We gave it a B+
Our first view of Marilyn Monroe is when she’s dead, being carted away in an ambulance, in Norma Jean and Marilyn, and my first reaction was, Uh-oh, not another poor-dead-Marilyn-alive-in-flashback story. That’s the challenge of retelling the saga of the most scrutinized, romanticized, and mythologized of all movie stars for a know-it-all ’90s audience: After we’ve licked her as a postage stamp and watched dozens of drag queens do their renditions of her rendition of ”Happy birthday, Mr. President,” what’s new for a moviemaker to do? And, for that matter, what serious actress would dare to plunk her boop-boop-be-doop skills on the line to play MM? One false move and all we can think of are those drag queens.
I’m relieved to report that Norma Jean and Marilyn not only avoids the pitfalls of hagiography but actually comes up with a ballsy approach to reanimating an overtold bio. And I’m jazzed to see Ashley Judd and Mira Sorvino, two of the most intelligent and dramatically flexible young talents around, working together in a demonstration of inspired casting alchemy. In other words, even when it occasionally wanders into dramatic overdrive — and it does — this HBO Pictures production is unexpectedly affecting and at no time calls to mind the likes of RuPaul.
The conceit of NJ&M, directed with a theatrical flourish and a respect for ’40s and ’50s glamour by British pro Tim Fywell (responsible for A Dark Adapted Eye on Mystery!), is that the Hollywood creation called Marilyn Monroe (Sorvino) could never find happiness in fame or in love because she was tormented by the fears and furies of Norma Jean Mortenson (Judd), the hungry star wannabe she once was. And with that opening ambulance sequence out of the way, the movie quickly establishes Norma Jean as a young woman who, having already reshaped herself to withstand a childhood of abuse, instability, and loneliness, is determined to become an I’ll-show-them movie star the only way she thinks is available to her: through sex. (”I’m gonna be in the goddamn movies if I have to f— Bela Lugosi to get there,” she swears, in Jill Isaacs’ blunt, sometimes clunky script.) But when she metamorphoses through plastic surgery, bleach, and the machinations of powerful men into Marilyn Monroe, the movie star who looks in the mirror sees only dissatisfied, ravenous Norma Jean. Whenever Marilyn takes a stab at happiness, Norma Jean is there, nattering at her, to mess it up.
That we never lose emotional connection with the two faces of Marilyn — and that pretension or camp never gunks up the portrait — is, ultimately, to the great credit of Judd and Sorvino. Neither strives for an exact duplication of Monroe, yet each has a distinct softness, strength, and an unself-conscious sexiness that keeps our eyes on them, happily. When Norma Jean flirts it up shamelessly with William Morris agent Johnny Hyde (Ron Rifkin), we understand completely why he falls for her. When Monroe lays it on thick for her mannish speech coach (Lindsay Crouse), we buy that, too. (The Oscar-winning Sorvino, who has already proved herself the mistress of squeak in Mighty Aphrodite, does a lovely teeny Marilyn voice.) Norma Jean and Marilyn tells us a lot of stuff we know all too well, as well as some stuff that may be new: When she croons for JFK, this Monroe uses a crib sheet to remember the lyrics to ”Happy Birthday.” Most of all, this interesting production tells us that it’s possible to shed light on even the dimmest cautionary tale with the right light touch and good star wattage. B+