Just last week I called the biopics on Lifetime “low-hanging fruit.” The fact that the network was moving forward on the umpteenth Marilyn Monroe biopic failed to inspire confidence, not just from me but Marilyn Monroe biographer Carl Rollyson. With trepidation I sat down to find out about the “secret life” of a woman whose life fills enough books to open a library….and was duly impressed. The Secret Life of Marilyn Monroe is Lifetime at it’s classiest – a feat that sounds as hard to fathom as it is to type. Compared to the countless Marilyn movies I’ve subjected myself to, this adaptation of J. Randy Taraborrelli’s book is made for those who have seen or read it all, maintaining a tone that’s wistful and respectful without being tragic or exploitative. It also borrows from Lifetime’s motto, “television for women,” to present something new in the Marilyn mythos: eschewing the men who Marilyn was associated with in favor of the women who made her who she was.
Marilyn Monroe (Kelli Garner) recounts her life to psychiatrist Alan DeShields (Jack Noseworthy) as a means of, hopefully, purging her of her demons. As she recounts her rise to fame she examines her relationship with her troubled mother, Gladys (Susan Sarandon) and husbands, including baseball player Joe DiMaggio (Jeffrey Dean Morgan).
If you’ve read any of the countless reviews I’ve written on Marilyn Monroe biopics you know of their ability to turn Marilyn into a mentally damaged fount of sadness, usually by including copious scenes of Marilyn being raped, beaten, and otherwise abused. If that doesn’t work, Marilyn is shown as desperate for a father figure, a man to fix all her problems and reverse her mental illness, or otherwise crazy. Screenwriter Stephen Kronish actually takes a rather radical approach to the material by not portraying the heinous elements of Monroe’s life as we’ve come to know. It was disheartening for me to realize that, at various moments of impending doom, I found myself wondering, “Is this where she gets raped/beaten?” These things are so ingrained in our collective consciousness regarding Monroe, and by taking out that element entirely, it breathes new life into material that’s already well-trod.
There’s little reinvention of the typical biopic formula which is why the emphasis on different elements of her life is so vital. We still see Marilyn telling her story to a neutral third party; Jack Noseworthy’s Dr. DeShields is there to ask the questions of Marilyn we only wish we could, like why she stayed with DiMaggio after his physical abuse, etc. The script hits all the required elements of Marilyn’s life, especially regarding her marriages to Jim Dougherty (Giacomo Gianniotti), the aforementioned DiMaggio, and Arthur Miller (Stephen Bogaert), as well as her relationship to an unseen John F. Kennedy leading up to her death, but the acting is all solid and events are rather expertly paced, breezing through events that are well known or omitting them entirely – we don’t have a long, drawn-out relationship and marriage scene with DiMaggio and Miller – because that’s not the script’s thesis.
Where past Marilyn movies have told her life through her marriages, this tells us her life through the women that molded her and, most importantly, how Marilyn saw herself. Yes, other movies have had Marilyn in a confessional format, such as Blonde, but because this Marilyn is clear-headed, it allows for an inner strength to come along. So we’re privy to her disputes with the studio over The Girl With Pink Tights and wanting to be paid more. “You realized you had power,” DeShields says. “And I was gonna use it to get respect.” Kronish’s script wants to show Marilyn with an inner strength. She isn’t seeking love or approval, but respect, both personally and professionally. She doesn’t take her husband hitting her anymore than a studio head offering her something Betty Grable wouldn’t sign up for. (Someone really did their homework with the scenes of Marilyn asserting authority, name-dropping historical facts and all). “A thousand Norma Jeans get off the bus,” Marilyn says, and the movie emphasizes why she endures today. It isn’t because we want to watch Norma Jean suffer, but to see Marilyn thrive.
The added relationship between Marilyn and the mother figures in her lives also make this a rather female-friendly movie for her relationships with Gladys and Grace McKee (Emily Watson) lasted longer than any of her three marriages. What a 360 Susan Sarandon does after playing the horrid stage mother in The Last of Robin Hood. Gladys yields a few rare bits of humor with her deadpan, slightly drugged, ramblings. When she’s arrested for assaulting her son-in-law she thinks it’s because “I voted Socialist in 1924. They’re just trying to get even.” Gladys, like Marilyn, isn’t the stereotypical loony mother we’ve seen, who openly harms her child. Instead, Grace’s schizophrenia manifests in a desire to maintain control leading to several metaphors for her and Marilyn about mental illness manifesting as a form of social anxiety, a fear of losing control of one’s life, due to their gender, to men. A touching scene on the beach illustrates Gladys’ realization that she is insane, and that one day she won’t be able to care for herself. The film’s final scene isn’t content with showing a victim of Hollywood, but shows a bittersweet reunion between mother and daughter. Sarandon and Garner are simply stunning together and their scenes, more than any others, are what separates this movie from countless other Marilyn movies.
Much like Gladys, this Marilyn is well-aware of how damaged she is. Gone is the little girl wracked by guilt or insanity. When DeShields asks her about how her absent father affected her life, she candidly replies that the men she married represent him. This isn’t a Marilyn who’s stupid or ditzy, far from it and Kelli Garner is the Marilyn we’ve wanted to see on-screen. That’s a tall order to fill considering the countless actresses who have taken the role, but I defy anyone to say that Garner doesn’t try her damndest. For starters, this is a great example of how a strong resemblance can really sell you on a performance. I’ve always enjoyed Garner’s work, and was sad that her portrayal of Faith Domergue in The Aviator failed to amount to anything. Her curves, round face, big eyes, and smile all fit the Marilyn mold; she nails the vocal cadences without sounding like she’s struggling for breath. Hell, she even gets the overbite Marilyn was prone to when pronouncing names. All this is coupled with a sensitivity and resilience that never feels forced. She’s sexy without being sexual; vulnerable without being a doormat.
Her relationship with DiMaggio takes up the brunt of the screentime and Morgan’s a solid actor in the role. His DiMaggio, as described by Marilyn, is “mean, but not mean-spirited,” so we see his physical abuse and also the love for her. This comes through best when Marilyn is locked up in the Payne Whitney sanitarium – a moment in Marilyn’s life not commonly depicted – and DiMaggio storms in to save the day. These two people, for all their flaws, truly love each other. Interestingly enough, the movie really demonizes Arthur Miller, portraying him as a jealous, petty, and spiteful man who rips up Marilyn’s good reviews and openly attacks her by declaring she killed their child.
The Secret Life of Marilyn Monroe won’t give audiences anything secret about Marilyn as a person, especially if you’ve read any of the various biographies written about her. But by following a different sequence of events, prioritizing the relationship between Marilyn and her mother, a new type of biopic emerges. Kelli Garner anchors this movie beautifully and it’ll be hard for me to get her depiction out of my head as I watch other Marilyn biopics. Maybe I’m so desperate for a good movie that I allowed myself to enjoy this too much, but I don’t think that’s the case. The Secret Life of Marilyn Monroe is a classy affair and if Lifetime can keep the stories the top priority, they could be in the biopic business for awhile.
The Secret Life of Marilyn Monroe airs May 30th and 31st on Lifetime
A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.