Norma Jean & Marilyn (1996) from Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy; Greg Wroblewski) and Tuna

Scoop's notes

The subject of this HBO biopic, as you undoubtedly already know from the title, is Marilyn Monroe. (Actually, Marilyn's real name was Norma Jeane with a trailing "e," which shows you about how much effort they put into this film.)

The film uses a double-casting gimmick. It splits Marilyn into two personalities, the drugged-out Hollywood star and the ambitious girl who first came to Hollywood, and it has those two personalities played by two different actresses. Mira Sorvino plays movie star Marilyn in what is essentially an extended impersonation. Ashley Judd gets the more complex job of bringing to life Norma Jean, the real person beneath the public persona.

The two actresses did fine. In fact they were both nominated for Golden Globes and Emmys. The film itself, however, really fails to deliver anything of merit because, like many biopics, it just tries to cover too much with no clear idea of what point it wants to make or even why it exists. It covers Marilyn's entire life from age eight until her death. That was far too ambitious for a two hour picture, given the monumental scope of her life, which included a brilliant movie career, and romances with the greatest playwright, the greatest acting teacher, the greatest ballplayer, and the greatest politician of her era, as well as with several other men, including Columbia's boy genius musical director, Fred Karger. And those were just the significant relationships! She added purely sexual flings with plenty more of the famous and near-famous. She crammed all of that into a few short years, and even that decade and a half would be far too much for a movie, even without the childhood and pre-fame portion of her life. By trying to cover her entire life, this film becomes a string of superficial cameos. Lee Strasberg, Monty Clift, JFK and RFK have about one line each. Joe DiMaggio is portrayed as a one-dimensional asshole, but he seems like Mr. New-Age Sensitive Guy compared to Fred Karger. Playwright Arthur Miller does get somewhat better treatment than Marilyn's other lovers. In fact, this might have been a very good movie if it had used the same split personality gimmick to focus in exclusively on the relationship between Arthur Miller and the two sides of Marilyn's personality. But that's another movie, not this one.

It's not just significant personalities that get brushed over lightly, but character motivations as well, even Marilyn's. Because of its vast scope, the script could touch only on her symptoms, isolated from their root causes. We see that Marilyn became a mess at the end, taking mammoth quantities of drugs, rarely showing up for work, and making bizarre emotional outbursts that pushed away all the men who might have cared for her. Unfortunately, the film offers no insight into how or why she became that way. She seemed to be doing great just before she became famous, cold, calculating, and really in control of her life after surviving an abusive and often loveless childhood. Then, a few minutes of screen time later, she had degenerated into a pill-popping bimbo and self-flagellating perennial victim. Huh? I never could figure out the logic in that. The script seemed to imply that childhood trauma was heavily implicated in her deterioration, but in the earlier scenes in pre-fame Hollywood, she was carrying around all that childhood trauma with no trouble. What happened to rust away her iron resolve? Despite various moments with her shrink and other mental health professionals, the script has no insight into the relationship between her self-esteem problems and her ultimate degeneration. I learned nothing at all from this treatment beyond the superficial chronology that you and I already know by heart.

HBO seems to specialize in good-lookin' biopics, and this is no exception, but many of those biopics turn out to be more than just eye candy, and this one did not. It suffered from too much ambition and ended up being trite and incredibly shallow. Despite a lack of insight into Marilyn the person, the film could easily have redeemed itself it it had captured the charisma of Marilyn the star, but it dropped that ball as well. The re-creations of her career highlights were infrequent, perfunctory, and dull. So it doesn't really show why Marilyn was a great star, and it doesn't show why Norma Jean lost control of her life. It's neither educational nor especially entertaining, and every portion of her life is given short shrift.

