The recordings come courtesy of Anthony Summers , author of the 1985 book about Monroe, “Goddess.” The interviews include a wide range of those who crossed her path, offering the old-Hollywood kick of hearing snippets of his chats with directors John Huston and Billy Wilder and Monroe’s “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes” co-star Jane Russell.
The documentary undermines that, alas, with the unnecessary wrinkle of having actors “play” those people by lip-synching the audio, a pointless attempt to create the impression that the viewer is seeing the other side of those conversations. Given that there’s plenty of video and film footage of Monroe to weave in, it’s an indulgence that’s far too cute for its own good, adding a sense of showbiz pizzazz that does nothing to buttress the project’s credibility.
Beyond that, director Emma Cooper devotes much of the latter half of the film to the “mystery” part of the title, and the decades of speculation about whether her death in 1962 was a suicide, an accidental overdose or, as Summers puts it, “something more sinister.”
Inevitably, that conversation turns to Monroe’s reported relationships with John and Robert F. Kennedy, the subject of a seemingly endless number of documentaries and salacious (mostly TV) movies through the years.
In truth, the emphasis on the Kennedys almost plays like a distraction from hearing more intriguing observations, such as Huston citing Monroe’s downward trajectory from “The Asphalt Jungle” to “The Misfits” (which he directed 11 years apart); or Wilder saying of his reported difficulties working with the actress, who he directed in two of her best films, “The Seven Year Itch” and “Some Like It Hot,” “I had no problem with Monroe. Monroe had problems with Monroe. “
For her part, Monroe in taped interviews talks about her twin desires to be happy and be a good actress, saying somewhat sadly with the benefit of hindsight, “You have to work at both of them.”
In that sense, watching “The Mystery of Marilyn Monroe” serves as a reminder, to paraphrase Elton John’s musical tribute, that her candle burned out long before the exploitation of her ever did.
“The Mystery of Marilyn Monroe: The Unheard Tapes” premieres April 27 on Netflix.