Ah, Marilyn Monroe! Deep down, we know that we don’t know her, not really, yet we also think that we know everything about her. We certainly believe that we know who she was on-screen: the bubblehead bombshell, the flirt angel who wiggled and cooed and batted her Bambi eyelashes, who turned sex into pure sugar. And off-screen, we have that whole tabloid sense of Marilyn, of her lousy childhood and her crumbled marriages and her off-the-set breakdowns and her on-the-set diva tantrums and, ultimately, her self-destruction. Her death by an overdose of pills was sort of like the death of Lily Bart in Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth: To ask whether or not it was a suicide is to miss the point, for whether Marilyn killed herself on purpose or “accidentally,” it was more or less the same act of giving up on life. (And no, she wasn’t murdered. But since she died one year before her lover Jack Kennedy, maybe the notion that she was murdered can count as an even earlier media-age conspiracy theory.)
Watching Liz Garbus’ rapt and searching documentary Love, Marilyn, which premiered in Toronto last night, I realized not just how much we don’t know about Marilyn, but that a lot of what we think we know – the sordid, raw-truth details of her life – is as much of a construct as it is a reality. Garbus had a treasure trove of new material to work from: several boxes of Marilyn’s highly confessional and introspective letters and diaries that were discovered relatively recently. Listening to Marilyn’s own words, we hear her voice and touch her soul as never before. We also see her in candid new film footage and photographs, some of which were taken when she wasn’t wearing any makeup, and that’s a good metaphor for what Love, Marilyn achieves. It presents Marilyn without the cosmetic cover of her mythologies.
Garbus doesn’t limit herself to these deeply revealing new materials. She casts a wide net, going back to sources like Norman Mailer’s brilliantly empathic 1973 biography, Marilyn, and constructing the movie as a kind of literary psychodrama. The result is that we see Marilyn Monroe truly put together for perhaps the first time. Not the walking sex bomb, or the dysfunctionally insecure child-woman, either (though she could, on occasions, be both), but a dauntingly complex woman who was far more ambitious than she’s commonly given credit for, who rigorously achieved everything that she did. We may think we already know that, yet it still seems counterintuitive, because it cuts against the grain of her mystique. We’re invested, as a culture, in the notion of Marilyn Monroe as a gorgeously passive sex goddess. That was a major part of her seduction.
Yet she wasn’t passive at all. She created and scrupulously guided her own career – at times quite bravely, bucking the iron grip of studio executives, whom she faced off against with more chutzpah than most of the movie stars of her time. She slept with many men, but she searched for love, and she found it. Her marriages fell apart for reasons that had as much to do with the oppressive nature of the men she married, and the era in which she married them, as they did with her own neuroses. Joe DiMaggio wanted her to be a good Italian wife and put her career aside to cook pasta. But it’s the portrait of Arthur Miller that emerges from Love, Marilyn that most revises our view of Marilyn. He loved her, but had an abiding and destructive need to control her. (He announced their engagement to the press before he told Marilyn, and we see this amazingly creepy footage.) She became addicted to pills during their marriage, and while that wasn’t his fault, his lordly detachment was.
The movie captures how Marilyn systematically created her image, her whole on-screen personality. It was a construct, an invention, a myth of cooing desire so powerful that we still get taken in by the reality of the fantasy. The first time that Love, Marilyn really boxed open my perception of Marilyn Monroe is when the movie made me see, in a new way, what an extraordinary actress she was. Most of us think of Marilyn as a dazzling screen presence – a born star – but as an actress of relatively modest skills. But the ditzy, dim-bulb “Marilyn” who was, perhaps, somewhat limited in her acting ability wasn’t even a person who existed. That Marilyn was every inch a performance. Lee Strasberg, the legendary Method Acting guru with whom she studied so ardently, believed that she was as gifted a performer as Marlon Brando, and if on the face of it that sounds preposterous, that’s only because we deny the audacious artifice of what Monroe achieved almost every moment that she was up on screen.
