‘The Secret Life of Marilyn Monroe’ Reveals What Really Haunted Norma Jeane

Lifetime’s latest biopic takes on the blonde bombshell’s biggest battle: mental illness.
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Tracy Phillips
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Lifetime’s latest biopic takes on the blonde bombshell’s biggest battle: mental illness.

Fifty-three years after her death, Marilyn Monroe remains as seductively alluring as ever. The endless fascination with the world’s most famous sex symbol continues with yet another retelling of the life behind the legend.

This time, Kelli Garner (The Aviator, Pan Am) stars as the Hollywood icon, playing Marilyn Monroe from ages 15 to 36, in The Secret Life of Marilyn Monroe, a two-night miniseries airing May 30th and 31st on Lifetime.

While Marilyn’s relationship with men played a pivotal role in her life, this production takes a different angle and focuses on the women in her life -- primarily her mother Gladys Mortenson, portrayed by Oscar-winner Susan Sarandon. Emily Watson (Hilary and Jackie) costars as Grace McKee, Marilyn’s childhood guardian.

The Secret Life of Marilyn Monroe Photo

Kelli Garner as Marilyn and Susan Sarandon as mother Gladys. (Photo: Danny Feld/Lifetime)

As a child, Norma Jeane Mortenson was a lonely girl neglected by her mentally ill mother, who suffered from severe paranoid schizophrenia and spent most of her life institutionalized.

Based on J. Randy Taraborrelli’s New York Times bestseller of the same name, Secret Life claims that what truly haunted Marilyn throughout her life was the paralyzing fear that her mother’s madness might be hereditary. Gladys’s own mother committed suicide so mental illness tormented the family.

The miniseries is structured using therapy sessions with Marilyn’s psychiatrist as the device to tell her life story. It captures the mesmerizing arc of her metamorphosis, from her modest childhood in foster care to pin-up model to mega-star until her tragic death of a suspected overdose at age 36 in 1962.

The Secret Life of Marilyn Monroe Photo

(Photo: Ben Mark Holzberg/Lifetime)

During the Great Reinvention of Norma Jeane into Marilyn Monroe, she was keeping a dark secret, according to the film. The movie studio told the world that Marilyn’s mother was dead but “it was the great secret of Marilyn’s life that Gladys remained a vital and troubling part of her world.”

Norma Jeane’s mama never thought much of Marilyn, either. “This is a sinful business,” Gladys tells her daughter when she’s launching her career. “It is not what God intended you to do with your life.”

But Norma Jeane was destined for stardom.

And that’s where Garner really shines. Her performance rises above imitation or caricature. She convincingly turns into the bubbly blonde bombshell with the breathy, baby-doll voice who oozed sex appeal and had the smarts to use it to her best advantage.

As her adoring fans would eventually discover, Marilyn’s dazzling charm and flirtatious nature were just an act for the cameras – every day she gave the performance of her life – masking her fragility and secret pain.

The Secret Life of Marilyn Monroe Photo

(Photo: Kevin Lynch/Lifetime)

The inner demons won.

Despite being impossibly famous and soaking up stardom, Marilyn remained desperate for affection and protection from men. After three broken marriages and a scandalous liaison with President Kennedy, Marilyn crumbled. The film alleges that Marilyn ultimately spent time in an institution herself.

In the end, her love-hate relationship with her mother, whom she was forced to hide but continued to care for and desperately wanted to save, may have been her most heartbreaking relationship of them all.

The Secret Life of Marilyn Monroe premieres Saturday, May 30th at 8 p.m./ET and Sunday, May 31st at 8 p.m./ET on Lifetime.