It takes some chutzpah to title something “The Secret Life of Marilyn Monroe,” given all the books and movies devoted to her life. But Lifetime has taken the 2009 tome, and turned into an eponymous four-hour miniseries. What sets this latest rehash of the star’s existence apart, marginally, is a knockout performance by Kelli Garner and, to a lesser degree, Susan Sarandon’s turn as her mentally disturbed mother, the relationship through which everything else about the girl born Norma Jean is filtered. Mostly, it’s a dutiful but nothing-new account of the ultimate anti-feminist icon — a sex symbol heavily defined by romances with famous men.
The two-parter’s framing device relies on Marilyn, near what will tragically be the end of her life, pouring her heart and entire history out to a psychologist (Jack Noseworthy), who patiently listens as she flashes back through it all. That begins with being taken away from her mom (played in those early scenes by Sarandon’s daughter, Eva Amurri Martino), being raised for a time by a guardian she came to know as Aunt Grace (Emily Watson), and spending time in an orphanage, marrying at 16 solely because she needed a place to stay.
A few years later, Norma Jean is launching a modeling career (Garner impressively plays Monroe from 16 to 36), and gradually starts pursuing her dream of working in “the pictures.” Just being beautiful, however (“The camera loves you,” she’s told), isn’t enough, and her advancement comes via liaisons with powerful men, including a studio executive and the agent Johnny Hyde (Tony Nardi), who puts the rechristened Marilyn on a path to stardom.
Success, however, comes with new pressures, as the studio pushes pills at its asset to keep her on track. Night two, meanwhile, kicks off with Marilyn initiating her torrid romance with Joe DiMaggio (Jeffrey Dean Morgan, overlapping his work in another A&E Networks miniseries, “Texas Rising”), followed by playwright Arthur Miller (Stephen Bogaert).
As for John F. Kennedy, yes, that’s included too, but the senator-turned-President remains discretely off-screen, although there’s still an excuse to show Garner in the knockout gossamer dress Monroe famously wore when she sang “Happy Birthday, Mr. President” to him. Beyond looking the part, Garner replicates Monroe’s voice and mannerisms without falling into caricature, which, given the episodic nature of the material, is an accomplishment indeed.
Underlying it all, in the adapted screenplay by Stephen Kronish, directed by Laurie Collyer, is that Monroe inherited mental illness from her mother, a religious scold (she calls modeling “a sinful business”) who hears voices. Marilyn, as usual, is portrayed as an object mostly of pity, someone who tells her agent, “Everyone uses everyone,” having been on both sides of the equation.
For those who have followed Monroe’s brief but tragic life — from books to movies to song — it’s hard to imagine there are any secrets left. Indeed, when DiMaggio flies into a jealous rage while watching her skirt blown up filming “The Seven Year Itch,” it is, to quote another Yankee, deja vu all over again.
Part of the allure surrounding Monroe, of course — who would be 88 if she were still alive — is that she remains frozen in time, an ageless icon of Hollywood glamour. Perhaps that’s why, every few years, someone feels inclined to exhume her — extracting a bit more glow from a candle that never burns out for long.