"SO, HOW did you get all these big stars to participate in this documentary?" I asked Liz Garbus, the director of "Love, Marilyn," which appears on HBO June 17.
Garbus replied, "One word -- Marilyn! Every person I approached wanted in, as soon as they heard that name."
"Love, Marilyn," takes an unusual approach to Monroe. It is not, for one thing, sensational. There are no death rumors, sex rumors or wild speculations. The documentary is based in part on the book "Fragments," which contained many of Monroe's poems, jottings, recipes, fears and hopes.
Actors such as Ben Foster, F. Murray Abraham, Oliver Platt, Paul Giamatti, Jeremy Piven and Stephen Lang recite the words of male writers, from Norman Mailer to Arthur Miller to Billy Wilder. But that's only half -- and indeed the less satisfying half of "Love, Marilyn." (Some of the guys appear to be showboating, to say the least.)
It is the female stars Ms. Garbus lured that lift the film. Among them: Glenn Close, Ellen Burstyn, Lili Taylor, Uma Thurman, Evan Rachel Wood, Lindsay Lohan and the magnificent Viola Davis. It is the women who recite Marilyn's own words -- alternately scattered, precise, desperate and hopeful. There's not a false note anywhere. Every woman seems deeply affected. As Garbus said, "Marilyn speaks to every woman's inner self -- love, family, the desire for perfection, satisfaction in her work. And the fears that she cannot 'have it all.'" Sarah Churchwell, who wrote the best book on Monroe, "The Many Lives of Marilyn Monroe," also makes an important contribution.
I MET with Ms. Garbus and Amy Greene in midtown Manhattan last week. Amy is the former wife of the late photographer Milton Greene, with whom Marilyn formed her own production company. She did this after a stunning year-long strike against her studio. Amy is much as she was more than 50 years ago -- highly attractive, chic and acerbic. She was fond of Marilyn, but it is a fondness devoid of sentimentality. "She wanted to be a movie star, a sex symbol. She loved it. And she also wanted to be a great actress. She never saw why she couldn't be both! And she sat in on every meeting. She knew what was going on, all the time." (Amy agreed to be a part of this documentary because Liz Garbus' father was an excellent lawyer who had once helped out her son, Josh. Amy is a woman of high principles.)
This doesn't prevent her from speaking honestly, however. Of "My Week with Marilyn" she snorts: "A total lie" ... of Lee Strasberg she raises her hand and says, "I won't speak about Strasberg" (One senses she has little nice to say) ... of Arthur Miller, she is scathing. "After he announced their engagement in Washington, D.C., when he was fighting to get his passport -- he got it in two days, naturally -- Marilyn was shocked, hysterical. I said to her, "Are you still gonna marry this creep? And please don't tell me he's great in bed." (Marilyn had told Amy that it was Joe DiMaggio's sexual prowess that had kept their marriage together -- if only for nine months.) Amy also says, "It was Arthur who broke up the production company. Marilyn was distraught and so was Milton. They were crying on the phone together an hour after they left the lawyer's office." (There's plenty more but I think we'll save that for Amy's own memoir.)
Amy also recounts the infamous night of the "flying skirt" for "The Seven Year Itch." What appears innocent onscreen -- her dress blows only to mid-thigh -- was "almost pornographic" when seen in person by thousands of onlookers, as her white pleated dress flew waist high. (Not even two pairs of panties could hide what the klieg lights revealed.) Amy, who adored Joe DiMaggio, won't confirm that he roughed her up that night. "I wasn't there and neither was anybody else," she says with touching loyalty.
Amy did reveal that Milton and Marilyn's fabled "Black Sitting" the most erotic and contemporary of the hundreds of pictures Milton took of Monroe (they look like they were shot yesterday) will finally become a book.
"LOVE, Marilyn" presents Monroe at her most endearing and fragile, but even so there were times when she felt truly cornered in public that she broke though the protective baby-doll persona. Relentlessly grilled by an antagonistic female reporter, Monroe replies assuredly and with confidence:
Reporter: "So, I see you're wearing a high-necked dress, quite different from the last time I saw you. Is this a 'new Marilyn'?"
Monroe: "No, I'm the same person. But it's a different suit." She laughs, but she got the point across.
On another occasion trapped by dozens of reporters in the lobby of her apartment house, after Miller's surprise "marriage proposal," a particularly abrasive woman (young Estelle Parsons, in fact!) abruptly asks, "When are you going to have some children? Monroe drops the breathy voice, "Well, I'm not married yet, dear."
THERE ARE many haunting passages in "Love, Marilyn," including a grueling and sad nightmare she had, in which Lee Strasberg operates on her and upon opening her up, finds she is "completely hollow" (Viola Davis and Uma Thurman relate this tale beautifully, in Monroe's own words.)
Liz Garbus admits she wasn't much of a Marilyn fan before she began the film. (She has previously produced a documentary on chess ace Bobby Fischer.) But after reading the star's letters and diary entries, she "kind of fell in love and in admiration for her." She continues, "For all the flamboyance of her public self, she was an extraordinarily modern woman in so many ways. And she was amazingly dedicated to her career; the serious side of it; the learning side. I think that, not the scandals, are what keep her so fresh."
In "Love, Marilyn" the star is asked about the importance of love. Monroe replies: "I think love is the most important thing that can happen to you." Then she pauses. "But, you know, work can be a kind of love too."
(E-mail Liz Smith at MES3838@aol.com.)