There’s still something about Marilyn. Even though she died in 1962, Marilyn Monroe remains very much in the public eye as the basis for feature films, TV series and, come Monday night on HBO, Love, Marilyn—a documentary with rare footage in addition to never-before-seen bits from Monroe’s own journals, letters and diaries.
Our lasting fascination with the actress born Norma Jeane Mortenson is also apparent in the film, as talent like Elizabeth Banks, Ben Foster, Jeremy Piven, Uma Thurman, Evan Rachel Wood and Lindsey Lohan appear on screen to read or perform pieces from Monroe’s writings.
We checked in with director Liz Garbus to talk about finding her treasure trove of Monroe material, what gives the star sticking power and why she matters to the modern world.
How did this project first come together? You’re working with some pretty incredible material.
What happened is my producer, Stanley Buchthal, had been an advisor to the Marilyn Monroe estate. When he started talking to me about the materials he was working with and the types of documents they were, I became very curious. As a filmmaker, I hadn’t thought much about Marilyn Monroe or her influence on women in Hollywood. I had, of course, always known of her. She’s just one of the most famous people in the world, but I had known nothing really about her. I came to these documents and middle-of-the-night notes and found someone who was very modern and relatable, which was quite a surprise to me.
You must have had to jump through some major hoops to get access to this material.
Honestly, it came through Stanley. He had to jump through many, many hoops. But that body of property came to him, so that had been done by the time I came on board. So, we had these texts, but how do you make them into a film? And what else should be in the movie? We went through Marilyn’s documents, and I incorporated some text I’d read—since there is so much to read about her—that would provide context.
From the TV show Smash, about a Monroe Broadway musical, to the biopic My Week With Marilyn, Monroe seems to be everywhere these days. To what do you attribute the interest?
It’s interesting how there are these moments of resurgence. Marilyn has been forever famous and there are a lot of reasons why. Her fame came at a time when Hollywood was at a crossroads, and her vision of female sexuality was something really different than what had been offered beforehand. She was at the forefront of a certain portrayal of sexuality, and that’s indelible in the American imagination.
As for why today, I think part of it is a business thing. The people who’ve owned the Marilyn copyright are letting people use it. Also, once you start to understand her story—the story of a woman who used everything she had to get to the top and then changed the way the rules she played by were written—is very modern.
The film also looks at the idea of the public and the private Marilyn.
Her creation of that figure was studied. We included some of the testimony of her acting coach, who helped create that image, about how Marilyn was working on the way she walked, the way she moved her lips and held her body. You can see in archival footage when she turns it on to play the boop-boop-be-doop Marilyn versus the Marilyn who would say to Lee Strasberg, “I have a great idea for a theater company; let’s do some Chekhov together.” It was one of the most genius brand ideas of the 20th century.
Was that apparent in her time?
We should assume there are a lot of thoughts behind the way celebrities are presented to us; these are images that can influence decades to come. In Marilyn’s case, we can’t even begin to monetize or think about the impact that the images she created have had on American culture.
What was the most surprising thing you learned about Marilyn making this film?
As a director in the film business, what I thought was quite amazing was her break from the studios in the mid 1950s. She was one of the most famous actresses in the world and couldn’t stand her deal with 20th Century Fox. She didn’t like the rules she was being offered, so she just said to hell with them, I’m moving to New York. I might owe them pictures, but I’m leaving.
She put herself in jeopardy; she put herself out of work. It’s not like this woman ever had a lot of money. All of a sudden she started taking acting classes. Can you imagine if one of our biggest stars today suddenly decided to take beginner’s acting classes? It’s a very vulnerable, brave move. I found that very surprising.