NPR logo TIFF '12: 'Love, Marilyn' Tries Yet Again To Show Us Marilyn Monroe

TIFF 2012

TIFF '12: 'Love, Marilyn' Tries Yet Again To Show Us Marilyn Monroe

Marilyn Monroe has been the subject of many documentary explorations, and the film Love, Marilyn takes a new approach. Toronto International Film Festival hide caption

toggle caption
Toronto International Film Festival

Marilyn Monroe has been the subject of many documentary explorations, and the film Love, Marilyn takes a new approach.

Toronto International Film Festival

Will it ever end, the desire to understand Marilyn Monroe?

The film Love, Marilyn begins with the statement that an enormous number of books have already been written about her, that she's been the subject of study and fascination and florid prose. But, it says, some of her papers have been discovered, and maybe it is those papers — her own words — that can cast light on the woman herself.

The way director Liz Garbus sets out to use those words is by having them performed by a variety of actresses who aren't playing Monroe, exactly, but are simply offering readings of her letters and papers. Those readings are complemented by a certain amount of traditional documentary footage with the usual talking-head interviews, as well as readings by actors Jeremy Piven, David Strathairn, Oliver Platt, Ben Foster, Adrien Brody and others, who offer interpretations of what various men had to say about Marilyn Monroe. (Piven, surprisingly enough, does a lovely job reading the writings of Elia Kazan, and Platt is very funny reading frustrated telegrams from Billy Wilder to Monroe's husband Arthur Miller.)

The actresses, including Glenn Close, Viola Davis, Marisa Tomei, Jennifer Ehle, Uma Thurman, Lindsay Lohan, Evan Rachel Wood, and Elizabeth Banks, have vastly different interpretations of Marilyn — Davis reads her as very down-to-earth, Tomei reads her as nervous and childlike, Wood reads her as knowing and wry. They're performances that seem to have little to do with each other, and as interesting a conceit as it is, it doesn't really work to have them all essentially playing different versions of the same person. That doesn't mean a single person can't have lots of different facets, and that's probably the point, but any one good actress could undoubtedly give you that, while having women as different as Lohan and Davis pulling against each other makes it impossible to feel like you're discovering much of anything.

Moreover, there are some execution issues that take away from the project's potential strengths. The actresses are all green-screened in front of various backgrounds, sometimes generic ones but often projections of whatever document they're reading. The effect is almost like an educational special about the Declaration of Independence where someone reads it out loud while the words roll by behind them. And unfortunately, most of the film has the flaw that green-screen can sometimes create, which is a cheap-looking cutout quality with little fuzzy halos around everyone's head and hair. It's more conspicuous at some moments than others, but it's distracting throughout.

There's also a fundamental challenge to reading what are not necessarily meant to be earth-shattering documents — some are essentially scribblings of the "note to self" variety — with great thespian seriousness. All of these women clearly want to do justice to the idea of Marilyn Monroe, who is so much bigger than life at this point that it seems like perhaps it calls for a bigger than life performance. But there's a danger of trying to bring import to words that may not have ever been intended to have it, particularly. There is at one point a dramatic reading of a recipe. How much visible acting does that call for?

Some of them don't fall into this trap — Ehle and Davis are quite restrained, and Wood has a good feel for the wit that sometimes shows up unexpectedly in Monroe's writing and her interviews. Uma Thurman, however, needed to be pulled back several levels, because her performance is so over-the-top that in the context of the strange-looking green-screen stuff, it unfortunately feels at times like it's almost funny, perhaps a parody of a perfume ad.

I wanted to like this project more than I did; it's such an interesting idea and such a fine lineup of actresses. As someone who sees a lot of documentaries, I appreciate the effort to create new forms and new ways to bring historical figures to life. But in the end, it just doesn't quite work.