That doesn't leave much to recommend, but I might be able to  give you one reason to watch this film, depending on how much you like naked women and/or Ashley Judd. In the first half or so, Judd is stark naked several times. She does full frontal nudity in a dream sequence in a church, and she does full frontal and rear nudity when recreating Marilyn's famous Playboy spread. Throw in a little skinny dipping and flashing here and there, and you have some magnificent career-best nudity from an exceptionally attractive woman. If the film had offered no nudity, I would have hated the fact that I spent 132 minutes of my life on such a facile and unenlightening project. Given the magnificent nudity from Judd, and some flashes from Mira Sorvino, however, I felt it was a reasonably entertaining way to pass the time. If you have no interest in seeing beautiful chicks naked, skip it because it is a lousy biopic. On the other hand, for the vast majority of men who do like to look at beautiful women naked, you should find Judd easy enough on the eyes that the time will pass easily.


DVD info from Amazon

  • no features, no widescreen, but priced to sell (below $10)



Ashley Judd shows everything twice, and her breasts in several more scenes.

Mira Sorvino shows her breasts clearly. In another scene, she is wearing nothing but a sweater, which affords a brief glimpse at the bottom of her bum and possibly her pubes for a frame or two.

Tuna's notes

I don't disagree with Scoop's conclusion at all. This was a 139 minute waste of my time.

I am not sure the problem was the scope, and I can hardly blame the film makers for their inability to cast someone who could demonstrate Marilyn's incredible screen presence. In viewing all of her films in the boxed sets, I couldn't help but notice that any time Marilyn was on screen, she is the only one who got your attention, even when playing a bit part with no lines. Sophie Marceau, in her prime, had a great deal of appeal, but even she would have been upstaged by Marilyn's mere presence. I am also not sure the film didn't have a point of view. They cast Ashley Judd as Norma Jeane Dougherty, and Mira Sorvino as Marilyn, and in the second half of the film, show them almost as a split personality, with the Norma Jeane personality having infinite drive, and the Marilyn portion being essentially a love- and attention- starved woman who was done in by drugs. At least, it would be possible to make a strong case for that view.

For me, the problem was different. A collage is a valid graphic art form, and can be used very effectively, for instance, to show interconnections among elements of the image, or to present overall images with layer after layer of deeper meanings contained within. While you can usually say that the finished product does or doesn't appeal to you, you must study it at length to completely understand it. Further, viewing art is subjective, so different people will walk away from it having seen different things. This film was a collage of Norma Jean/Marilyn's life, assembled hodgepodge from the elements of her life all of us already knew. The problem with this concept is that it plays out in linear time, not allowing us to study the elements, the way they were arranged, or how one influences another. I suppose one could watch it over and over, and see if there is a successful collage here, with insight to be eventually gained, but I will leave that to someone who was not bored to distraction by this completely uninspiring film.

The Experts Vote ...

  • It was nominated for several Emmys and Golden Globes.

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Miscellaneous ...

The meaning of the IMDb score: 7.5 usually indicates a level of excellence equivalent to about three and a half stars from the critics. 6.0 usually indicates lukewarm watchability, comparable to approximately two and a half stars from the critics. The fives are generally not worthwhile unless they are really your kind of material, equivalent to about a two star rating from the critics, or a C- from our system. Films rated below five are generally awful even if you like that kind of film - this score is roughly equivalent to one and a half stars from the critics or a D on our scale. (Possibly even less, depending on just how far below five the rating is.

My own guideline: A means the movie is so good it will appeal to you even if you hate the genre. B means the movie is not good enough to win you over if you hate the genre, but is good enough to do so if you have an open mind about this type of film. C means it will only appeal to genre addicts, and has no crossover appeal. (C+ means it has no crossover appeal, but will be considered excellent by genre fans, while C- indicates that it we found it to be a poor movie although genre addicts find it watchable). D means you'll hate it even if you like the genre. E means that you'll hate it even if you love the genre. F means that the film is not only unappealing across-the-board, but technically inept as well. Any film rated C- or better is recommended for fans of that type of film. Any film rated B- or better is recommended for just about anyone. We don't score films below C- that often, because we like movies and we think that most of them have at least a solid niche audience. Now that you know that, you should have serious reservations about any movie below C-.

Based on this description, this is a C- or D. If you consider full frontal nudity from Ashley Judd to be a very strong positive characteristic, then the film is a C-, a barely watchable biopic which you should own because it is economically priced and includes beautiful nudity. If you are not interested in female nudity, consider it a D and find a better way to pass the time.

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