Monday, September 25

What Separates Netflix’s New Marilyn Monroe Documentary From the Rest

Sixty years after Marilyn Monroe’s death, there isn’t much new to say about the icon or her tragic passing at age 36—as scandalous as the sex symbol’s final days were. Which was why filmmaker Emma Cooper (The Disappearance of Madeleine McCann) initially balked when author Anthony Summers asked the British filmmaker to peruse his best-selling 1985 biography of Monroe, Goddess: The Secret Lives of Marilyn Monroe. Summers interviewed some 650 people for the book. (Vanity Fair excerpted the republished biography here earlier this year.)

It wasn’t until Cooper discovered that Summers still had the audio from those incredible interviews that her perspective changed.

“He played some [of the tapes] to us and we suddenly thought, Wow, we’re actually there—inside the investigation,” Cooper tells Vanity Fair. The audio captured conversation with people like John Huston, Billy Wilder, immediate family members of Monroe’s psychiatrist Ralph Greenson, and Eunice Murray, the housekeeper who discovered Monroe’s body. Each person Summers spoke to—many of whom have died in the decades since—shared their own intimate recollections of Monroe, as well as their understanding of the late icon. The Mystery of Marilyn Monroe: The Unheard Tapes, premiering Wednesday on Netflix, uses them to construct another portrait of Monroe. 

The filmmaker was floored by the intimacy she heard on the tapes, which she spent about a year making her way through. To make the audio more visually compelling for her documentary, Cooper filmed recreations of the conversations—with actors in period costume reenacting the calls with Summers.

“Tony’s an amazing journalist and he has an amazing skill,” says Cooper. “He spent three years unwinding these strands of truth to [piece together] a very, very backed-up, believable scenario of a much-talked-about end of someone’s life. He and I talked a lot about how the truth is often right in the middle. And I really found that to be true here.”

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Marilyn Monroe has been the subject of endless documentaries, books, and TV coverage—including Reframed: Marilyn Monroe, a docuseries from earlier this year that intended to give Monroe more agency over her career. While The Mystery of Marilyn Monroe: The Unheard Tapes won’t turn up any new reporting, it is a fascinating listen for true-crime fans or anyone interested in celebrity investigations. The documentary offers an unparalleled glimpse at an investigation of this scale, as well as fragmented recollections about Monroe directly from the people who knew her.

“Tony discovered that she was vulnerable to falling prey to men who did not have her best interests at heart—men who saw something in Marilyn and her strength that they wanted to diminish,” says Cooper. “I see that all around me in many relationships with women of all ages. I don’t understand it, but it seems to happen quite a lot. I thought it was really, really compelling that that lives in Marilyn Monroe, because she’s the last person that you would think that would happen to.”

Cooper hopes audiences can learn something new from hearing firsthand reports told by some of the people closest to Monroe. And at the very least, she hopes that viewers will appreciate being transported into the icon’s orbit. 

“I was watching the film again earlier, and I just felt like I knew her at the end of it because the voices [Tony spoke to] knew her,” says Cooper. “So you feel like you are in a Marilyn bubble for 90-something minutes; you are with her. And I think if people can feel like that at all when they’re watching this, then I would be truly thankful.”

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