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Lifetime's 'The Secret Life of Marilyn Monroe' is hardly revealing

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Ben Mark Holzberg/Lifetime

First, let’s talk about that title: Does Marilyn Monroe even have any secrets anymore? If there ever was a time when she was still one of the 20th century’s most elusive icons—when most Americans didn’t know about her painful childhood, her addiction to pills, or her abusive relationship with her second husband, Joe DiMaggio—it was long before dozens of biopics and tell-all books spoiled the idea that she was just like the carefree, good-time blonde that she often played on screen.

Based on J. Randy Taraborrelli’s eponymous bestseller, The Secret Life of Marilyn Monroe focuses on “secrets” that the book claimed it revealed for the first time: namely, the star’s family history of mental illness. Airing as a two-night Lifetime miniseries, which begins Saturday May 30 at 8 p.m., the story is told by Marilyn herself (Kelli Garner) through a series of sessions with a Freudian psychiatrist. Born Norma Jeane Mortensen, Marilyn describes how she was deserted by her paranoid schizophrenic mother (Susan Sarandon), passed around between her mother’s best friend (Emily Watson) and a foster mother (Gloria Gruber), and grew up hiding the extent of her own mental illness until she began hearing voices and landed in an institution.

As for the rest of the story, you’ve probably heard it before. There are sepia-toned shots of young Norma Jeane dreamin’ of bein’ a big movie star while growing up in the shadow of the Hollywood sign. There’s Marilyn posing for her first nude photo shoot, letting the wind from a subway grate blow up her dress in The Seven Year Itch, fighting with third husband Arthur Miller over the screenplay for The Misfits, and preparing to sing “Happy Birthday, Mr. President” to John F. Kennedy. There are no big surprises, though there’s plenty here for your average Freudian to deconstruct. Watch as Marilyn’s mom brings a man back to her room, then invites her young daughter to sleep in the same bed. Decades later, Marilyn tells her doctor that “the sheets smelled like sex.”

If Freud were still alive, he’d insist that this whole psychiatrist set-up is pure wish fufillment for the viewer. Marilyn’s doctor is entitled to pose the grossly invasive questions that we’re all dying to know but never got the chance to ask: Did her mother’s promiscuity affect her own relationships with men? Why did she continue to sleep with DiMaggio after he beat her? Would her life have turned out any differently if she’d known who her father was? The problem is that Secret Life makes Marilyn seem so self-aware, it’s easy to wonder why she needs therapy at all. She self-diagnoses her own abandonment issues, wonders aloud if she seeks approval from men because she never got it from her father, and confesses that her biggest fear is that she’ll become her mother. When her acting coach (Embeth Davis) asks, “Oh darling girl, why are you so tormented?” you half-expect her to reply, “Well, I’ve got Oedpial issues, paired with an acute case of hysteria, but it’s nothing that a litlte dream analysis can’t fix.”

Fuelled by such armchair psychoanalysis, The Secret Life of Marilyn Monroe can feel overdetermined. Too many lines of tossed-off dialogue read like thesis statements about Marilyn’s life. “You know, some people can’t help who they turn out to be,” Marilyn says about her mother. Just like that, she’s psychoanalyzed herself again.

To be fair, it’s hard to expect realism from any Marilyn Monroe biopic. The whole point of Marilyn Monroe is that she was a fantasy, one that Norma Jeane herself dreamed up. So it’s refreshing to discover that Garner is the one high point here: She makes this fantasy woman seem like a human being. Her role is a tricky one, and not just because it requires something more than a simple celebrity imitation. Esentially, it’s a performance within a performance. “All my life I’ve played Marilyn Monroe, Marilyn Monroe, Marilyn Monroe,” Marilyn herself once told the director Henry Hathaway. “I’m doing an imitation of myself.”

As the critic Peter Conrad once wrote, Marilyn was an invention in which she herself didn’t believe—and Garner captures that uncertainly well, often using the same subtle body language that Marilyn mastered onscreen. She’ll let her mouth turn down at the corners after flashing a big smile, or she’ll draw out her breathy sighs too long, until she sounds exhausted. She reminds you how tragic it is that this beloved Hollywood icon was once so full of life—hyper-animated, with her eyelashes batting and her lips pursing and her voice squealing—and yet, by the end, she was empty inside.

Beyond Garner’s performance,The Secret Life doesn’t do justice to her legend. It’s another tribute that can’t measure up to its subject, and years from now, it will leave even more just-above-average made-for-TV movies in its wake. That’s sad, because Marilyn Monroe was transcendent on screen. Her life should’ve made for something more than an ordinary movie.