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Telluride 2012: Marilyn Monroe Morphs Back from Icon to Human in 'Love, Marilyn'

Oscar nominee Liz Garbus has made a doc about the most famous woman of the 20th century that makes one see her as never before.

Marilyn Monroe

TELLURIDE, Colo. -- Fifty years after the death of Marilyn Monroe, the level of interest in her life and death -- a modern-day Greek tragedy -- has never been greater. Today, most people's familiarity with Monroe, who was almost certainly the most famous woman of the 20th century, is grounded not in her life or work but in her image; she truly has morphed into an icon. In her new documentary Love, Marilyn, Liz Garbus, an Oscar nominee for 1998's The Farm: Angola, morphs Monroe back into a human. The film screened at Telluride, where it was clear that Garbus has succeeded as no one ever has before.

Here's what even the most casual of movie buffs know about Monroe from the thousands of books, articles and documentaries about her life: She was born in 1926 to a mother who suffered from mental illness; raised in a series of orphanages; forever after sought the family life and love she never felt she had as a child; got into acting but became a massive star not as a result of her abilities but her looks and moves, which she carefully cultivated to create the sexiest of screen personas; became so subsumed by that persona that her real self got somewhat lost in the process, which left her feeling constantly inadequate and alone; and she died at age 36 under somewhat mysterious circumstances, though most likely as the result of a deliberate overdose of sleeping pills.

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Love, Marilyn, however, digs deeper. Garbus felt that, in reading Monroe's diaries and letters -- many of which were only recently discovered in the attic of the home of Anna Strasberg, the wife of Monroe's beloved acting teacher Lee Strasberg -- she was "getting to know a real woman who I didn't feel was really all that different from me," and she wanted to bring that to a larger audience. The trick, however, was figuring out the most effective way to bring Monroe's words to life.

The answer that she settled upon proved most effective: showing rarely before seen, fascinating archival photos and video -- pictures of Monroe working as a model and of her exercising; an interview with the 20th Century Fox casting director recalling the first time he saw her; outtakes from her interviews and films, including behind-the-scenes footage of her shooting her famous dress-blowing scene in The Seven Year Itch (1955); newsreel footage of her after she filed for divorce from Joe DiMaggio; at the scene of a car accident that resulted in the death of a paparazzo who had been chasing her; upon her release after a brief stay at a psychiatric ward; and of her funeral -- all intercut with clips of present-day actors reading Monroe's take on things. (There also are a few people who actually knew Monroe, including the actress Ellen Burstyn and Monroe's close friend Amy Greene, who share their personal memories of her.)

This impressive roster of actors seems to have nothing in common, save for perhaps a friendship with Garbus. Appropriately enough, some are blondes (Elizabeth Banks, Glenn Close, Uma Thurman) and some have experienced personal troubles (Lindsay Lohan), but others couldn't be more different in virtually every respect, including Viola Davis and Jennifer Ehle, two of the most engaging narrators. Several men also appear, including Ben Foster, Stephen Lang and Oliver Platt.

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One never knows what the Academy's documentary branch will nominate for the best documentary under its bizarre system. But, as someone who is a passionate student of film history and knows a fair bit about Monroe, having interviewed many people who worked with her -- among them Jane Russell (Gentlemen Prefer Blondes), Eli Wallach (The Misfits), Don Murray (Bus Stop), Nehemiah Persoff (Some Like It Hot), and Celeste Holm (All About Eve) -- you can take my word for it: Love, Marilyn made me appreciate the tragedy of her death more than anything else I've ever come across, and it deserves to be seen and recognized.