Marilyn Monroe stands in the doorway after keeping her shrink waiting for an hour and a half. She seductively—although most things Marilyn does can be described that way—introduces herself as “the late Marilyn Monroe.” It’s a statement so painfully plodding and obvious that it belies the title: Lifetime’s biopic of the legendary celebrity, based on the best-selling book by J. Randy Taraborrelli, will not necessarily reveal anything new about the oft-portrayed icon. But it does give star Kelli Garner a vehicle worthy of her often-underused talents.
This session with her psychiatrist (Jack Noseworthy) is used as a framing device to tell Monroe’s life story, from her childhood fostered by Ida Bolender through her first marriage to James Dougherty to her mega-stardom and marriages to Joe DiMaggio (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) and Arthur Miller (Stephen Bogaert). These vignettes are all a part of the Monroe saga, but there’s nothing particularly secret about them that hasn’t been parsed many times before. Instead, the cuts back to Garner and Noseworthy make sure that every concept is laid out bare, rather than allowing for any shades of subtlety.
There have been quite a few portrayals of Monroe over the years—one of the more fascinating aspects of her celebrity is that we’re still so wholly obsessed with this woman—and the worst of these become caricatures of her voice, her walk, her mannerisms. It’s all sensuality and no heart. Garner has existed on the edges of movies and television (Bully, Pan Am) without ever really getting a chance to star, and she does an impressive job with a woman who has been so mimicked and copied—by both people trying to play her and people trying to appropriate her. The “Marilyn” voice she uses doesn’t feel put-on—it feels a part of her. Monroe’s drugged-out, crazed moments, of which there are many, feel real. Although Garner can hold her own against a cast of impressive actresses, that’s not particularly hard when they aren’t given much to do.
What differs about The Secret Life Of Marilyn Monroe and most biopics about the star is the focus on her relationship with her paranoid schizophrenic mother, Gladys Mortenson, played here by Susan Sarandon. (Sarandon’s daughter, Eva Amurri Martino, plays the younger Gladys.) Lifetime has become a refuge of sorts for talented older actresses who no longer have a place in Hollywood; for this film that list includes Sarandon, Emily Watson, and Embeth Davidtz. (The same can be said for female directors: The Secret Life Of Marilyn Monroe is directed by Sherrybaby’s Laurie Collyer.) These women are all immensely talented, but their roles have little meat to them. Sarandon in particular is wasted as Gladys, who is supposed to be a reflection of what Marilyn could become, or what she is becoming before her life is cut short. But there is little reflection of that beyond what Gladys lays out flatly for her daughter: My mother did this to me, eventually, I will do this to you, and you will become this thing you fear the most.
The lack of development in any other character makes sense in a Marilyn Monroe biopic. Her talent lay in her incredible charisma: When she walked onscreen, even in the smallest roles (check her blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cameo in All About Eve), she magically became the only thing worth looking at in the frame. But the problem with Monroe biopics is that it’s nearly impossible to capture that charisma. Few actors, if any, have that superpower to the same degree, which makes her copycats look that much more ridiculous trying to ape her mannerisms. As good as Garner is, she doesn’t have it.
It’s also incredibly difficult to reflect that power in screen versions of Monroe’s rise to fame. Instead, it all too often seems like Monroe got where she was by sleeping her way to the top, not because of her inherent talent and watchability. (This concept is much easier to convey on the page. Joyce Carol Oates’ Blonde, for instance, does an excellent job.) That’s not to say Monroe was some saintly nun who has been mischaracterized all these years, but The Secret Life Of Marilyn Monroe is yet another example of a show that makes it seem as if Marilyn’s ascent has little to do with how talented she actually is. Unlocking how to portray that is her ultimate secret.