TV Rewind: Marilyn in ‘The Kennedys’

Actress Charlotte Sullivan looks back on her role as Marilyn in the 2011 TV mini-series, The Kennedys, in an interview for Monsters and Critics. The show received mixed reviews – I thought Charlotte did her best with a poorly-written character – and her comments reveal the challenges of playing someone as iconic as Marilyn.

“I played a drug addict for my husband in this one film, and it took me five minutes to get ready. But Marilyn Monroe took like two and a half hours! The whole team of people who put me together for that…they are just the most insanely talented people.

Also, the thing with the Marilyn look was it’s such a contrived beauty, which is actually what I love about it. This is something like what Dita von Teese does. I love her so much, she believes everybody can be glamorous.

But playing Marilyn…I got a lot of flack for that. I got a lot of hate for that. It’s a poisoned chalice. First of all, the opportunity to play that kind of character is a once-in-a-lifetime type of thing. Especially being surrounded by such a cast, it was a spectacular opportunity.

I knew going into it I would be eviscerated because there are so many people obsessed with her, in love with her, and I can’t live up to that. You just have to be confident. I think the thing with me during that particular time in my life was I didn’t have any confidence. I kind of harness that because Marilyn didn’t have any either.

What do I have in common with this woman? I know that she desperately wanted to be thought of as a good actress, and that’s something I have always wanted – to be great at what I do. I struggled, there have been times I feel good about my work then I lose it. It’s a really strange art form.”

Taraborrelli’s Marilyn Set for TV

The Secret Life of Marilyn Monroe, celebrity author J. Randy Taraborrelli’s 2009 biography, is being adapted into a mini series for the Lifetime Channel, according to the Hollywood Reporter.

“Lifetime is poised to find out if blondes really do have more fun…24 and The Kennedys‘ Stephen Kronish is on board to pen the mini, with Sherrybaby‘s Laurie Collyer attached to direct the Marilyn Monroe entry. The entry hails from Asylum Entertainment, the production company behind Lifetime’s June Carter Cash biopic Ring of Fire as well as Reelz Channel’s ratings hit The Kennedys.

Asylum’s Jonathan Koch and Steven Michaels will exec produce alongside Kronish and Keri Selig. Selig was attached to exec produce Reelz’s Kennedys follow-up, After Camelot, which, like Marilyn, was based on a book by Taraborrelli.

Taraborrelli’s book is considered the most definitive Monroe biography. Published in 2010 [actually, it was 2009], the title explored the actress/pin-up girl’s relationship with her mentally ill mother, her foster mother and her legal guardian as well as Monroe’s own mental illness and her relationships with her family and the Kennedys.”

The Secret Life of Marilyn Monroe is a sympathetic take on MM, and avoids conspiracy theories about her death. Director Laurie Collyer has enjoyed critical acclaim. However, Lifetime’s recent biopics (such as Liz and Dick, starring Lindsay Lohan) have been widely panned. And screenwriter Stephen Kronish’s prior depiction of Marilyn in The Kennedys was rather disappointing.

One of Taraborrelli’s more contentious allegations about Marilyn is that she suffered from schizophrenia, which has never been proved. Some authors have also raised doubts about Taraborrelli’s use of unnamed sources. In Marilyn: The Passion and the Paradox (2012), Lois Banner criticised the author for not using footnotes, arguing that this made it ‘impossible’ to check his sources and evaluate his conclusions.

Banner judged Taraborrelli’s allegation that Grace Goddard put Norma Jeane in the orphanage because she wasn’t getting along with Doc’s daughter, Nona, as ‘incorrect’, adding, ‘I can find no evidence that Nona lived with them in 1935. [Fred Lawrence] Guiles [in Legend] mentions a visit that summer.’

Banner also challenged Taraborrelli’s claim that Marilyn took liquor to Rockhaven Sanatorium to drink with her mother (Gladys Baker Eley, a residential patient from 1952-1967) as ‘inaccurate,’ adding that ‘Gladys considered drinking a sin, and Marilyn never visited her…Marilyn wasn’t present when Grace discussed placing Gladys at Rockhaven, and Gladys was taken to Norwalk State Mental Hospital before Grace took her to Rockhaven some months later.’

You can read my review of The Secret Life of Marilyn Monroe here.


‘The Kennedys’: The Verdict

TV mini-series The Kennedys has now been aired in full, including the episode where Charlotte Sullivan appeared as Marilyn. You can view her footage on Youtube

Lindsay Kempton has reviewed the episode at Faster Times:

“Many of the flashbacks are focused around Marilyn Monroe. Interestingly, Jack and Marilyn are never shown together. Rather, it’s Bobby who primarily interacts with the starlet. She is depicted as a volatile sex kitten (which she was at times) but without time to delve deeper into her story, she comes across as a one-dimensional crazy woman rather than the troubled, complicated young woman she was.”

Her scenes reminded me of another mini-series, Blonde (starring Poppy Montgomery.) She looked more like Marilyn circa 1952 than in 1961.

I felt that Ms Sullivan, who has spoken of her admiration for Marilyn, did the best she could in a very limited role. But as a whole, The Kennedys seemed more like daytime soap opera than prime-time drama to me – the characters and situations just weren’t convincing.

