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'Reframed' revisits Marilyn Monroe's life and legacy, from an all-women point of view

CNN's new four-part documentary series, <em>Reframed: Marilyn Monroe</em>, revisits the life and career of the film legend (shown here in 1954). The first two parts of the series air Jan. 16.
Hulton Archive/Getty Images
CNN's new four-part documentary series, Reframed: Marilyn Monroe, revisits the life and career of the film legend (shown here in 1954). The first two parts of the series air Jan. 16.

The year 2022 marks the 60th anniversary of the death of Marilyn Monroe, one of cinema's most iconic, examined and enduring sex symbols. To commemorate the occasion, CNN is rolling out the new four-part documentary series, Reframed: Marilyn Monroe, which takes a very different, and original, approach to its subject.

During her career, and for decades after her death, Marilyn was objectified, scrutinized and judged — mostly by male writers, biographers and historians. The 1973 book, Marilyn: A Biography, paired a skeevy, sexist essay by Norman Mailer with pictures of the actress taken by photographer Lawrence Schiller.

Schiller does appear in Reframed, but here he's talking about Monroe's acute awareness of the camera — how she posed, what images she selected and how she used them to enhance and leverage her own celebrity status.

But most of the time, the voices we hear in this new documentary are female. Actor Jessica Chastain narrates, and an all-women editorial team headed by Sam Starbuck reexamines Marilyn's movies, marriages and career moves from her point of view. And we hear from women film critics and historians, including the always informative Alicia Malone from Turner Classic Movies.

We also hear from several women actors. Some younger ones share why they find Marilyn inspirational both on and off the screen. And peers like Joan Collins and Ellen Burstyn, who competed in the same sexist studio system as Marilyn did in the 1950s, reflect on how women were treated in Hollywood back then. It's a revelatory new take on some familiar ground.

In Reframed: Marilyn Monroe, we learn how, as a young actress, Marilyn outlived and outmaneuvered the potential career-killing scandal of the emergence of some earlier nude photos. We also see how, as a more mature actress, she again embraced nude photographs — this time as a weapon, to gain media attention and bargaining power.

It was at a time when her movie studio, 20th Century Fox, was funneling almost all its money into the Elizabeth Taylor costume drama Cleopatra. Monroe got the spotlight back on herself – and though she had a long and often combative relationship with the studio and its executives, and had been fired, she ultimately was rehired, given a big raise and awarded the contract terms she had been demanding.

We learn a lot more not only about her methods of negotiating, but also her motives. It was not the first time in Marilyn's life she had fought the studio system and won, but it would be her last. She died in 1962 from an overdose at age 36.

But her films would survive, and Reframed sees them with a fresh set of eyes. There's the sparkle of her small screen appearance in the 1949 Marx Brothers comedy Love Happy — the brothers' last film, but Marilyn's first. There's the comic confidence of her brilliant work in The Seven Year Itch and Some Like It Hot, and the subtlety of her portrayals in such later, dramatic works as Bus Stop and The Misfits.

Marilyn took control of her career whenever and however she could, even starting her own production company to choose her own roles. And she took those roles seriously. Near the end of her life, when a reporter for Life magazine asks her if it was difficult sometimes for her to crank out her performance, she bristles instantly at the word, saying, "I don't crank anything."

At this point, there are no plans to make Reframed an ongoing documentary series, reevaluating the careers and legacies of selected filmmakers and performers. But there ought to be — because Reframed: Marilyn Monroe is planting its flag on some fresh territory.

Copyright 2022 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

David Bianculli is a guest host and TV critic on NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross. A contributor to the show since its inception, he has been a TV critic since 1975.