Diary of an icon

Through her journals, filmmaker Liz Garbus learned to love Marilyn Monroe, which comes across in her latest documentary, ‘Love, Marilyn.’

Marilyn Monroe in Love, Marilyn (photo credit: Courtesy)
Marilyn Monroe in Love, Marilyn
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Liz Garbus, whose documentary portrait of Marilyn Monroe, Love, Marilyn, opens Friday, had never been especially interested in the late iconic star, until she came across some recently released diaries.
“There were documents that had never been published before,” says Garbus in an interview from her New York office. “Stanley Buchthal, who was the producer of my film Bobby Fischer against the World, had been an adviser to the Strasberg family, and Lee Strasberg had been Marilyn’s acting coach. The family had these documents that Marilyn had left. Anna Strasberg [Strasberg’s widow] had had them for years. And finally they were made public, and Stanley told me about them.”
The Marilyn Monroe who kept these journals surprised Garbus, and she was intrigued. “As a female filmmaker interested in women’s issues, I had never understood her. I kind of knew she wasn’t really a dumb blonde, she just played them really well, but I didn’t give it another thought. But I was quite surprised by them. I could relate to them as a woman.”
Now that she had Marilyn’s words, the question was how to build a film around them.
“If you have one actor or one actress playing Marilyn Monroe, it’s a tough task. You’re setting yourself up for a negative outcome. Nobody can quite be her. She’s one of the most famous women in the world. If we had an actress impersonating her, people would always be comparing this actress to the real person they know from film and photos,” she says.
Her solution was unconventional but brilliant: She has a varied group of actors and actresses read the words.
Hearing Marilyn’s words spoken by such performers as Uma Thurman, Ellen Burstyn, Jeremy Piven, F. Murray Abraham, Elizabeth Banks, Lindsay Lohan, Paul Giamatti, Hope Davis brings the words to life in a way no MM imitator could.
“My idea with using so many actors is that they are so clearly not Marilyn. You don’t look at their physicality. You hear the words. They actors and actresses responded to the various texts in different ways,” says Garbus, who also includes interviews with people who knew Monroe, such as director Billy Wilder and actor Jack Lemmon, as well as newsreel footage and clips from Monroe’s films. “The actors who read from her diaries did it because it spoke to them. They were very excited about the material.”
Garbus found it particularly interesting that the Monroe that the diaries reveal was “not what we imagine a 1950s sex symbol to be.
She was pushing the boundaries in a way that was really interesting,” she says.
One example Garbus cites as an intriguing surprise was Monroe’s handling of the release of nude photos early in her career. Rather than denying they were her, as movie studio representatives advised her to do, she called a columnist and poured out the story of how and why she agreed to pose nude.
“It was really quite bold,” says Garbus.
The diaries illuminate Monroe’s personal and professional struggles.
“Joe DiMaggio wanted a more traditional wife, but she was this incredibly public person, an actress,” explains Garbus.
Later, Monroe made another bold move and got out of her Hollywood contract to go to New York and study with Lee Strasberg at The Actors Studio.
“To listen to Lee Strasberg talk, if she had lived she would have had a great career as a dramatic actress.
She had a vision of setting up a company with Strasberg and Marlon Brando. She had a desire for selfimprovement that was accompanied by massive anxiety and ambition,” says Garbus.
Monroe’s diva side comes out in the film as well, in the frustrations that Wilder and others had working with her as she became less reliable.
“But as Wilder said, ‘My aunt would show up on time. But my aunt wouldn’t light up the screen like Marilyn,’” says Garbus.
Monroe’s last husband, the celebrated and serious playwright Arthur Miller, does not come off as a sympathetic figure in the diaries: “She wrote a lot about her feelings of devastation in that marriage. That marriage was the beginning of the end for her. She became dependent on drugs. Her ego got crushed. She put taoo much of her sense of selfworth into his view of her, and she couldn’t recover from his falling out in love with her,” she says The film, which was sold to the HBO network in the US, is “just beginning to make its way in the world.” But Garbus has a long track record when it comes to making documentaries that get attention, not a feat to be taken lightly. Her first film, The Farm: Angola, USA, a documentary about a prison, was nominated for an Oscar and won dozens of other awards. “It came out of my work on prisoners’ rights issues,” she says.
Since then, she has made more than a dozen documentaries, on such disparate subjects as chess genius Bobby Fischer; a woman who went on an inexplicable wild ride down a highway and killed many people (There’s Something Wrong with Aunt Diane); atrocities against Iraqi prisoners (Ghosts of Abu Ghraib); and a Jewish woman who saved herself by marrying a Nazi (The Nazi Officer’s Wife).
“I think the thread that unites all my films is the search for humanity in places where people haven’t always explored that,” says Garbus. “Marilyn was much loved, but there were so many conspiracy theories that have overshadowed her life. I wanted to show who she really was.”