Watching Love, Marilyn, once we start to see just how much of herself Marilyn created – and, therefore, what a true artist she was – we begin to view her in a new way: not as the lusciously erotic plaything/puppet, but as the puppeteer, the woman behind the curtain. And it’s this woman, with her native intelligence and tragic narcissism, who shimmers to life in Love, Marilyn. Garbus has recruited a slew of actresses (they include Glenn Close, Viola Davis, Evan Rachel Wood, Lili Taylor, and a fantastic Uma Thurman) to read the excerpts from her letters and diaries, along with actors who read the words of some of the men in her life (Adrien Brody does Truman Capote, Jeremy Piven is Elia Kazan, and Ben Foster sinuously inhabits Mailer’s words). Though this may sound like a standard PBS trope, what Garbus does is to direct these actors, and orchestrate their voices, into a biographical passion play.
Because of how she died, the life of Marilyn Monroe strikes us as the definition of a downer, but as the movie reveals, probably the worst thing that ever happened to Monroe – far worse than her childhood time spent in orphanages, or either of her divorces – was that she got taken under the care of Dr. Ralph Greenson, a prestigious, but egregiously irresponsible, psychiatrist-to-the-stars who got her hooked on the barbituate Seconal and basically kept her hooked, plying her with prescriptions. The story the movie tells of her being incarcerated in a mental ward is terrifying, because it’s so clear that Monroe didn’t belong there. She was victimized, through a still-medieval 1950s psychiatric establishment that tried, with naive cruelty, to scrub and scour the pain out of her soul. Much of her unstable behavior was the result of prescription drugs. Had she come up in the rehab era, she might well have triumphed over the demons that now define her. It’s always shocking to realize that when she died, she was only 36, because she seemed to have lived about three lifetimes. In the footage we see of her shooting her last, unfinished movie, Something’s Got to Give, there are days when she looks terrible – pasty and thin, her hair too whitish-blonde – but other days when she sparkles. Her death wasn’t destiny; with better care, it could have been avoided, and she might still be alive, at 86, today. If that were so, she might more rightfully be seen for what she was: not just the quintessential sex symbol of the 20th century, but one of the very first women of the 21st.
* * * *
Malcolm X wrote about the sordid life of the street (and, as it turns out, exaggerated his intimacy with it), and a generation of hip-hop artists have made “big pimpin’ ” sound like something to aspire to. But the first, and still by far the greatest, chronicler of the life of the hustler was Iceberg Slim, the fabled and brilliant pimp-turned-author who, in 1969, with the publication of Pimp: The Story of My Life, created an up-from-the-underground literary revolution. Writing directly from his own experience, with a stripped-down poetic candor that was like Dostoyevsky meets Robert Johnson meets James M. Cain, Iceberg, a.k.a Robert Beck, captured the human horror – and, as he saw it, the degraded gratification – of pimping from the inside out. He wrote about it in all its violence, anxiety, cunning, sociopathic coldness, and physical and psychological brutality. Iceberg Slim: Portrait of a Pimp is a richly crafted documentary that taps deep into the lurid fascination of its subject. It features pinpoint interviews with Iceberg Slim devotees from Snoop Dogg to Henry Rollins to Chris Rock (who ritually hands out a copy of Pimp to every person on the set of his movies); incredibly shrewd analysis from a host of critics and academics; a close-up look at the fascinating saga of how Slim’s books were published by Holloway House, a third-tier paperback outfit that packaged them with pulpy fleshpot covers as drugstore-rack exploitation; interviews with his ex-wives and two of his daughters; and much eloquent testimonial from Slim himself, who died in 1992 but did a number of filmed interviews that the movie fuses into a complex confessional portrait of pathology and redemption.
Slim, who had a cruel and wrenching childhood, talks about how he got the “street poison” in him at a young age. He’s merciless about what a twisted and degraded creature you have to turn yourself into to run a “stable” of women, yet he also acknowledges – and this is the cornerstone of his power as a writer – that the life of a pimp is a kind of addiction. “I wanted that thrill, that voluptuous sensation of controlling,” he says. Iceberg Slim: Portrait of a Pimp is a movie that anyone who thinks he “knows” the street world from hip-hop lyrics, ’70s blaxploitation films, or the bad-boy cult of pimp chic will want to see, because the movie does full justice to how that “sensation of controlling” can make a person whose soul is in the gutter feel – in Slim’s word – like God.
Follow Owen on Twitter: @OwenGleiberman