Review: Lifetime’s ‘Secret Life of Marilyn Monroe’

In our ever-more-fragmented media landscape, we're seeing fewer and fewer recognizable brand-name stars for *everybody*, but we're probably getting more and more recognizable brand-name stars for *somebody*. 

And that means that people who, to certain individuals, are clearly stars of a certain stature are virtual unknowns to great masses, possibly to majorities. And that's even the case with culture-watching professionals.

Take Britt Robertson. I didn't see many “Tomorrowland” reviews calling her an unknown or even a newcomer, thankfully, but plenty of critics are still bending over backwards to reference credits like “Dan in Real Life” or “Delivery Man” as if audiences may struggle to place her. I hear her name and I think of an actress who has been the unquestioned star of at least two network TV shows and one of the stars (if only for a for a season) of a bona fide hit. In the sphere of what I do, Britt Robertson isn't a rising star. She's somebody who TV networks have been banking on (without breakout success, mind you) for five-plus years. 

The same thing happened when “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl” premiered at Sundance and movie critics had to strain to identify a lot of actors who had the temerity to only be familiar from the small screen

But that doesn't mean that I don't have blindspots. “Undateable,” for example, added Bridgit Mendler to its cast for Season 2 and I'd never heard of her, but she has 4.5+ million Twitter followers. Mendler, like Ciara Bravo or the periodic YouTube personalities who pop up on the reality shows I watch, is proof that there are corners of the Internet and of my TV dial in which people I've never heard of are beloved by millions.

Lifetime's two-part telefilm or miniseries or whatever you call a four-hour program on TV these days “The Secret Life of Marilyn Monroe” stars Kelli Garner and for most viewers, one of the pleasures of “The Secret Life of Marilyn Monroe” will be watching a Marilyn Monroe biopic without the leading lady being weighted down by the burden of familiarity. 

But to me, Kelli Garner is a star, or at least an actress who I've wanted to see become a star for a pretty long time, going back to Larry Clark's “Bully” in 2001. After indies like “Thumbsucker” and “Lars and the Real Girl,” ABC decided Kelli Garner was ready for stardom in both “My Generation” and “Pan Am,” but America wasn't buying it. So for me, one of the pleasures of “The Secret Life of Marilyn Monroe” is watching Kelli Garner finally earn a role that allows her to bring together many of the skills hinted at previously. 

It's nice that “The Secret Life of Marilyn Monroe” works on those two levels — either as an immersive performance in which an actress you don't know disappears into the iconography of one of the most famous women of the 20th Century or in which a long on-the-cusp actress finally fulfills her long-evident potential — because four hours is a lot of time to watch what is a very, very, very conventional biopic of a woman who hasn't lacked for variably conventional biopics in the past.

If you come to “The Secret Life of Marilyn Monroe” looking for biographical or psychological insights into Marilyn Monroe's life that you've never heard before, you're almost certain to be disappointed and, given the running time, you probably won't make it to Night 2 unless you're like, “I came for Joe DiMaggio and I'm not leaving until I get Joe DiMaggio.” 

If you come to “The Secret Life of Marilyn Monroe,” airing on May 30 and May 31, looking for a sexy, nuanced lead performance and a few other highlights? There are reasons enough to stick with the movie.

[That's my review in a nutshell, but more after the break…]

“The Secret Life of Marilyn Monroe” is based on J. Randy Taraborrelli's book, adapted by Stephen Kornish, who knows his way around so-so period distillations from the miniseries “The Kennedys.”

The grand inspiration of “The Secret Life of Marilyn Monroe” as a book and (to a lesser degree) as a miniseries, was its attempt to interpret Monroe's fragile psyche through that of her troubled mother Gladys (Eva Amurri Martino aging into Susan Sarandon in a piece of cutesy casting that makes very little sense if you actually think about it) and unofficial foster mother Grace (Emily Watson, who doesn't age from one actress into another actress and therefore makes the mother-daughter casting of Gladys seem like even more of a gimmick and less of a justifiable device). 

While this is more of Gladys and Grace than we typically get in Marilyn Monroe stories, it would be misleading to suggest that their stories are actually all that important to “The Secret Life of Marilyn Monroe.” 

The movie has no insight at all into Grace and Watson, who has a disturbing tendency to be the most wasted part of any project she signs on for — See “The Theory of Everything,” in which her presence is almost bafflingly pointless — has almost no role to dimensionalize at all. You come away thinking, “It's probably better than not that Marilyn had Grace to sometimes raise her,” without knowing what motivated the woman or whether or not the modicum of stability she provided helped the ill-fated Marilyn at all.

Sarandon's performance as Gladys is more interesting, but perhaps even harder to read because the Oscar-winning actress has made the admirable decision to deliver a quiet  portrait of mental illness. Putting Gladys' understated disassociation against Marilyn's more theatrical and performative struggles definitely offers fodder for discussion when it comes to what traits are or aren't genetic and how different factors might have produced a Marilyn versus a Gladys, the miniseries is only occasionally interested in pursuing those leads.

