If Marilyn Monroe had lived, she would be turning 90 on Monday. As a birthday gift, the fact that she didn’t die in 1962 would have spared her having to watch Lifetime’s predictably overheated miniseries “The Secret Life of Marilyn Monroe,” airing Saturday and Sunday.
So that’s the indisputable official line on the latest cultural post-mortem of a short, troubled life lived in headlines. Like so many of these efforts, it’s so not very good, you can’t turn it off.
Kelli Garner (“Pan Am”) plays Monroe well enough at certain points, and really well at others, but the performance doesn’t work at critical times because it lacks sufficient nuance. Vocally, Garner goes for mannered breathiness punctuated with a bubbly giggle. She doesn’t modify that very much when Monroe is getting slammed by the real world.
The Lifetime miniseries is based on the well-regarded book of the same name by J. Randy Taraborrelli, which detailed her mental illness. The key to understanding the depth of her problem is her mother, Gladys (Susan Sarandon), who was in and out of mental institutions. Sarandon devours every piece of scenery she can sink her teeth into.
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The miniseries begins in 1962, not long before Monroe’s death on Aug. 5. She has decided to try a new doctor, Alan DeShields (Jack Noseworthy), so of course the entire story is framed as a series of flashbacks as Marilyn recounts her life in their first session at the house on Fifth Helena Drive where she would die. The template, in the adaptation by Stephen Kronish, is as tired as it is unbelievable.
Laurie Collyer takes all of the known facts for granted through choppy, abruptly episodic direction.
So why will you tune in? Because the mythology of Marilyn Monroe is still enticingly potent, all these years after her death. Accordingly, we are drawn back into it, over and over again, trying to cut through the fog to get a sense of the real woman. In time, she may have become the myth, and that was certainly what killed her, and in so doing, made it forever impossible for us ever to know for certain whether she was a victim of her own fantasies, or our own.