Not long before her death in 1962, a new psychiatrist arrives at the home of Marilyn Monroe (Kelli Garner). Even though she’s no stranger to psychotherapy, the thought of meeting a new therapist is enough to make her an insecure mess. She keeps her therapist waiting for over an hour, but when she finally does arrive, she’s ready to tell him all about her troubled childhood, her relationship with her mentally unstable mother Gladys (Susan Sarandon), her career, and her relationships with her various husbands and her aunt who cared for her.
The Secret Life of Marilyn Monroe is one of those times where I have to admit that I completely misjudged the entire project from the get-go. Although I am a big Marilyn fan, the idea of yet another Marilyn biopic was enough to make me roll my eyes a little. Not only was it yet another Marilyn biopic, it was being produced by Lifetime and their Liz & Dick fiasco from 2012 is still the punchline to many jokes in the classic film community. Plus I really didn’t know what to make of Kelli Garner being cast as Marilyn since I’d only seen her on the show Pan-Am, and that was a few years ago, so I just didn’t remember her well enough to have a strong opinion either way. Basically, the only thing that made me think this might have some modicum of potential was Susan Sarandon being cast as Gladys Mortenson, Marilyn’s mother.
Although Pan-Am may not have been enough of me to have a strong opinion of Kelli Garner, The Secret Life of Marilyn Monroe changed that. I was very impressed by her performance as Marilyn; she did a fantastic job of getting the voice, the mannerisms, and the body language down. In fact, I’ll go as far as to say that this was my personal favorite portrayal of Marilyn in a film or mini-series. (Even though I liked Michelle Williams in My Week With Marilyn, I hesitate to call that a Marilyn Monroe biopic because it’s not specifically about Marilyn, it’s the story of a kid who happened to encounter Marilyn.) I’ve read some reviews by people who have called Garner’s voice as Marilyn a caricature. But Michelle Williams also got a good amount of criticism for her take on Marilyn’s voice, which was really toned down from the voice we all know from Marilyn’s films. So it seems like actresses who play Marilyn just can’t win either way with getting Marilyn’s voice right. They try to make it more natural when portraying Marilyn in her day-to-day life and get criticized, but if they try to do the more signature Marilyn voice, they get criticized for that, too.
On the whole, The Secret Life of Marilyn Monroe had surprisingly high production values. It didn’t look cheap and low-rent. The costumes, hair, and make-up all looked great and showed a great deal of attention to detail. For example, I loved that at one point, Marilyn was seen wearing a pair of shoes very similar to these, because I remembered seeing several pictures of her wearing shoes just like them.
One thing I really liked about it is that it ultimately portrayed Marilyn to be a fighter. She had a hard childhood and with her family history of mental illness, there were somethings she simply couldn’t escape. But it never showed her to be resigned to that fact. We see her fighting for her sanity, for her career, for her respectability, and for her mother’s love. She fought for a lot and that’s something I don’t think she gets nearly enough credit for.
In short, The Secret Life of Marilyn Monroe was everything Liz & Dick wasn’t — well acted with a thoughtful script, high production values, and good costumes, hair, and make-up. Lifetime proved that yes, they are capable of producing quality movies and mini-series. Even though I make a lot of jokes about bad Lifetime movies, but I can’t knock this one too much.
The writing isn’t perfect; it has its fair share of historical inaccuracies, but I’ve come to accept that virtually any biopic will have those. And there were a few moments where it tried too hard to shoehorn in a “Marilyn-ism” like, “I just want to be wonderful.” For some reason, that kind of annoyed me. And the title seems to be very out of place since there’s nothing about it that was a secret; it was all things the general public has known about Marilyn for decades.
It might not be perfect, but as far as Marilyn Monroe biopics go, I prefer it to the others.