Watching “Love, Marilyn,” Liz Garbus’ pointed, poetic and occasionally overwrought documentary about the life of Marilyn Monroe, I kept thinking about “The Great Gatsby,” another tragedy in two acts recently resurrected for our viewing pleasure.
In each story, a magnetic and ambitious enigma rejects a threadbare past and tirelessly works toward a single illusory and ultimately unattainable goal. Each tale is heavy on imagery, light on plot, rooted deep in a particular era and very American.
Each relies on the evocative power of symbolism to transcend those roots. The green light on the end of Daisy’s dock, the white dress swirling up around Marilyn’s thighs.
Both also have been simultaneously trumpeted and picked apart, raised to a status that is difficult to imagine surviving much beyond the next generation. Can Gatsby and his library of uncut books or Marilyn and her savagely fragile sexuality resonate with those coming of age with the Kardashians and Taylor Swift?
Or will they simply seem vaguely sad but mostly historical, like the infant graves one encounters in cemeteries the predate the invention of antibiotics?
Film director Baz Luhrmann tried to give Gatsby new demographics with shock-and-awe visuals and a modern soundtrack. Meanwhile, “Love, Marilyn,” which had its theatrical release at last year’s Telluride Film Festival and runs on HBO on Monday night, frames its subject in eternity through theatrical techniques both effective and deceptive — Marilyn Monroe by way of “The Belle of Amherst.”
At the heart of “Love, Marilyn” is “Fragments,” a collection of the star’s notebooks, letters and poems. Although Garbus uses many of the typical documentarian tools — film clips, archival footage, interviews with friends and film experts — she has also enlisted a Who’s Who list of people to provide dramatic readings of materials written by cultural observers and by the actress herself.
The diverse list of readers includes Gloria Steinem, Norman Mailer, Truman Capote, Jennifer Ehle, Viola Davis, Uma Thurman, Glenn Close and Marisa Tomei. The actresses standing in for Marilyn create a nexus of insecurity and determination that should resonate with many (although the inclusion of Lindsay Lohan seems a bit much).
Yet for all the hope pinned on internal illumination, the first thing “Love, Marilyn” does is remind us how beautiful Monroe really was. Her face has been so thoroughly replaced in popular culture by commercialized replications that the real thing is a surprising thrill to behold.
The film also reinforces the seductive power of theater. Having performers read Monroe’s journal entries renders these often quite mundane sentences powerful and possibly revelatory. Through these women, Monroe becomes the serious actor she longed to be.
Monroe’s story reminds us that answered prayers may indeed be more perilous than unanswered ones. Norma Jeane Mortenson, abandoned by her parents, farmed out to orphanages and foster homes, was determined to become a film actress. Which she did, by creating a powerful and unprecedented type of aggressively innocent sexuality that defined and then confined her.
Once a star, Monroe desperately wanted to be taken more seriously, as a person and as an actress. That struggle is what “Love, Marilyn” attempts to chronicle.
For fans, there is not much new information here; it’s all in the presentation. Garbus is clearly entranced with her subject, presenting Monroe as both a strong-willed pioneer and a confused victim.
Her famous misbehavior on sets is put down to her perpetual nervousness, her addiction to sleeping pills and alcohol laid directly at the feet of the men she married. That Monroe was, perhaps, mercurial and narcissistic, that she certainly made mistakes and not just of the matrimonial variety, is never given much serious consideration.
Contradiction is the siren call of Marilyn Monroe — so beautiful and yet so unhappy — and Garbus’ film wallows in it. Monroe’s own words humanize her, but they also reveal what was, perhaps, her true fatal flaw — utter self-absorption.
Gatsby was at least driven by the bright albeit false image of another; as “Love, Marilyn” proves, Marilyn was obsessed only by ... Marilyn.
When: 9 p.m. Monday
Rating: Not rated