With Lifetime preparing for a turn on the Marilyn Monroe biopic bandwagon, I figured it might be a good time to finish up a few of the remaining Marilyn biopics I’ve had lying around for awhile. Marilyn: The Untold Story was the ABC Sunday Night Movie back in 1980, based on Norman Mailer’s book (that itself cultivated several of the moments that are considered Monroe canon), and garnered star Catherine Hicks an Emmy nomination. There’s nothing truly “untold” if you’ve watched as many of these movies, or read as many books on Monroe, as I have, but this movie refreshes in its straight-forwardness and aversion to theatrics, exploitation, and gossip.
Marilyn: The Untold Story follows the life of Norma Jean Baker aka Marilyn Monroe (Hicks) as she enters Hollywood, meets her husbands, and becomes the biggest star crushed under the weight of her own fame.
I’ve watched Marilyn Monroe don a multitude of personas in the examination of the countless biopics about her. I’ve seen her be degraded, deified, the little girl lost, and the babe in the woods too naive for stardom. With all those shifting faces, it’s almost disappointing watching a movie that presents things so simply. Marilyn: The Untold Story doesn’t have her being raped repeatedly (or having sex at all) nor is she the poor innocent needing protection from men. If anything, Hicks’ portrayal of the blonde bombshell shows a woman desperate to be a real actress, not a pinup girl. Thus, the focus lies on her relationship with acting coach Natasha Lytess (Viveca Lindfors) and husband Arthur Miller (The Exorcist’s Jason Miller). With so much well-tread ground being covered, it’s hard not comparing this to Blonde, a later biopic that recounts about 80% of this movie in a gussied up format, and things often play very dryly, but it’s nice watching Marilyn’s life recounted without exorbitant fanfare.
At almost two and a half hours, the movie cuts a wide swath through Monroe’s career highlights, although Monroe’s childhood and rise to fame feel truncated in comparison her third act marriage with Miller. In fact, Monroe’s first two husbands, including baseball player Joe DiMaggio (here played by Frank Converse) barely warrant more than a scene or two. (I can barely recall if Converse has more than a handful of lines; they keep emphasizing him as the strong, silent type.) Maybe, because DiMaggio was still living, the movie feared including too much of the rumored abuse in their relationship that was eventually confirmed years later? There’s also only about 30 minutes devoted to young Norma Jean’s (played by a young Tracey Gold) relationship with her mentally disturbed mother, Gladys (Sheree North). Again, having watched so many Marilyn biopics these are all moments that are seared into my brain and don’t necessarily need to be recounted again. However, it does make the rest of the movie feel incredibly long, particularly as it sticks firmly towards Miller and Monroe’s relationship. The third act with filming of The Misfits is fantastic, a perfect combination of physical resemblance and laconic discussion about movies. Larry Pennell plays Clark Gable, an eerie resemblance, and Hicks dressed up like Monroe gives you a feeling that you’re watching a real moment from their lives.
Hicks’ Emmy nomination is surprising, if only because it’s hard envisioning something playing Monroe today getting recognition (hey, maybe Kelli Garner will surprise me). In comparison to past Monroe’s Michelle Williams and Poppy Montgomery, Hicks is a breath of fresh air by refusing to be the Marilyn we all assume. You could say is self-evident in how little she looks like Marilyn, and, resemblance wise, she is the weakest, but she makes up for it with a dynamic performance. Hicks revitalizes the staid persona of Marilyn, by shedding many of the theatrical “Monroe” moves other actresses have used, or emphasizing they are part of the persona, the caricature that is Marilyn Monroe. This means the breathy voice is used only when she’s acting – Hicks keeps her vocal range high throughout – and is upbeat and perky without being stupid. If anything, this biopic reminds the audience that Monroe wasn’t dumb, and her greatest fear was being perceived as a joke.
The rest of the cast, comprised of classic film stars past their prime and up-and-comers, are equally engaging. This was the last film actor Richard Baseheart (of Tension fame) starred in, and his Johnny Hyde is certainly a more debonair man than past Hyde’s (specifically Wallace Shawn’s take in Blonde). Baseheart’s wizened older man certainly appeals to Norma Jean’s desire for a father, and the fact that it’s Baseheart allows for some type of acceptance when they start a relationship (no offense Wallace Shawn, but no one wanted you seducing Poppy Montgomery). Jason Miller plays Arthur Miller rather blandly, primarily because the script leaves Miller as calming influence and little else. North and Lindfors are good as the various mother figures in Monroe’s life, although Lindfors has far more screentime to convey that. Thank goodness Tracey Gold is only in this for a few moments as she’s the worst of the bunch. She’s got two modes: angry and happy and plays them both loud and exuberantly, whether it’s being happy she’s going to live with her mother (“I’M GONNA LIVE WITH MY MOMMMMMMA!”) or screaming. Either way, I doubt the people on the East Coast didn’t hear her.
And because it’s 1980, expect a far amount of cheese typical to the era, particularly television movies of the era. Every emotional scene is punctuated by extended violin sequences aka “strings of sorrow;” there an additional soundtrack of songs that didn’t sound like anything Monroe recorded (and if it’s Hicks singing, which I’m assuming, it’s pretty blah); and you get the prophesying by a random character as a “knowing” nod to the audience. In this case, a skeezy old grip says “That girl’s got something.” As if we didn’t know that, and do we really need some old geezer oogling Monroe’s goodies to tell us that? This is also a fairly fun time capsule of 1980s Hollywood, with stops at the Grauman’s Chinese Theatre (before TCL got to it) and Paramount Pictures.
Marilyn: The Untold Story doesn’t tell us anything we don’t already know, but when compared to other, later biopics, this takes the simplest route and uses that well (partly because we didn’t have all the gossipy ways of storytelling we have now). Catherine Hicks is one of the better Monroe’s, despite the lack of resemblance.
A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.