LLast month, at a West Hollywood salon, Emma Cooper got a tattoo of Marilyn Monroe’s face under her arm. The director of the new Netflix documentary The Mystery of Marilyn Monroe: The Unheard Tapes didn’t initially count herself among her subject’s fandom, just aware of the main building blocks of her movie star mythology: white dress, blonde hairstyle, grain of beauty, natural sex bomb charisma, undercurrent of psychological stress ending in tragedy. “But that’s the thing with Marilyn,” Cooper said. “She attracts you.”
“I didn’t think I would end up having it in my body, but you get obsessed with it,” she told the Guardian. “On my first research trip to Los Angeles, I went to see his grave and tour the Academy. While in town, I also met one of his biographers. They said, ‘Attach “You’re going to go crazy for her. I thought, ‘Of course I won’t.’ Cut to me on Sunset Boulevard, doing this.
The inked portrait is not a caricature of these distinctive features; instead, it’s reduced to colorless outlines so minimal we might as well be staring at the screen idol’s bones. The instinct to do away with appearances and expose the foundations behind an image fits well with the intent of his latest project, which favors factual reporting rather than being swayed by Monroe’s glare. . Cooper’s film joins investigative journalist Anthony Summers as he recounts the highlights of his 1985 book Goddess: The Secret Lives of Marilyn Monroe, its timeline, and accompanying information repackaged for visual aid. He was the one who sold the concept to Cooper, convinced that she too would come to see the person behind the legacy of victimization. “To me, Marilyn has always been a bit one-dimensional,” Cooper says. “At the end of this process, she had become a much more real person to me, with more modernity as a woman than I had ever seen in her.”
In a market crowded with Monroe biographies, Cooper and Summers stand out by scoring it with a shoe leather true-crime angle. Both the film and its source material eschew pundit or obsessive talking-head segments, relying on a cast of Monroe collaborators, confidants, and loved ones. While researching his book in the ’80s, Summers amassed a gold mine of audio recordings with first-hand eyewitnesses in the star’s orbit. After scouring countless hours on hundreds of his tapes, archived at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in Los Angeles, Cooper brings this audio to life via lip-synced re-enactment, using costumed actors. . “It’s the last Marilyn Monroe movie populated exclusively by people who knew her, touched her life, felt her presence, really knew what it was like to be around her,” says- she.
The multitude of perspectives combine to form a prismatic view of a highly analyzed personality, already subject to constant public reassessment and reassessment. From the mute blonde Hollywood queen bee (said her All About Eve co-star Celeste Holm, “I thought she was pretty nice and awfully stupid and my natural reaction was, ‘Whose girl is that?’ “), she was elevated to the status of a saint of the big screen martyred by a bestial tabloid and the ravages of addiction.
“The truth is somewhere in the middle,” says Cooper. “That’s almost always the case.” She wanted to avoid the simplistic or the salacious in chronicling a life beset by scandal and intrigue, and focused on the content of Monroe’s character: the intellectual curiosity of the student of method, the artistry passionate about the actor who seduced greats like Billy Wilder and John Huston. as his talents caught up with his innate charisma.
“She was a lot of things,” Cooper says. “She had trauma, and it affected her relationship, but she wasn’t a victim. She worked really hard on herself… The way she could sometimes show her vulnerability and sometimes hide it is so seductive. And we know now that’s something powerful in all women, but back then, we didn’t all have the freedom to explore that inside of us like Marilyn did.
Monroe remains a figure of such abiding fascination, commissioning two documentaries and a biopic in 2022 alone, in part for all that is universal about her rarefied situation. Although the spotlight shone harder on her than on any other celebrity of her day, Cooper and countless other women today see an integral part of a shared experience in the inflated expectations hanging over her. As she struggled with depression, insecurities and barbiturate use, she had no choice but to maintain a facade of perfect glamor in her performances for the paparazzi. Although Cooper’s favorite Monroe film is The Seven Year Itch (“I like sending male stereotypes in this film; Marilyn is in on the joke”), she thinks the most telling texts are the photographs that capture the bombshell mask and the angst it couldn’t fully cover.
“The two archival documents about her that obsessed me were, one, when she walks out of the Payne Whitney Psychiatric Clinic like it was a restaurant or a movie premiere after she had been detained for three days. She ended up breaking a window, saying she was the crazy thing they all expected her to be. Joe DiMaggio ended up kicking her out. It was the most amazing and horrible time. For her to come out in full makeup and hair, that sounds amazing. Half of me thinks it was awful that she felt she had to show up like that, and the other half is fucking amazed at her ability to pull it off. To do.
She continued, “Second is when they announce her divorce, and she can’t help but get emotional. She’s crying and it’s hard to watch. You see immense pain in this failed relationship. Young women today can still connect to that, and to her. Just 20 years ago, people would have said she was everywhere, mad, hysterical. Now I see that and I think, ‘It’s just being a woman.’
In its final half hour, the film’s primary source approach builds on a close inspection of the murky circumstances surrounding Monroe’s death and her supposed connection to known lovers John and Robert Kennedy. Summers’ detectives confirmed that while conspiracy theories suggesting the overdose suicide was a secretly ordered hit were fanciful fabrications, there were indeed some manipulations with the official record to avoid negative public relations for the Kennedys. It’s not quite the smoking gun an onlooker might hope for; rather a commentary on the societal impulse continues to treat Monroe’s existence as juicy gossip. “I’m constantly trying to find a line where we acknowledge the conspiracy and try to unravel the threads of it,” Cooper says. “People might say there’s nothing new here, but I think this movie is a useful resource.”
She hopes others can take her film as a starting point for a deeper appreciation and respect for Monroe, setting them on the same trail that landed a once unconcerned Cooper under the tattoo artist’s needle. It doesn’t take much to show skeptics of the substance of a woman historically regarded as a gorgeous bloody story just how painfully human she was. After all, as Cooper knows all too well, pulling us in has always been Marilyn’s superpower.
“Any success in this movie is a younger generation getting to know her and having a clearer idea of her than the previous ones,” Cooper said. “They can take comfort in recognizing that the things they went through in their own life happened to one of the most famous people of all time. It’s reassuring. I don’t want to sound hokey.