Netflix’s new documentary The Mystery of Marilyn Monroe: The Unheard Tapes, available now, hopes to paint a more complete picture of the late icon, who died at just 36 years of age in 1962. Emma Cooper, the director of the film, became involved with the project after being approached by Anthony Summers with his recently re-released 1985 biography of Monroe, in which he interviewed 650 people.
The Academy’s Margaret Herrick Library department of Special Collections is the source for the tapes used in The Mystery of Marilyn Monroe: The Unheard Tapes. More than 300 original cassette and microcassette recordings were digitized by the Academy’s Digital Management Services from Summers' recordings. The tapes are part of the Lois Banner Collection on Monroe at the Academy's Margaret Herrick Library.
Those tapes of interviews, including the likes of directors John Huston and Billy Wilder, co-star Jane Russell, and many more, proved invaluable in creating the documentary’s narrative. "He played some [of the tapes] to us and we suddenly thought, 'Wow, we’re actually there -- inside the investigation,'" Cooper told Vanity Fair.
Despite the wealth of resources, Cooper was hesitant to take on Monroe’s story. "I had never seen any of her films. I wasn’t hugely interested in her," Cooper told IndieWire. "I found those stock images of her in the white dress, and I thought, ‘What is there for me to know? What is there for me to say about this?'"
She added, "It was kind of helpful because I had no baggage. And so I felt like I could really connect with the arc of her life. And also being questioning and not just accepting why certain things happened in certain ways."
Those "certain things" include Monroe’s still hotly debated death. The actress was discovered dead in her bed at 3:50 AM with her hand on the telephone. But how did she really arrive at that tragic end? Was it suicide, an accidental overdose, or something more sinister?
Through the tapes, Cooper and Summers re-examine Monroe’s final days and hours, along with her connections to both John and Bobby Kennedy, and how that may have impacted her tragic ending. As Cooper told People, "The final acts of the film are incredibly exciting…that timeline that Tony [Summers] walks us through gets me every time. It's an investigation where everything we thought we knew is not really correct."
The investigation of Monroe's death is gripping, but what is even more intriguing is the life story of the complex star. Cooper herself admits that she went from in essence disinterest to utter fascination, becoming “completely consumed by Marilyn,” as she told People. She added, “She's a huge part of my life now. I adore her."
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