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Liz Garbus

Was Marilyn Monroe a feminist? The director of a new documentary weighs in

She’s the most iconic woman of the 20th century. Countless books and movies have documented and sensationalized every aspect of her life – from her starry youth to her controversial death – to an unprecedented degree. Surely there’s nothing new anyone could say about Marilyn Monroe.

Then a treasure trove of never-before-seen personal letters, papers and diaries, emerged. Award-winning US documentarian Liz Garbus (The Farm; Angola, USA) took these intimate musings to fashion fascinating new film, Love, Marilyn. Read and performed by Hollywood’s finest – Ellen Burstyn, Glenn Close, Uma Thurman, er, Lindsay Lohan – Garbus not only brings new voices but restores the complex, candid humanity to the image that seduced the world. Here Garbus talks to Dazed about how Marilyn broke through the repressive 1950s to become the new American woman. 

What she did was ultimately create the roots of a sexual revolution. In some ways it worked to repress her as much as liberate her

Dazed Digital: Where did all this material come from and how had it slipped through the net for so long? 

Liz Garbus: Marilyn left her estate to her acting teacher Lee Strasberg. Much of it was properly archived and much of it sold at auction. Then Lee died and his wife found a couple of boxes in a closet that had never been gone through. Stanley Buchthal, an advisor to the Monroe estate, was my producer on my film Bobby Fischer Against the World and he told me about these documents. I couldn’t wait to get my hands on them!

DD: Were you personally a Monroe fan?

Liz Garbus: I was never a huge Marilyn fan or steeped in her mythology. But these documents showed me that there was this relatable person behind that two-dimensional sexual image. I realized that I really knew so little about her: how busy she was and how seriously she took acting.

DD: Yet that image is still what most people still focus on.

Liz Garbus: I went into Harrods earlier and there was a new make-up line and her face was on the contact. I feel very protective of her and I want people to hear the voice behind that persona. The question was how to take these texts, which are pieces of paper and create a film out of them. 

DD: To Hollywood’s shame, you probably have the best female cast in decades. How easy was it to bring them onboard?

Liz Garbus: What was very freeing is that I wasn’t asking people to “play” Marilyn or try to be her - clearly Michelle Williams did that beautifully just recently. Like any independent production, you get one person on board… Our rock was Ellen Burstyn. She’d studied with Lee [Strasberg], had met Marilyn and has such great credibility and respect.

DD: Some – like Lindsay Lohan – seem to have more in common with Marilyn’s public perception than, say, Glenn Close…

Liz Garbus: That’s why I cast them, for this variety of experience. Obviously Lindsay has been modeled in that Marilyn role very consciously, and Lindsay herself is very into Marilyn. Glenn felt like she never knew her and that depth needed to be talked about. Marisa Tomei brought humour to certain readings… They all brought some unique and were proud to be part of a chorus singing that side of Marilyn’s story. text-9

DD: How did making the film affect your perception of Marilyn?

Liz Garbus: What’s interesting is how modern the issues she was dealing with feel. The struggle between having a family, being a wife, and the career she had, We don’t think of Marilyn Monroe as having a career – we think of her as a sex symbol and movie star, but not of how hard she worked. When she divorced Joe DiMaggio, at the press conference her lawyer said, ‘This is a conflict of careers.’ 

DD: Did you also get a better sense of how she became this icon?

Liz Garbus: The moment she was emerging, of 1950s sexual repression, is what made that icon so powerful. In the preamble to the sexual revolution, she was that sexual energy that was literally bursting out. She was doing it before we were really conscious that it needed to be done. Yet none of that was an accident – she had a sense of the next phase of what it would be to be an American female. 

DD: Was she a feminist?

Liz Garbus: I don’t think that’s the consciousness but what she did was ultimately create the roots of a sexual revolution. In some ways it worked to repress her as much as liberate her; but that’s often what happens in these moments of change.

Love, Marilyn is out now.