Sixty years after her death, the legendary actress carries on the same fascination. Briton Anthony Summers, who had dedicated a river biography to him, delved back into his copious records. Netflix is broadcasting a documentary based on this research.
This summer marks the 60th anniversary of Marilyn Monroe’s death. On the night of August 4-5, 1962, the most famous movie star in the world died of a barbiturate overdose. In the solitude of a barely furnished room in his small Brentwood hacienda, purchased a few months earlier. “Probable suicide” ruled the Los Angeles coroner at the time.
If the mystery surrounding the circumstances of this tragic death, aged just 36, contributed to the myth’s survival, it doesn’t explain everything. Brilliant actress, model with a rare photogenicity, gifted entrepreneur, victim, feminist, intellectual, manipulator… Since 1962, Marilyn Monroe has been reinvented again and again as authors face their extraordinary fate, sometimes sometimes with their own obsessions or those of the time tackle.
In video, “The Mystery of Marilyn Monroe”, the trailer
The woman behind the star
Special Hollywood correspondent in 1982 for a two-week report on the reopening of the Los Angeles prosecutor’s office into Marilyn’s death, British journalist Anthony Summers stayed there for more than three years. Diving into the twists and turns of the cinema mecca, finding traces of thousands of witnesses, unearthing countless documents and making 650 sound recordings during an unprecedented investigation. He published this unique material in 1985 Goddess (released in France by the Presses de la Renaissance, under the title The Secret Life of Marilyn Monroerepublished today in the United States in an enhanced version), a 500-page biography that finally gives a glimpse of the complexity of the woman behind the star.
The Slaughtered Beauty
Childhood, beginnings, career, love life, ambitions, social and political conscience, rivalry, friendships, betrayal… Summers’ bestseller dissected every aspect of the icon’s life in a raw and addictive style. The final chapter, a hundred pages devoted to the last days of the star, presented in a convincing, if conditional, the ties between Marilyn and the Kennedy brothers, and gave the book considerable international impact.
She didn’t want to see the people who had been close to her anymore.
However, two taste flaws ultimately tarnished Summers’ aura and the impact of his biography over time. First, the use of numerous quotes from two “confidants” of the star, very much focused on the conspiracy theory, Jeanne Carmen and Robert Slatzer, known since then as certified storytellers. And above all sacrilege, the publication of a photo of the dead Marilyn in one of the book’s photo albums. With references to a police file, the post-autopsy photo (terrifying though in black and white) gives readers the face of the beauty butchered by the coroner’s office of an unrecognizable woman with dirty hair and limp, marked by postmortem facial discoloration…
Hundreds of records
Two pitfalls avoided in The Mystery of Marilyn Monroe, the documentary Netflix has been offering since April 27, based on Anthony Summers’ initial research. Despite the subtitle, unpublished conversations, these are not new exchanges with the star, as the first minutes (or the trailer) suggest. Marilyn’s words that punctuated the documentary come from two well-known interviews, conducted in 1960 and 1962 respectively by journalists Georges Belmont for Marie Claire and Richard Merryman for Life magazine. No, the treasures in the film are taken from the 650 shots Summers shot during his initial investigation in 1982.
At that point, only twenty years have passed since Marilyn’s death and most of her colleagues and friends are still active. In Hollywood, more than anywhere else, the motto is “The Show Goes On”equals religion. And we guess from certain silences, and from the palpable emotion that grips some of these reporter-called witnesses, that the memories of Marilyn evoked, though fresh, had never been shared at the time. We must therefore forget the close-ups on the vintage cassettes inserted into a tape recorder, the same eternal excerpts from movies or newsreel footage and the sequences that frame Summers with a serious face, overlooking the Irish moor, in an office full of cardboard Boxes. archives.
These usage conventions are over, the documentary takes the gamble to stage the original voices of Marilyn’s loved ones in bluffing twilight vignettes, where unknown actors interpret them during play. Despite the artificiality of the process – in spite of any sense of casting, the actors chosen have little physical connection with those they are supposed to embody – the total mastery of the lyp-sync (lip synchronization) and the care given to the atmosphere of the reconstructions lend these testimonies a rare emotional power. So it is as much the stamps of the big names of Hollywood that have incarnated (Billy Wilder or John Huston) as those of the shadow army (governor, journalist, photographer, psychoanalyst …) that make up the entourage and the surrogate family of the actress.
“It hurts me too much to talk about it”
Marked by a childhood without the warmth of a home, ambition tied to the body yet plagued by doubt, intelligent and passionate, Marilyn Monroe was probably a colleague, a friend, a complex woman to love on a daily basis. As Anthony Summers gently confides, Jane Russell, his partner in… Men prefer blondes : “We were close during the film and after that we still considered each other as friends, but Marilyn changed the group of friends. She left one band for another, taking refuge there for a while. She no longer sought the people who had been close to her. It’s enough, though, to hear the voice of her hairdresser, Sydney Guilaroff, break when Summers urges him to invoke the star’s never-realized desire for motherhood to understand the genuine attachment everyone seemed to have for her privately: “I’m sorry. You seem very nice, Mr. Summers, but it hurts me too much to talk about it. Really.”
“How do you write the story of a life? Marilyn asks out loud at the beginning of this documentary. Perhaps just by leaving, in addition to films, photos, controversies, good words and secrets, an impression so strong that, sixty years later, each of us feels our hearts sinking, as if before an end, when we talk about his disappearance.
Sébastien Cauchon is the author of “Marilyn 1962 »Editions Stock (2016), 216 pages, €21.50.