Thanks to ‘MarilynNo5’ for the montages and video

‘The Kennedys’ Spoofed on SNL

Dame Helen Mirren hosted the latest episode of the US comedy show, Saturday Night Live, yesterday. In one skit, the SNL team parody the controversial mini-series,The Kennedys (which has been criticised by some as historically inaccurate), with ‘The Roosevelts’, in which Mirren, as Eleanor Roosevelt, locks lips with Marilyn Monroe (Abby Elliott.)

Of course, this is a dig at the gossips rather than Marilyn or Mrs Roosevelt. At the time of their fictitious fling, Monroe was only five years old. Nonetheless, some critics were underwhelmed:

“Other easy targets included the widely-panned Kennedys mini-series. Here, SNL offered  The Roosevelts, in which it was revealed that Eleanor Roosevelt (Mirren) was a lesbian who enjoyed kissing Marilyn Monroe (Abby Elliott). I believe this is what’s called a cheap, if nicely ahistorical, laugh.”

Entertainment Weekly

Monroe has been spoofed on Saturday Night Live before, by the likes of Madonna and Charlize Theron. If nothing else, these caricatures reflect her enduring presence in the public imagination.

In real life, Marilyn did know Eleanor Roosevelt a little (although they probably never kissed!) According to friends of the actress, they frequented the same New York beauty salon during 1955 and would talk at length while their hair was styled.

Lois Banner’s MM – Personal includes a letter written in  reply to the Eleanor Roosevelt Foundation, regretting that Marilyn was unable to appear at a charity event as she was preparing for a new film role.

In one of her last interviews, included in Fragments, Marilyn named Mrs Roosevelt among the people she most admired. They both died in 1962 – and almost half a century later, the two women rank among the most celebrated Americans in history.

In an interesting comparison, Harvard Square Library recalls a poignant quote from Marilyn: ‘Nobody ever told me I was pretty when I was a little girl. All little girls should be told they’re pretty, even if they aren’t.’

While Marilyn blossomed into a swan, Eleanor Roosevelt was often mocked for her ‘ugly duckling’ looks. But those who knew her best recognised her inner beauty, just as those who loved Marilyn understood that her beauty was more than skin-deep.

Charlotte Sullivan on Playing Marilyn

Artwork by Marilynette Lounge

Actress Charlotte Sullivan has been talking about her role as Marilyn in The Kennedys:

“There’s a big difference between playing (Monroe) in a movie and playing her at home. With my audition, it could have gone either way, but I didn’t put on ‘the voice’. I had watched her early movies and she didn’t have that voice. It wasn’t until a few movies into her career that she discovered that thing she could do…I really fell in love with her. I liked her very much prior to doing this, but researching her extensively, with her depression and her sadness, I just found her to be a stunning, smart, misunderstood person.”

Toronto Sun

“I didn’t do any research on the Kennedys – I focused all my research on her. And I wanted to make her as real as humanly possible, because I think you think of her as this movie star. And she was a really beautiful human, yes, but also one of the most compelling and intelligent human beings. I obviously became obsessed with YouTube, but I also tried to read as many books as possible. Unfortunately, her diary [was published] after we shot, which broke my heart into a million pieces. I wanted that diary so badly! But even with all the information that’s out there, no one will ever know her.”

NBC Los Angeles

Charlotte will appear as Marilyn in Episode 8 of The Kennedys, now showing on Reelz Channel in the US.

More on ‘The Kennedys’

The Wall Street Journal has published a user’s guide to The Kennedys, an 8-part TV mini series that will premiere on the US Reelz Channel next month. Marilyn (played by Charlotte Sullivan) appears, albeit via flashback, in the penultimate episode:


It’s November 22, 1963—the last day of JFK’s life. He’s in Texas to meet with officials from the state’s Democratic Party. A flashback shows Jackie giving birth, but the baby soon dies. Another flashback shows Bobby visiting Marilyn Monroe to persuade her to end her affair with JFK. She is later found dead of a drug overdose. Back in the present, JFK and Jackie share a moment of mutual love while en route to Dallas, where Lee Harvey Oswald awaits with his rifle. As the motorcade passes through the streets, Oswald shoots, killing JFK. Afterward, Lyndon Johnson calls Bobby, demanding that he immediately be sworn in as President.

MM and ‘The Kennedys’

Marilyn Monroe, as played by Canadian actress Charlotte Sullivan, will feature in the upcoming TV mini-series, The Kennedys, alongside Greg Kinnear and Katie Holmes.

The Kennedys is produced by Joel Surnow – ‘an outspoken Republican, friend to Rush Limbaugh, and creator of 24′, according to Toronto Life. It has already been condemned as a ‘character assassination’ by Kennedy speechwriter Ted Sorensen.

After its completion, the US History Channel decided that The Kennedys ‘is not a fit for the History brand’. It will now be shown on cable television instead.

Sullivan, 27, played the bully Marion Hawthorne in Harriet the Spy (1996.) More recently, she has appeared in the Canadian TV series, Rookie Blue. According to Charlotte’s official website, ‘Her porcelain skin and stunning grace belies a wicked sense of humour and a twisted addiction to her muse, the gory, cryptic and macabre world of Tim Burton but still she balances all this with a glamour from a time long gone.’

If the trailer is anything to go by, The Kennedys will be a splashy, melodramatic portrait of America’s onetime first family. Let’s just hope that Marilyn will be treated with respect.