The miniseries, based on the bestselling biography by J. Randy Taraborrelli, is set as conversation held on a single afternoon, as Marilyn recounts her life to a new potential therapist (Jack Noseworthy). A young Norma Jean Mortenson was put into foster care due to her mother’s mental problems until family friend Grace Keller (Emily Watson) is named her guardian. Gladys comes to live with Norma Jean and Grace, but her dementia proves too much, and she’s once again committed to an asylum.
As Norma grows up, she falls in loves with the glitz and glamour of Hollywood. She takes her teenage boyfriend, Jimmy (Giacomo Gianniotti), to the movies. They both observe a Cigarette Girl seductively sell a boy a pack of gum by using a deep, sultry voice, one that Marilyn would later adopt as her own! Norma Jean marries Jimmy as a way to finally be legally independent. While he’s off fighting in WWII, she begins a career as a model and would grace the cover of many magazines even before she was Marilyn.
Both her mother (released from the asylum) and husband (done with the war) come home on the same night. This leads to a tense confrontation where Gladys walks in on the couple in bed — while waving a huge kitchen knife! Jimmy has her arrested and sent back to the asylum. Marilyn, upset at her husband, runs away. When she returns, she swears she was being followed by a man, who Jimmy says was never there. This is the first time we see that Norma Jean may have her own mental issues.
Norma transitions from model to actress, finally becoming Marilyn Monroe. Unsuccessful at first, she poses nude for money. The photographer invites her to a party where she meets (and sleeps with) the head of 20th Century Fox. This gives her career a boost. It’s not the first time Marilyn uses her raw sex appeal to her advantage, and it wouldn’t be the last. She divorces Jimmy and starts a relationship with an agent who helps her career but also introduces her to drugs. She also develops lifelong friendships with an acting coach and a make-up artist, two of the few people who know about her mental problems.
The Secret Life’s second half details Marilyn’s marriages to Joe DiMaggio (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) and Arthur Miller (Stephen Bogaert). These men are almost polar opposites. Joe is warm and loving, but he beats her and wants her to quit her film career. Arthur helps her as an actress, writing screenplays where she’s not the dumb blonde, but he’s cold and emotionally abusive. Marilyn ultimately divorces both.
Her rumored relationship with John F. Kennedy is portrayed as an aspect of her mental instability. She’s obsessed with JFK, thinking he loves her, and becomes paranoid that his wife is out to kill her. Her mental state gets so bad that when she visits Gladys during this time, they are almost exactly alike. Marilyn herself gets admitted to an institution, but Joe gets her out. With the truth of her mental issues now public, Marilyn almost seems relieved. She ends her conversation with the therapist on a high note. Unfortunately, her lives ends in tragedy, as she fatally overdoses on drugs and alcohol.
Those suffering with mental problems or the lack of acceptance and love from a parent will relate to The Secret Life of Marilyn Monroe. The miniseries showed how one of the most famous women in the world suffered with these problems, even when while she was at the height of her success.
Kelli’s performance as Marilyn was genuine and authentic. She never came across as someone doing a poor imitation of Marilyn. However, the miniseries’ true star is Susan Sarandon. Her portrayal of Gladys can be both humorous and tragic, and the miniseries is at its best when she’s on screen. If there were more scenes with her and Kelli together, the miniseries would have been much better.
Despite these great performances, The Secret Life of Marilyn Monroe is just okay. It’s caught between telling the both story of Marilyn and that of Norma Jean and her mother. Even though it tries to cover everything, it ends with the feeling that there’s still so much more to know about this Hollywood legend.
What did you think of The Secret Life of Marilyn Monroe, HollywoodLifers?
— Jason Brow