Reframing Marilyn: What the Critics Said

Marilyn during a rare TV appearance on Ed Murrow’s Person to Person, 1955

Over the last few weeks, the CNN docuseries, Reframed: Marilyn Monroe, has received widespread media coverage, including detailed fan reviews (see all posts on the show here.) So apart from sharing clips and so on, what did the critics have to say? NPR‘s David Bianculli praised the “very different, and original, approach” taken, casting aside the prevailing view of Marilyn as tragic victim and giving a platform to women’s commentary. Other critics, however, felt that the feminist reclamation of Marilyn had its own limitations, not least the Daily Beast‘s Nick Schager, who decried it as ‘ridiculously reductive.’

“Marilyn Monroe was a timeless beauty, a great movie star, a gifted comedian, and a complicated human being whose personal and professional struggles played out in the harsh glare of Hollywood’s spotlight. Reframed: Marilyn Monroe, however, cares little for Monroe’s complexity … Proactive self-sufficiency is the guiding theme of this endeavor, although it remains an inconsistent through line, since director Karen McGann’s portrait vacillates on a dime between damning a variety of men (and the systems they created) for harming Monroe, and contending that Monroe wasn’t truly victimized because she struck back at her oppressors at every turn.

Such confusion undermines much of Reframed: Marilyn Monroe, although its desire to recontextualize Monroe as a 21st-century feminist pioneer is clear from the get-go—and culminates with Amber Tamblyn claiming, at the conclusion of the final episode, that she thinks Monroe would have been on the frontlines of today’s activists and a big voice in the #MeToo movement. Whether that’s accurate or not, the urge to comprehend Monroe in contemporary progressive terms instead of on her own is this docuseries’ primary shortcoming … According to those featured in the docuseries, Monroe was the real artist behind her memorable snapshots (the photographer was merely a functionary); she was her own best, strategic publicist; her USO tours were proof of her immense care for others and her political awareness; her love and support of Ella Fitzgerald showed she was an ahead-of-her-time civil rights hero; and her third husband Arthur Miller’s defiant stand against the House Un-American Activities Committee was actually Monroe’s idea.

On and on it goes, with people talking about how they want to know Monroe as a three-dimensional person even as they render her a radiant object onto which they can project their own timely politicized opinions … Monroe can’t simply be a luminous movie star; she has to also be a titanic artist. She can’t just be a canny media celebrity; she has to be a tactical mastermind. And she can’t have been someone who, in her later years, needed help; she was always a strong, fearless warrior who pushed back against a chauvinistic status quo that sought to reduce her to merely a platinum-blonde pin-up, even as she wielded her sex appeal for empowering ends.”

Daniel Gerwertz’s review for The Arts Fuse is more generous, but also echoes the concerns of longstanding fans that Marilyn is still being idolised rather than understood.

“There have been many attempts to uncover the private side of this most public of movie goddesses. Reframed isn’t one of them. Excavating Monroe’s psyche takes a back seat to slanting her image to fit a generation of young female viewers hungry for heroines. It’s a kinder, more perceptive breed of exploitation than the tabloid hysteria Monroe suffered in the ’50s, but it does distort the real woman. (Calling MM the Kim Kardarshian of her day, for example, is neither complimentary nor accurate.) The older books and documentaries emphasized Monroe’s tragic youth and lonely, insecure, ultimately drug-addled adulthood — essentially, Marilyn as victim … There is clearly much evidence to back up this reframe job. But the doc goes too far. Previous versions of the Marilyn story were overly swayed by her magic chemistry with the camera: it often appeared that she was a tractable starlet thrust into prominence by photogenic accident.

Reframed intelligently shows how hard she worked, and how many stones in the road she removed along the way to fame. But it fails to give credit to the gifted (and smitten) photographers she worked with, the wise screenwriters who saw where her strengths and weaknesses lay, the canny publicists who recognized what a gold mine they had. Even the studio producers may have done the young Marilyn a favor by not asking her to create more realistic characters and stretch her brand. The doc tends to give the impression it was all Marilyn’s genius plan and execution, temporarily felled by a few villains crossing her path. It ignores the context.

Reframed is well worth seeing. But there is a sense, by the midpoint of the four-hour documentary, that the enterprise distorts and simplifies the star and the woman. Monroe was simultaneously tenuous and brash, a victim and a goddess, loved, pitied, and lusted after. Her life tragedies and innate vulnerability made her popular with women. Her onscreen persona cast her as the delicious blonde who loved sex … She was not a threat, a very good thing in an era that was so easily threatened. She is still the one and only Marilyn, a star big enough to withstand frames and reframes, myths new and old. It is simply good to see her again.”