Following its annual tradition, Cinema Arts Festival Houston kicks off with an opening night screening at the Museum of Fine Arts Houston. This year’s opening film, Love, Marilyn, tracks the life and career of the perennial Hollywood icon Marilyn Monroe through archival images, interviews and most interestingly a series of dramatic readings of Monroe’s diaries and writings from her loved ones and associates. Since Monroe has been thoroughly documented and eulogized in almost every available medium for numerous of times, the dramatic reading undoubtedly stands out for better or worse. Director Liz Garbus casts a dozen of actresses (I lost count)— including Uma Thurman, Viola Davis, Glenn Close, Marisa Tomei—to recite Monroe’s journal entries in front of a green screen (which was then replaced by a variety of images in the resulting film). There are also the likes of Jeremy Piven, Ben Foster and Adrien Brody impersonating Elia Kazan, (the unreliable) Norman Mailer and Truman Capote in the same manner as the actresses did for Monroe. This device is bold yet distracting to the overall viewing experience. The idea of showing different sides of Monroe by having various actors pretending to be her might sound like a edgy idea on paper but the execution is rather shoddy. Often the readings feel like half-baked auditions at best and some of them sound cringingly silly (see Uma Thurman and Lindsay Lohan). The drifting camera movement and unflattering lighting were of no help to these unfortunate segments.
Despite its missteps, Love, Marilyn has moments of clarity, especially in depicting Monroe’s contractual dispute with 20th Century Fox and refuting her often misinterpreted persona as a brainless sex symbol. The film is largely sympathetic to Monroe’s struggle as a bright young talent who was ahead of her time yet it also generously absolves her personal failings as a case of being a victim of her circumstances. At the end, Love, Marilyn is a generous portrayal of a film star who is still loved and romanticized by so many.