The Grace/Gladys stuff might be what's “new” in “The Secret Life of Marilyn Monroe,” but it's not the movie. The movie's substance is late-in-life Marilyn being forced into a consultation with a therapist (Jack Noseworthy's Alan DeShields), a consultation that consists of the most famous woman in the world reciting her biography for a patient listener. At times Marilyn is the coy minx, teasing her confessor, occasionally she's the the exposed Norma Jean, but mostly she's just Marilyn Monroe, Movie Star talking in the same anecdotes we've heard about and seen a dozen times before — Joe DiMaggio isn't happy about that subway grate! She reads Arthur Miller's journal! Happy birthday, Mr. President! — and using a litany of famous Marilyn Monroe quotes. It was the third or fourth time that this Marilyn says something mighty familiar and it turns out to have been a verbatim pull from her IMDB Quotes page that something needed to give. Either therapist has to call Marilyn's bluff, or I'm forced to call the screenwriter's bluff. I'm willing to accept that Monroe's famous quotes were probably things she said dozens of times — something like “It takes a smart brunette to play a dumb blonde” — but if you're going to have a famous person speaking like their own Wikipedia entry, that ought to be a meaningful detail about the character. 

Marilyn Monroe was a woman who did, indeed, have a carefully constructed version of herself that she perpetuated to the public, but if you're doing a movie called “The Secret Life of Marilyn Monroe,” somebody needs to be able to identify and dismantle the facade. Kornish can't decide the capacity he'd like for DeShields to fill here, so he isn't inquisitive or interrogating enough to have any character of his own and Noseworthy isn't nearly an interesting enough actor to give DeShields any kind of off-the-page internal life. He nods, agrees and lets Marilyn tells the story in her own way when a more original telling of this material might have allowed him to strip aside the hagiography of Monroe's stories to get as something new.

The journey that we go on from starry-eyed, somewhat mousy brunette Norma Jean to blonde bombshell Marilyn is just one legendary moment after another. Some wartime calendar modeling leads to a famous nude shoot leads to a slew of compromised and compromising relationships with Hollywood functionaries who slowly move her up the ladder toward stardom. But the troubled Marilyn indulges in pills and booze and relationships that were mostly harmful with men who were either physically or emotionally abusive and tragedy awaits. And sometimes, in this version of the story, she visits her mother, who in one scene complains that Marilyn only talks about herself, which is an unintended echo of a movie that isn't all that interested in Grace either.

Director Laurie Collyer (“Sherrybaby”) is hamstrung by the perfunctory script, but at least stages the vignettes with style and attention to period detail. [In this respect, the stealth star of “The Secret Life of Marilyn Monroe” is truly cinematographer Chris Manley, who knows his way around the period after shooting the series run of “Mad Men,” for which he has received only Emmy nominations, but surely deserved wins. The costumes and production design in “Secret Life” are surely top-notch, but in Manley's hands, I sometimes had to catch my breath at the recreations of famous photographs and movie scenes.]

On “Sherrybaby,” a more blue-collar story of a woman battling personal demons and image issues, Collyer's greatest achievement was steering and capturing Maggie Gyllenhaal's performance and there's no doubt that she also deserves some credit for guiding Kelli Garner on a complicated project here. Marilyn Monroe was a transformative figure, both for representations of women in the industry, but also for her own personal transformation and some of Collyer's favorite images are glimpses of Marilyn learning about makeup, applying lipstick to her full lips, adjusting and modifying her hair from dark brown to famously flaxen. 

Garner is 31, but she's totally convincing as the gawky teenage Norma Jean, on-point as the voluptuous pin-up girl and occasionally heartbreakingly uncanny as the fragile, tempestuous Marilyn. There are come-hither moments in which you may not be able to tell Garner and Monroe apart, but you can tell that Garner's favorite scenes are when she puts the cracks in the matinee idol image, when Marilyn's voice wobbles from baby-girl to genuine, when one of life's pitfalls force her to recognize that the illusion she's made for herself is falling short or falling apart. 

The scenes Garner has with Sarandon's Gladys are good, but they're not enough and the movie has basically no insight into her relationships with the key men in her life. The first half of the movie is mostly Norma and Marilyn's rise, her initial marriage-of-enslavement and the dynamic with Grace and Gladys. The second half is repetitious recounting of the nightmares that were her marriages to Joe DiMaggio and Arthur Miller. As DiMaggio, Jeffrey Dean Morgan is physically miscast and given little to play beyond Joltin' Joe's temper. Stephen Bogaert's Miller is a withholding and condescending intellectual, but just as Marilyn never understands him, we don't either. Jack Kennedy doesn't appear on-screen and Bobby Kennedy isn't mentioned, so if you want those tawdry details, fortunately they've been covered elsewhere.

If you think about it, Marilyn Monroe has been the subject of more biopics or biopic depictions than practically every other famous actress put together. That means that you'd better have a darned good reason to try to do another. Sure, when Marilyn Monroe stories have hit, they've earned award recognition for the likes of Michelle Williams, Ashley Judd, Mira Sorvino and Catherine Hicks. But something like Poppy Montgomery's serviceable, but forgettable work in “Blonde” is rendered all the sadder by how unnecessary it was.

I think Kelli Garner's performance in “The Secret Life of Marilyn Monroe” is worthy of attention, both from Emmy voters and also from casting directors looking to properly utilize her in the future. Because Garner is the movie, the movie is worth watching, even if it adds little else to the already active Marilyn Monroe conversation.

“The Secret Life of Marilyn Monroe” airs on May 30 and May 31 on Lifetime.