Film Review – The Mystery of Marilyn Monroe: The Unheard Tapes
The Mystery of Marilyn Monroe: The Unheard Tapes
There was a time – not too long ago – when she was the most famous person on the planet. But behind the platinum blonde hair, golden smile, and superstar persona was a troubled person. The images we remember of Marilyn Monroe are of the glitz and glamour: A dress flying up while standing over a storm drain or singing in front of a microphone while wearing a shimmering dress. Yet this are just a façade. Underneath was Norma Jeane Mortenson, an orphan who spent her entire life struggling with loneliness and self-esteem issues. Years after her death – on August 4th 1962, age thirty-six – Monroe’s private life has been one of constant debate and scrutiny.
Director Emma Cooper’s documentary, The Mystery of Marilyn Monroe: The Unheard Tapes (2022) aims to shed further light over Monroe and the circumstances of her passing. Authorities believe that she died of a drug overdose, yet conspiracy theorists claim the story is not as cut and dry as it seems. Cooper centralizes her film around journalist Anthony Summers, who – while doing research for his book Goddess: The Secret Lives of Marilyn Monroe – recorded hours of extended interviews with nearly every surviving associate to the starlet. This includes family, friends, co-stars, directors, agents, assistants, collaborators – the list goes on and on. These recordings are coupled with archival footage/interviews of Monroe herself, creating a multilayered tapestry.
The audio clips create an eerie effect when contrasted with the smiling and radiant Monroe. Hearing the real Jane Russell, John Huston and Billy Wilder describe their feelings about her juxtaposed with scenes from Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953) and Some Like it Hot (1959) casts a haunting cloud, as though we were listening in on private conversations. Interviews with close associates – like the family of Monroe’s personal psychologist – digs into her psyche in ways not seen before. Cooper supplements this material with scenes re-enacting Summers’ interviews. Although the subjects’ real voices are being heard, we see actors performing the words. This is an awkward approach that takes us out of the film’s grip. Witnessing actors – in period clothing – lip sync dialogue from the real people they’re portraying never plays off convincingly. The fact that this happens constantly adds a weight that Cooper and her team never recover from. Seeing Monroe and listening to the interviews was effective already, the additional scenes don’t add as much value.
Is there anything new to be learned here? The answer is: Not really. Much of what is covered has become well known: The rotating foster homes, Monroe’s meteoric rise in the entertainment industry, her troubled marriages to Joe DiMaggio and Arthur Miller, her desire to be taken seriously as an actor, her lack of confidence, her wish to have a family, etc. – all while having to live up to the public’s perception of her as a “bombshell.” Although hearing this from people close to her adds a unique twist, the actual details of Monroe’s background have been well documented. Her troubled relationships involved partners that thought they were getting “Marilyn” but were surprised to discover “Norma Jeane.” Monroe had to play the pin-up in the face of a misogynistic society. In one scene, she tells an interviewer about filming her latest movie. The interviewer replies by asking her about her cooking skills. In a later scene, Monroe is asked if she is happy with her place in life, to which she replies with a meek grin.
Advertisements sell the notion that The Mystery of Marilyn Monroe contains new and shocking revelations that would somehow change our perception of her and her death. Shots of audio tapes whirring in record players suggest the investigation unraveled some juicy story. Rumors and gossip have swirled around Monroe to this day, the most notable being the possibility that she had an affair with John F. Kennedy. Cooper and Summers certainly cover this angle, with the added insinuation that JFK was not the only Kennedy that had dalliances with Monroe.
A lot of this feels like hearsay, and the idea that the Kennedys covered up their ties with Monroe, or that they were somehow involved with her passing is the stuff of tabloid magazines. I started to check out in this section, as Cooper’s focus shifted from a person in need of help to the subject of a true crime mystery. There are many “What Ifs” and odd occurrences during the latter half, with the documentary tossing out theories without flat out accusing anyone. There is a firm proclamation that the Kennedys were not part of any wrongdoing, but they sure are mentioned quite often.
The first half of The Mystery of Marilyn Monroe paints the superstar as a three dimensional person, full of hopes and dreams cut tragically short. The second half drops dramatically, as we enter the facets of her overdose and the implications of criminal activity. The result is uneven at best. With the Ana de Armas starring biopic coming later this year, the story of Norma Jeane/Marilyn Monroe is unlikely to fade anytime soon. Even in death, her star continues to shine.