Marilyn: The Last Sessions

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“I belonged to the Public and to the world, not because I was talented or even beautiful but because I had never belonged to anything or anyone else.” – Marilyn Monroe

Just when you think TV is dead as a medium, killed by the twin imperatives of cutting costs and maximizing profits, a drama or documentary comes along to make you think again. This month it was ‘Marilyn: The Last Sessions’ screened on More 4. The sessions in question where not conducted in a photographic or recording studio; they were psychotheraputic encounters.

I knew relatively little of the Marilyn myth before the programme (apart from that mushy Elton John song) and was impressed by its approach and production values. It painted a picture of a woman who blamed herself and never knew how to grow up. In the shadow of her absent father, and shamed by her sectioned mother, she had eternally deferred maturity in favour of the thrill of flash bulb glamour. The movies were no cure for her existential predicament, however, as they simply created a new skin – a celluloid image called ‘Marilyn’ not Norma Jeane – that acted as both a cloak and a trap. She liked to be reminded that she was desired in order to avoid the question of whether she was loved. Yer as time went on, Baker felt exploited and brutalized by her dependence on Hollywood (personified at one point in the shape of John Huston). She also felt in danger of being exposed by the words she spoke and the emotions she portrayed. Photographic modeling – where she did not have to speak, just be – offered her a sanctuary, a space she could control; as, in the end, did psychoanalysis. Norma Jeane Baker was a bookworm and she read Freud.
In Norma’s voluptuous body – Marilyn’s phenomenal film star body – men saw only what they wanted to see. Her husbands, it seems, perhaps saw an angel, then a little girl, and eventually a liability. They were not her missing father figure and could not cure her of a struggle with the dark side. While the documentary did not explore all of her theraputic journal, she actually re-entered the process with perhaps up to five people – supposedly including Freud’s daughter Anna – none of whom could really help. And finally, made weary by her string of broken relationships, implicated as the troublesome mistress of both Kennedy brothers, and mired in her connections to the mob, she a death of ambiguous intent – an overdose. The overdose that started the sexual revolution. The pills that, quite by accident, ended the era of celluloid repression and pressaged the permissive society.

The Last Sessions documentary might productively be renamed ‘Marilyn Unspooled’ as it majors on the tapes that Baker made for and with her final psychoanalyst, Hollywood celebrity therapist Ralph S. Greenson. Revealing her private confessions to the devouring public, even a long time after death, oversteps the mark in some ways. The transcript material is made odder by having a grave male narrator read some of it. Nevertheless, a fascinating picture emerges of a therapist who became aggressive and crossed professional lines himself in his efforts not to be dragged down into Baker’s existential vortex. Marilyn’s unassuming, phenomenal sexual allure hid something behind the looks: a woman who struggled with herself all her life.

Baker came to trust Greenson as their sessions became more intimate, and gradually she unconscioulsy invited him to play the role of a father figure. In his desperation the therapist began using aggressive questioning techniques that sometimes persecuted, pointedly positioning Norma Jeane in the victim role that she had been trying so hard to escape, and to which she was now resigned… Climaxing in a corny analogy to film noir, the documentary asks – as if to reveal its own constructedness – whether pyschoanalysis helped to kill Norma Jeane Baker. Evidently, it didn’t and perhaps couldn’t have saved her, at last in its early 1960s incarnation. Evidently, too, Baker had a knack of choosing the wrong people to help her, as if to reinforce her own position as the bad seed who could never please absent parents.

What I liked about the documentary was its analogy between Baker’s oedipal biography and the pieces on a chess board (her mother as black queen, etc). It was as if the game of psychoanalysis had become adversarial when the patient refused to be cured. In the final flourish of a grand stalemate, Norma Jeane Baker left the board and bequeathed us with Marilyn as the twentieth century’s ultimate sex symbol, leaving her tapes as the residue of a final performance in which she reprized the role of an innocent betrayed.