Last month, at a parlor in West Hollywood, Emma Cooper got a tattoo of Marilyn Monroe’s face on the underside of her arm. The director of the new Netflix documentary The Mystery of Marilyn Monroe: The Unheard Tapes didn’t initially count herself among her subject’s fandom, just aware of the major building blocks in her movie-star mythology: white dress, blonde coiffure, beauty mark, natural sex-bomb charisma, undercurrent of psychological stress ending in tragedy. “But that’s the thing about Marilyn,” Cooper says. “She pulls you in.”
“I did not think I’d end up having her as part of my body, but you become obsessed with her,” she tells the Guardian. “On my first research trip in Los Angeles, I went to see her grave and visit the Academy. While I was in town, I also met one of her biographers. They said, ‘Strap yourself in. You’re going to go mad for her.’ I thought, ‘Of course I won’t.’ Cut to me on Sunset Boulevard, getting this done.”
The inked portrait isn’t a caricature of those distinguishing features; instead it’s winnowed down to uncolored outlines so minimal we may as well be looking at the screen idol’s bones. The instinct to do away with appearances and expose the foundations undergirding an image aptly matches the intent of her latest project, which favors fact-based reportage over thrall to Monroe’s dazzle. Cooper’s film joins investigative journalist Anthony Summers as he recounts the important points of his 1985 book Goddess: The Secret Lives of Marilyn Monroe, its timeline and accompanying insights repackaged for a visual medium. He was the one who sold Cooper on the concept, convinced that she would also come to see the person behind the legacy of victimhood. “To me, Marilyn had always been a bit one-dimensional,” Cooper says. “By the end of this process, she’d become a much more real person to me, with more modernity as a woman than I’d ever seen in her.”
In a crowded marketplace of Monroe biography, Cooper and Summers set their work apart by branding it with a shoe-leather true-crime angle. The film and its source material both eschew talking-head segments from experts or obsessives, relying on a cast of Monroe’s collaborators, confidantes, and closest loved ones. In the course of researching his book back in the 80s, Summers amassed a goldmine of audio recordings with firsthand eyewitnesses in the star’s orbit. Having scoured innumerable hours across hundreds of his tapes, archived at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in Los Angeles, Cooper brings this audio to life via lip-synced reenactment, using actors in costume. “This is the last film about Marilyn Monroe exclusively populated by people who knew her, touched her life, felt her presence, really knew what it was like to be around her,” she says.
The multitude of perspectives combine to form a prismatic view of a much-analyzed personality, already subject to constant public reappraisal and re-reappraisal. From the queen bee dumb blonde in Hollywood (said her All About Eve costar Celeste Holm, “I thought she was quite sweet and terribly dumb and my natural reaction was, ‘Whose girl is that?’”), she has been elevated to a silver screen saint martyred by a beastly tabloid media and the ravages of addiction.
“The truth is somewhere in the middle,” Cooper says. “It almost always is.” She wanted to avoid the simplistic or salacious in chronicling a life beset by scandal and intrigue, and focused on the contents of Monroe’s character: the intellectual curiosity of the Method student, the passionate artistry of the actor who wowed greats like Billy Wilder and John Huston as her talents caught up to her innate charisma.
“She was many things,” Cooper says. “She did have trauma, and it did affect her relationship, but she wasn’t a victim. She worked very hard on herself … The way she could sometimes show her vulnerability and sometimes hide it is so alluring. And we know that now as something that’s powerful about all women. But back then, we didn’t all have the freedom to explore that in ourselves the way Marilyn did.”
Monroe remains a figure of such permanent fascination, commanding two documentaries and a biopic in 2022 alone, in part for all that’s universal about her rarefied circumstances. Though the spotlight shone more harshly on her than any other celebrity of her era, Cooper and countless other present-day women see an integral part of a shared experience in the outsized expectations heaped upon her. While wrestling with depression, insecurity, and barbiturate use, she had no choice but to maintain a facade of perfect glamour in her performances for the paparazzi. Though Cooper’s favorite Monroe film is The Seven Year Itch (“I quite like the send-up of male stereotypes in that film; Marilyn’s in on the joke”), she feels the most telling texts are the photographs that capture the bombshell mask and the angst it couldn’t fully cover.
“The two archival pieces about her that I became obsessed with were, one, when she’s walking out of the Payne Whitney psychiatric clinic like it’s a restaurant or movie premiere even though she’d been held for three days. She ended up smashing a window, saying that she was being the mad person they all expected her to be. Joe DiMaggio ended up getting her out. It was the most extraordinary, awful time. For her to come out in full makeup and hair, it seems unbelievable. Half of me thinks it was horrible that she felt she had to present herself like this, and the other half is fucking amazed at her ability to do it.”
She continues: “The second one is when they’re doing the announcement of her divorce, and she can’t stop the emotion from showing. She cries, and it’s hard to watch. You see an immense hurt over this failed relationship. Young women today can still connect to that, and to her. As recently as 20 years ago, people would’ve said she was all over the place, mad, hysterical. Now, I see this and think, ‘That’s just being a woman.’”
Across its final half hour, the film’s primary-sourced approach builds to a close inspection of the murky circumstances surrounding Monroe’s death, and its rumored link to known paramours John and Robert Kennedy. Summers’ sleuthing confirmed that while conspiracy theories that suggest the suicide by overdose was a secretly ordered hit were fanciful fabrications, there was indeed some mucking-about with the official record to avoid negative PR for the Kennedys. It’s not quite the smoking gun a gawker might hope for; rather a comment on the continued societal impulse to treat Monroe’s existence like juicy gossip. “I’m constantly trying to find a line where we acknowledge conspiracy and try to unpick its strands,” Cooper says. “People might say there’s nothing new here, but I think this film is a useful resource.”
She hopes that others can receive her film as a jumping-off point for a deepened appreciation of and respect for Monroe, setting them on the same track that landed a once-indifferent Cooper under the tattoo artist’s needle. It doesn’t take much to show skeptics of the substance in a woman historically prized as a gorgeous sob story how painfully human she really was. After all, as Cooper knows all too well, pulling us in has always been Marilyn’s superpower.
“Any success in this film is a younger generation getting to know her, and getting a clearer idea of her than the ones that came before,” Cooper says. “They can take comfort in recognizing things they’ve gone through in their own lives happening to one of the most famous people of all time. It’s reassuring. I don’t mean to sound hokey.”