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Netflix’s The Mystery of Marilyn Monroe: The Unheard Tapes, Is A Monumental Composition About The Life And Death Of The Hollywood Diva

In 1985 the illustrious Irish author Anthony Summers published the book Goddess, the definitive Marilyn Monroe biography based on over six hundred interviews, that became a New York Times Bestseller. Decades later the mystery surrounding the death of the legendary actress still thrives, to the point that filmmaker Emma Cooper decided to gather all of Summers’ recorded interviews and allow him to reconstruct his investigation on camera through the riveting documentary The Mystery of Marilyn Monroe: The Unheard Tapes, now available on Netflix.

Norma Jeane Mortenson Baker died in 1962, on the night between August 4th and August 5th, due to a barbiturate overdose. The world wondered if it was an accident or a suicide; some even speculated on a diabolically planned murder. In 1982 the case regarding the icon’s demise was reopened. The only certainty that emerged was that the circumstances of her dying were covered up. Anthony Summers managed to bring clarity to the conspiracy stories claiming sinister causes of Marilyn Monroe’s death, putting an end to the various speculations of that fateful night. 

The film leads you into the lion’s den retracing the entire professional and personal existence of the Golden Girl of Hollywood, through the exceptional narration of the Pulitzer Prize Finalist who talked to 1000 interviewees about Marilyn Monroe’s life and passing. Audiences feel immediately connected to this visual reportage that blends original footage, with cast actors who lip-synch the audio from the tapes.

PALM SPRINGS, CA – 1954: Actress Marilyn Monroe poses for a portrait laying on the grass in 1954 in Palm Springs, California. (Photo by Baron/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Stunning revelations emerge about the actress’ marriages and her affairs with the most charismatic men of her time. Anthony Summers was the first investigative journalist who produced firsthand testimony to the long-rumoured liaisons with President John F. Kennedy and his brother Robert, then Attorney General, that are now represented through the cinematic medium. 

Furthermore, Cooper’s documentary underlines how the sex symbol had brains and was argumentative when it came to global affairs. Marilyn was opinionated in regards to the morality of nuclear testing, to the point that the FBI suspected her of communist ties. But her point of view was always hushed by the gents she surrounded herself with, especially the ones in high places.

Whether it was husbands — like Joe DiMaggio and Arthur Miller — or secretive lovers at the White House, the nation’s pin up always ended up being morally subjected. One of the interviewees compares her to the protagonist of George du Maurier’s 1894 novel Trilby: a young model who falls under the spell of Svengali, a villainous musician and hypnotist who transforms her into a singing star. Although Marilyn did not owe her performative skills to anyone but herself, her persona was often manipulated by each of her love interests. 

If the world was well acquainted with Marilyn’s romances, Emma Cooper manages to bring to prominence the friends, colleagues and collaborators who were close to her. Directors who worked with her, such as John Huston, Billy Wilder, George Cukor, share fond memories, emphasising her raw talent and desire to be considered a serious actor. All of them reiterated how Monroe had no technique but was driven by a potent pursuit of truth. She even founded her own production company and moved to the East Coast to nurture her craft at the Actors Studio.

Another important voice in The Mystery of Marilyn Monroe: The Unheard Tapes, is the one of Danny Greenson, the son of the icon’s psychologist, Dr. Ralph Greenson, along with one of his daughter Joan and his widow Hildi. The Greenson family wasn’t starstruck by the Hollywood diva, that is why they approached the real person behind the platinum blonde facade, unravelling her complexity in a compassionate manner. Marilyn’s urge to be loved publicly, but mostly privately, originated from her troubled childhood. Her vulnerability and sexuality were intricately entangled in her memories of molestation and parental rejection. Norma Jeane changed ten foster homes, was placed in several orphanages and was eventually raised by a guardian.

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The feeling of abandonment persecuted her throughout her entire lifetime, and the celebrity status she acquired could not fill the void of wanting a family to find a sense of belonging. 

The most venerated woman on the planet had a very low self-esteem: she felt terrible about herself and would wallow in the litany of depressive-thought. Her deep emotional distress reversed in her abuse of narcotics, downers, amphetamines, barbiturates and sleeping pills. The actress was legend, but the woman was non compos mentis.

Despite her frailty, those who knew her personally claimed she possessed an animal magnetism that charmed the people who interacted with her at a primordial level.

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In fact, Marilyn captivated men and women alike, and her enduring figure is still celebrated worldwide: in every corner of the globe her image is exhibited in private and public spaces.

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But in the end, as Marilyn Monroe said herself: “Fame is fickle, it has its compensations but also its drawbacks.” Being in the spotlight can be a gargantuan ordeal.

This is why the Netflix documentary acquires additional significance: the statuesque goddess is finally given a voice through the combined efforts of Emma Cooper and Anthony Summers. The Mystery of Marilyn Monroe: The Unheard Tapes not only makes an effective audiovisual collage of the actresses final weeks, days and hours, but it brings to life an extraordinary mosaic of her complex personality.

Final Grade: A

Check out more of Chiara’s articles.

Chiara Spagnoli Gabardi
Chiara Spagnoli Gabardi
Works as film critic and journalist who covers stories about culture and sustainability. With a degree in Political Sciences, a Master’s in Screenwriting & Film Production, and studies at the Lee Strasberg Theatre & Film Institute, Chiara has been working in the press since 2003. Italian by blood, British by upbringing, fond of Japanese culture since the age of 7, once a New Yorker always a New Yorker, and an avid traveller, Chiara collaborates with international magazines and radio-television networks. She is also a visual artist, whose eco-works connect to her use of language: the title of each painting is inspired by the materials she upcycles on canvas. Her ‘Material Puns’ have so far been exhibited in four continents, across ten countries. She is a dedicated ARTivist, donating her works to the causes and humanitarians she supports, and is Professor of Phenomenology of Contemporary Arts at Istituto Europeo di Design in Milan.


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