Marilyn Monroe's brief life has been such a source of fascination that no stone has been left unturned, which means it's periodically deemed necessary to go back and turn them over again. Fair enough, but a fundamental quibble prevents endorsing this docu, which posits that the actress's luminosity in photos is largely responsible for her enduring popularity.
Marilyn Monroe’s brief life has been such a source of fascination that no stone has been left unturned, which means it’s periodically deemed necessary to go back and turn them over again. Fair enough, but a fundamental quibble prevents endorsing this watchable and entertaining “American Masters” documentary, which posits that the actress’s luminosity in photographs is largely responsible for her enduring popularity. Given the way Monroe popped off the screen — as demonstrated by one of the few film clips shown, as Jack Lemmon admires her bouncing form in “Some Like It Hot” — it’s a dubious premise.
More than anything, Monroe’s death at the age of 36 (she would have turned 80 in June, astonishing as that sounds) spared her the ravages of time. Examining that exquisite image, producer-director-writer Gail Levin enlists a variety of sources, from Playboy founder Hugh Hefner, who published early nude pics of her in 1953, to writers Gloria Steinem and Norman Mailer.
The centerpiece, though, comes via chats with various photographers who shot Monroe at different points in her life, which, frankly, will be of inordinate interest only to those with a more-than-passing attraction to all things Marilyn or an acute appreciation of photography.
Monroe was, by any measure, a transcendent beauty, capable of quickly turning on that shine for the camera lens. Yet her real legacy stems from her films, which exhibit an innocence, vivacity and playful sexuality that inevitably come closer to explaining the still-burning legend, to borrow from Bernie Taupin and Elton John, than any frozen picture.
As with most examinations of Monroe’s life, there is a bittersweet quality throughout “Still Life.” Levin chronicles the unhappiness that went with the fame — the sex goddess who, as she posed for famous photos in that billowing white dress from “The Seven Year Itch” — simultaneously watched her relationship with an uncomfortable Joe DiMaggio begin to unravel.
Nevertheless, with so much allure and mystery surrounding Monroe, only complete novices or true diehards will find much within this hour that merits another look back. And while the photos of Monroe are surely beautiful and occasionally haunting, PBS has employed the broadest of strokes in giving her legacy the once-over, lightly.