If Marilyn Monroe had lived, she would be turning 90 on Monday. At least she is spared having to watch Lifetime’s predictably overheated miniseries “The Secret Life of Marilyn Monroe,” airing Saturday and Sunday.
Like so many of these post-mortems of a short, troubled life lived in headlines, it’s so bad, you can’t turn it off.
Kelli Garner (“Pan Am”) plays Monroe well enough at certain points in the star’s life, and really well at others, but the performance doesn’t work at critical times because it lacks sufficient nuance. Vocally, Garner goes for mannered breathiness punctuated with a bubbly giggle. She doesn’t modify that approach very much when Monroe is getting slammed by the real world.
The Lifetime miniseries is based on the well-regarded book of the same name by J. Randy Taraborrelli, which detailed the extent of her mental illness. The key to understanding the depth of her problem is her mother, Gladys (Susan Sarandon), who was in and out of mental institutions. Sarandon, for the record, devours every piece of scenery she can sink her teeth into.
The miniseries begins in 1962, not long before Monroe’s death on Aug. 5. She has decided to try a new shrink, Dr. Alan DeShields (Jack Noseworthy), so of course the entire story is framed as a series of flashbacks as Marilyn recounts her life in their first session at the house on Fifth Helena Drive where she would die. The template, in the adaptation by Stephen Kronish, is as tired as it is unbelievable.
We know virtually every event depicted in “Secret Life,” from her discovery by a magazine photographer in a munitions factory (we see her suggestively stroking a wooden propeller blade for the camera), her nude photo spread, her early roles in “Scudda Hoo! Scudda Hay!” and “Dangerous Years,” her various marriages and career-advancing sexual liaisons, the booze, the pills, the Kennedys, the death.
We already know about her self-destructive nature because the mythology has only grown more indelible over the years. It’s always been too facile to conclude that Monroe’s prime motivation in life and career was to make herself over into something the world would consider desirable, in reaction to the absence of nurturing parenting from her mother and the complete absence of her father in her early life.
The very minimal new information in the miniseries is that she ended up replicating her mother’s paranoid schizophrenia in her own life, at times convinced she was being secretly watched, at others given to more unsettling delusions, such as her inability to accept that she had lost the child she was carrying when married to playwright Arthur Miller.
Laurie Collyer takes all of the known facts for granted through choppy, abruptly episodic direction. If a commercial has just run, Marilyn must be on to husband number three, Miller. No matter. You won’t be tuning in to “The Secret Life of Marilyn Monroe” to pay attention to how it’s directed.
So why will you tune in? Because the mythology of Marilyn Monroe is still enticingly potent, all these years after her death. Accordingly, we are drawn back into it, over and over again, trying to cut through the fog to get a sense of the real woman, based on the assumption that long before the look and voice were perfected, a real, albeit troubled, human being existed.
In time, she may have become the myth, and that was certainly what killed her, and in so doing, made it forever impossible for us to know for certain whether she was a victim of her own fantasies, or our own.
WHERE TO WATCH
“The Secret Life of Marilyn Monroe” airs at 7 p.m. Saturday and Sunday on Lifetime.