Becoming Marilyn (2021): a fantasy of what Marilyn Monroe might have been

Michèle Dominici, “Becoming Marilyn ” (2021)

Billed by production company Arte Distribution as a “unique portrait” of famed 1950s Hollywood screen icon Marilyn Monroe, this documentary by Michèle Dominici purports to return to Monroe her voice and opinion on Hollywood and the surrounding culture of her time. Using archived recordings of interviews Monroe gave, poems, letters, diaries she kept and other literature she is known to have written, the documentary makes its case that Marilyn Monroe was an entity created largely by the actress herself in a quest to find acceptance and her own place in 20th-century America with all its flaws and vices against women and other groups outside an elite dominated by middle-aged white men of privileged background. Through a narrative based on Monroe’s writings and interviews, the documentary traces her rise from Norma Jean Baker, product of an unstable family background, living in foster homes and an orphanage, and molested at least once by a foster father, through an early marriage and dropping out of high school to factory work, modelling, bit parts in films and odd jobs at film studios in the 1940s, to breakthroughs in various films in the early 1950s and finally stardom in 1956. During this time, Monroe threw herself into whatever work she was given, studied acting, dancing and singing, and became something of a perfectionist in this respect – a characteristic that was later to be part of the reason why, in her later films in the 1950s and early 1960s, directors and other actors found her difficult to work with. Monroe also clashed with film studios and film studio heads for not giving her work that stretched her as an actor and performer but instead pressuring her to do work that typecast her as an airhead “dumb blonde” stereotype. The documentary ends more or less at the point where she is in the process of divorcing her second husband, baseball celebrity Joe DiMaggio, moving to New York City and forming a production company with photographer Milton Greene: an act that was significant in breaking Monroe out of the Hollywood studio system that exploited actors and which eventually led to the death of the system itself.

The documentary emphasises Monroe’s struggle with an industry and an industry culture that demeaned actresses like Monroe who were beautiful and blonde, but not considered brainy either. The path that Monroe took to reach stardom from unprepossessing beginnings is a zigzag, often convoluted one, and it is likely the documentary bypasses some of the less palatable things Monroe might have had to do or put up with because they contradict the narrative of a completely self-made public persona. There is little in the film about how this public persona affected the general public’s views – and especially the viewpoints of women and minority groups – toward Monroe and how such views affected Monroe’s career. There is also no indication that Monroe often mocked her own public image and parodied her “dumb blonde” stereotype in the films she worked in. Very little attention is given to Monroe’s working class background and how that influenced film studios’ attitudes towards her and the films they put her in, in contrast to (say) the treatment given to Grace Kelly, an equally beautiful blonde actor who came from an upper middle class background, by the same studios.

In an age where identity politics dominates over class politics, a documentary like this is perhaps no surprise but it does come across as director Dominici’s own fantasy of what she wants Monroe to be rather than what Monroe was. That the documentary ends at the point where Monroe reaches the peak of stardom and her public persona appears complete is no surprise; from here on, downfall is inevitable (given that Monroe died young, in mystery circumstances) and the narrative of Monroe being in control of her career and image cannot be sustained.