If you’ve never seen a TV-movie about Marilyn Monroe, Lifetime’s The Secret Life of Marilyn Monroe will satisfy your curiosity. In portraying a unique star who’s been impersonated by scores of actresses, Kelli Garner manages to bring a freshness to her interpretation of Monroe that never feels like caricature. To the credit of Garner and director Laurie Collyer (who also did the fine 2006 feature film Sherrybaby), their Monroe comes across as a figure whose struggles to overcome being typecast and dismissed as a thin-talent bimbo are made complex and near-heroic.
The four-hour film, shown over two nights, uses J. Randy Taraborrelli’s book of the same name as its source material for a script by Stephen Kornish, a veteran TV producer (24; The Commish) who was probably familiar with Monroe’s life from his 2011 miniseries The Kennedys. This new production is structured around sessions Monroe has with a therapist played by Jack Noseworthy (who played Bobby Kennedy in 2013’s Killing Kennedy). We see Monroe’s past through flashbacks during these sessions. It’s a method that could have been tedious, but much of it is redeemed by the force of performances by Susan Sarandon as Monroe’s mentally-ill mother and Jeffrey Dean Morgan in a nuanced portrayal of Joe DiMaggio, the baseball great who was one of Monroe’s husbands.
Ultimately, though, this will be familiar material for an awful lot of viewers. At this point, there have been more TV movies made about the life of Monroe than movies Monroe made herself. (Me, I’m still partial to Catherine Hicks’s performance as Monroe in 1980’s Marilyn: The Untold Story.) The new Secret Life offered no secrets or details that I, as a most casual observer of Monroe’s career, didn’t already know.
Which is not to say that other viewers won’t find this production compelling. At a time when pop culture is becoming ever more amnesiac about what happened during any era prior to, say, 1990, there’s probably an audience for a project like this one, which respects Monroe’s life enough to present it with both sympathy and, even at four hours, rigorousness. If you watch it, be sure to also check out the real Monroe. I would suggest Some Like It Hot.
The Secret Life of Marilyn Monroe airs May 30 and 31 at 8 p.m. on Lifetime.