The word “tabloid” has a sordid mystique. It’s such a powerful word that it can influence how you think about topics that fall into this category. “The Marilyn Monroe Mystery: Unreleased Tapesis a documentary that delves into what are considered the most sordid and sensational aspects of Marilyn Monroe’s story: her death on August 4, 1962, from a barbiturate overdose; the horrible downward spiral of depression and narcotics that led to it; and, buried deep in the weeds of it all, the most outrageous Marilyn Monroe-related gossip ever—her clandestine affairs with John F. Kennedy and Robert F. Kennedy.
It’s dark, sleazy, squinting through the keyhole, and it can make a movie like “The Marilyn Monroe Mystery” sound like a piece of true-crime guilty pleasure, one of those glorified tabloid exposes -TV with a patina of investigative credibility. In fact, it’s a very good movie. Besides, there’s no reason, at this point, to continue pretending that what happened to Marilyn Monroe is some “sordid” pulp saga that we need to peek through our fingertips. ‘at the top.
In truth, every aspect of her life was intertwined: her role as the greatest sex symbol of the 20th century; the melting radiance and magic she exuded on screen, inseparable from her acting skills; the desolate childhood that left her feeling, for most of her adult life, alone, abused and abandoned; the parade of powerful and famous men she was involved with; and where it all led – to a downfall that, in its tragedy, had as much meaning as its life, which is one of the reasons its more explosive aspects were considered too dangerous for public consumption.
“The Mystery of Marilyn Monroe” is the rare tabloid report that wants to set the record straight, and does. It confronts key questions, as well as conspiracy theories (Was Marilyn murdered? If yes, why?). And when you come out the other side, you can feel, for the first time, that you really know what happened, and it all adds up and makes terrible sense.
The film was directed by Emma Cooper, who does an excellent job of evoking Marilyn’s glory and her humanity; the archival clips she assembled intertwine Monroe’s unprecedented glamor with the way in private moments she exuded a more soulful sort of luminescence. But Cooper also works with the investigative reporter Anthony Summers, whose 1985 book “Goddess, the Secret Lives of Marilyn Monroe” is the basis of the documentary. In other words, most of the news here is far from new. But we hear excerpts from the interviews that Summers built his book on – he spoke to a thousand people who were close to Marilyn or related to her in some way, with 650 of the taped interviews.
By listening to the recorded comments, we can judge the veracity of what we hear. Cooper introduces a surprisingly effective technique, having actors, talking on rotary phones, lip-syncing to the tapes, in clips that are shot with the grainy, muted colors of old paperbacks. You might classify this enhancement as dramatic distortion, but it delivers the words we hear with increased clarity that helps dissolve the line between past and present. The effect of the technique is to transform the whole film into a dark documentary, a plunge into the darkness of the 1940s/50s.
The film traces Marilyn’s entire life, but does so through the prism of her relationships with men, relying on the conventional idea but that doesn’t mean it’s wrong that her search for the father figure faith she never had led her into a self-destructive pattern of rejecting flawed saviors. Marilyn knew how to handle herself through Hollywood’s pit of vipers (the startling clip we see of her singing “Everybody Needs a Da Da Daddy” in the 1949 Columbia film “Ladies of the Chorus” has an almost confessional undertow ). But once she became famous, she decided to become a good actress, so she started her own production company. Her failed marriages to Joe DiMaggio and Arthur Miller have, of course, been amply chronicled, with their elements of cruel fate (during the filming of “Some Like It Hot” she was pregnant with Miller’s child but made a false layer). But in “The Marilyn Monroe Mystery,” they are seen in hindsight almost as stepping stones to his affairs with the Kennedys.
Monroe’s relationship with JFK actually dates back to the early 1950s, when she was just rising to fame and he was a little-known wealthy and dashing senator who dated her on his California getaways. (They drank at Malibu Cottage, a dive spot haunted by movie stars.) But in 1961 and 1962, after Kennedy became president, Monroe had concurrent affairs with both Kennedy brothers (she filed for divorce from ‘with Miller on January 1, 1961). 20, 1961, the day of JFK’s inauguration). She was playing with fire and so were they.
One could say that the essential mystery that haunts Monroe’s life is whether her death was accidental or a suicide. The way I always saw her, her death, by pills, blurred the line between causality and passive despair; it’s eerily reminiscent of Lily Bart’s death at the end of Edith Wharton’s greatest novel, “The House of Mirth.” Yet the singular hidden mystery of Monroe’s life is whether — and how — her dangerous affairs with Jack and Bobby were connected to her death. If there is been a link, which suggests that it was a criminal act. In other words: was she killed because she knew things that needed to be covered up?
“The Marilyn Monroe Mystery” presents compelling evidence, beginning with the testimony of family members of Monroe’s psychiatrist, Ralph Greenson (who all knew her), about how her relationship with the Kennedys led her to the bottom. It’s one of those early ’60s hornet’s nests for secret politics, clandestine sex and cover-up. The Kennedys, due to Bobby’s relentlessness as Attorney General, had made an enemy of Jimmy Hoffa, the beleaguered Teamsters president. To get rid of the Kennedys, Hoffa was looking for dirt on them. So he hired private detective Fred Otash (interviewed by Summers) to bug Peter Lawford’s Malibu estate, which the Kennedys were using as a playboy retreat, and to bug Marilyn’s house as well. There were microphones under the rugs, in the chandeliers, in the ceiling lights. Monroe was already being watched by the FBI due to leftist associations she was known to have had, and when it emerged she was having a conversation with JFK about the bomb, she was classified as a threat. for the presidency.
We think we’re hearing the start of a conspiracy theory, and in a way we are. But Summers explicitly states that Monroe was do not assassinated. The result of his tangle of fate was simply that the Kennedys, who had tempted fate by having a concurrent relationship with the world’s most coveted movie star, were told they had to cut ties with her; it had become too risky. And they did. And it devastated her. Coming after a year of erratic behavior, where she barely made it through filming “The Misfits,” being dumped by the Kennedys sent her into a tailspin. JFK didn’t even tell him anything; she was a ghost. She died shortly afterwards.
Only one photograph of Marilyn Monroe with JFK and RFK remains, the one of her leaning against a bookcase, bathed in shadow, taken at a party the night of JFK’s famous birthday gathering in Madison Square Garden. (the one where Marilyn serenaded him with “Happy Birthday, Mr. President”). And there’s a reason there’s only one photo. Summers uncovers evidence of how the official storyline of the discovery of Monroe’s death – her housekeeper, thinking something was wrong, summoning Ralph Greenson, who found her body and phoned the police around 3 a.m. morning – was a lie. It was a cover. Monroe was actually dead and had been found hours before.
What was covered up, however, was not foul play. It was Monroe’s involvement with the Kennedys that was central to the story. (The FBI was at her house that night, and Bobby Kennedy was in Los Angeles, until a helicopter took him to San Francisco.) Still, it could never be allowed out, so he was removed from history. It was suppressed by the government, the media, the mythology. “The Mystery of Marilyn Monroe: The Unreleased Tapes” fills in the end of Marilyn’s life, and in doing so, it lends her tragedy, in all its apparent sordidness, the dignity of emotional understanding. It also shows how, until the end, his story was bigger than it was, a story almost as big as America.