‘The Mystery of Marilyn Monroe: The Unheard Tapes’ Offers a Mystifying Bio, but Few New Revelations

Marilyn Monroe’s premature death spawned as many conspiracy theories as the movies she made in her career. Did the most famous blonde bombshell of the 20th Century die of an unintentional barbiturate overdose, suicide, murder? Did she sleep with both Kennedys? Did the FBI cover it up? Was Jimmy Hoffa watching? Emma Cooper’s “The Mystery of Marilyn Monroe: The Unheard Tapes” doesn’t answer these questions. It fills in some background to the rumors, and represents a few lesser-known clues, but offers further speculation as its ultimate conclusion.

The documentary has a provocative tone, spoiler-inducing voiceover narration, and foreboding all-encompassing recaps. Based on the work of investigative biographer Anthony Summers, neither the investigation into the events surrounding Monroe’s death, nor the story of her life feels adequately explored, and less like the personal obsessive journey it warrants. Summers’ 1985 Monroe biography “Goddess, the Secret Lives of Marilyn Monroe,” was the product of two years’ work, 1,000 interviews, 650 of them on tape. The documentary centers on revealing the interviews done with a few of her few close friends, and the family of her last psychiatrist, Ralph Greenson, who all agree she had few close friends. 

Most of the conclusions seem like the armchair psychiatry we’ve all come to accept as the Marilyn Monroe therapeutic abstract: She was smarter, but more insecure and vulnerable, than anyone believed. Her mother committed to an asylum, Marilyn was a lifelong orphan, sexually abused at foster homes and orphanages, with daddy issues leading her to marry powerful, older men like playwright, Arthur Miller, and New York Yankee legend Joe DiMaggio. Only Marilyn’s hairdresser, Gladys Witten knows for sure, but we learn DiMaggio was so angry after she filmed the dress-blowing street grate scene in “The Seven Year Itch,” “he beat her up.” Monroe’s dress manufacturer Henry Rosenfeld reveals the actress’ fantasy of putting on a black wig, picking up her father at a bar and having sex with him.

Part of the unorthodox approach to the actress’s treatment was including Marilyn in the therapist’s own family gatherings. One of Greenson’s daughters recalls Monroe mooning over a lover she called “the General,” which the documentary translates to mean the Attorney General, Robert Kennedy. This opens the film for the tabloid spin of covert sexual escapades with both Kennedy brothers at Peter Lawford’s house, leading to presidential agents branding the actress a leftist who knew too much about the bomb. The film highlights Monroe’s satirically sensual rendition of “Happy Birthday, Mr. President” at John F. Kennedy’s inaugural ball, but without the comic undertone, leaving it as a tease to ever-increasing promises of “something more sinister.”

Sinister shots of audio cassette tapes roll as a lead-in to the phoned-in revelations. We hear interview sessions with people who worked closely with Marilyn, like directors Billy Wilder and John Huston, and Monroe’s “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes” co-star Jane Russell, but they are lip-synched by actors. There really is no need for this. Monroe was one of the most photographed and camera-friendly figures in history. Between magazine shoots, film clips, and archival footage, there should have been more than enough visuals to fill the space of an entire audiobook. It tends to dehumanize Monroe, turning her real-life performances into lip-synch.

Monroe was one of the most indirectly revealing celebrities to come out of Hollywood. While the media of the time stuck to superficial questions, Marilyn subversively spoke about her inner secrets on camera, vaguely exposing how empowering and dehumanizing it was to be a sex symbol. She could sell tabloids but was personally disinterested in sex, and focused on performance. In taped interviews she talks about her battles to be happy and a good actor. Because of her unstable family, she spent hours at movie theaters when she was a kid, and the screen is both her greatest escape and her biggest cage. Huston discusses how Monroe deteriorated artistically from “The Asphalt Jungle” to “The Misfits.” Wilder admits to issues during “The Seven Year Itch” and “Some Like It Hot,” but concludes “I had no problem with Monroe. Monroe had problems with Monroe.”

The documentary also presents the story of Summers’ own investigation, and how things didn’t quite make sense when he analyzed the timeline of the night Monroe died. In the book, Summers concludes Monroe died from an overdose of sleeping pills, but cannot determine if it was intentional, accidental or otherwise covered up.

“I can’t say anything and I knew it all,” a disembodied voice says in “Monroe: The Unheard Tapes.” This sums up the film. It does indeed reveal recordings and tapes that were never heard before, but they are reiterating facts everybody knows already. The documentary does no independent research beyond the book.

Monroe’s life would have been better studied as a long-overdue session of analysis than a tabloid true-crime documentary. Netflix is saving that for Andrew Dominik’s “Blonde.” Based on Joyce Carol Oates’ 2000 fictionalized biography, and starring Ana de Armas as Monroe, that story promises to reframe the narrative as a story of how childhood trauma shapes the adult. 

“The true things rarely get into circulation,” Monroe says in a voiceover. “It’s usually the false things.” This Netflix documentary tells us nothing about Marilyn we haven’t seen in other explorations, and doesn’t even try to grasp the most elusive truths in evidence. Monroe’s stardom, impact and influence doesn’t get as much space as the tragedy of her death. Monroe’s magnetism is as elusive as the theoretical scandals which got her case reopened. Sixty years after her August 4, 1962 death, at the age of 36, Marilyn Monroe deserves an intensive look into her legacy, but “The Mystery of Marilyn Monroe: The Unheard Tapes” only provokes morbid fascination.

The Mystery of Marilyn Monroe: The Unheard Tapes” begins streaming April 27 on Netflix.