward trajectory from “The Asphalt Jungle” to “The Misfits” (which he directed 11 years apart); or Wilder saying of his reported difficulties working with the actress, who he directed in two of her best films, “The Seven Year Itch” and “Some Like It Hot,” “I had no problem with Monroe. Monroe had problems with Monroe.”
For her part, Monroe in taped interviews talks about her twin desires to be happy and be a good actress, saying somewhat sadly with the benefit of hindsight, “You have to work at both of them.”
Like other stars who died young, Monroe has been frozen in time, with enough intrigue surrounding her and the famous men she dated and married to fuel conspiracy theories and ensure that even six decades later she remains the media gift that keeps on giving, including a recent CNN docuseries. As film critic Christina Newland wrote, “It’s vanishingly difficult for Marilyn Monroe to be seen as an actual human being.”
In that sense, watching “The Mystery of Marilyn Monroe” serves as a reminder, to paraphrase Elton John’s musical tribute, that her candle burned out long before the exploitation of her ever did.
“The Mystery of Marilyn Monroe: The Unheard Tapes” premieres April 27 on Netflix.