‘The Secret Life of Marilyn Monroe’: TV Review

Ben Mark Holzberg
The quintessential (non-natural) blonde gets the bland TV-movie treatment.

There’s little that’s surprising or inspired in Lifetime’s two-part miniseries about iconic Hollywood celebrity Marilyn Monroe.

It takes more than a breathy voice and a golden dye job to play Norma Jeane Mortenson, who the world better knows as Marilyn Monroe, that most celebrated and troubled of Hollywood idols. Kelli Garner certainly throws herself into the title role of Lifetime’s two-night miniseries The Secret Life of Marilyn Monroe, adapted from the 2009 biography of the same name by J. Randy Taraborrelli. Yet she never seems to be doing anything more than celebrity karaoke, rarely digging deep beneath the long succession of hairstyles and form-fitting clothes.

It’s not entirely her fault. The teleplay by Stephen Kronish adheres to the standard biopic highlight-reel template, moving in a mostly straight line from early days to final moments, aside from a hackneyed framing device in which Marilyn — just a few days away from her final overdose in 1962 — spills her guts to a handsome, sympathetic psychiatrist (Jack Noseworthy). The first part of the miniseries is mostly dedicated to Marilyn’s upbringing by her mentally ill mother, Gladys (Susan Sarandon), and her overburdened aunt, Grace (Emily Watson). The second takes place post-rise to stardom and charts her fraught marriages to baseball great Joe DiMaggio (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) and playwright-screenwriter Arthur Miller (Stephen Bogaert).

Read more: Decked Out: Kelli Garner's Marilyn Monroe Moment

The heart of the film is meant to be Marilyn’s relationship with Gladys, a dead-weight on her daughter in more ways than one. She tends to show up at inopportune moments, her eyes wide with paranoia, and muttering nonsensical things about the color of the walls or strange people following her. (Sarandon slices the ham so thick throughout you’d think she was auditioning for a remake of Mommie Dearest.) Still, Marilyn does all she can to attend to her mother, even as her own struggles with fear, anxiety and depression (genetically passed on, in part) threaten to overwhelm her, and drive her into alcohol and drug abuse. This leads to just one of many head-slappers in Kronish’s script: “You’re exhausted,” Marilyn is told at one point. “That’s what the pills are for,” she replies. Groan.

Director Laurie Collyer, who helmed the Maggie Gyllenhaal indie Sherrybaby (2006), shepherds her actors dutifully through each scene. Garner and Sarandon’s discordant work is offset by Watson’s attempt to give Aunt Grace something resembling three dimensions. Her character has the film’s most genuinely emotional moment, when she uses her faith in God to counteract the pain of the cancer that is eating its way through her body. Morgan makes for a dashingly handsome DiMaggio, and Embeth Davidtz has a tremendous amount of fun as the stern acting coach with a hilariously repressed Sapphic crush on Marilyn.

Besides a recreation of the famous dress-blowing scene from The Seven Year Itch and two very poorly performed confrontations with 20th Century Fox studio head Darryl F. Zanuck, most of Marilyn’s film career is left offscreen or referenced in awkward expository dialogue. Her infamous performance of “Happy Birthday” for President John F. Kennedy at Madison Square Garden seems to be taking place on a rinky-dink soundstage populated by only two other people. And the way Collyer films the character’s last moments of life — with the imagery mimicking the tabloid photos of her deathbed — uncomfortably treads exploitation.

The greatest of (non-natural) blondes deserves much better than this.

Twitter: @keithuhlich