In our ever-more-fragmented media landscape, we're seeing fewer and fewer recognizable brand-name stars for *everybody*, but we're probably getting more and more recognizable brand-name stars for *somebody*.
And that means that people who, to certain individuals, are clearly stars of a certain stature are virtual unknowns to great masses, possibly to majorities. And that's even the case with culture-watching professionals.
Take Britt Robertson. I didn't see many "Tomorrowland" reviews calling her an unknown or even a newcomer, thankfully, but plenty of critics are still bending over backwards to reference credits like "Dan in Real Life" or "Delivery Man" as if audiences may struggle to place her. I hear her name and I think of an actress who has been the unquestioned star of at least two network TV shows and one of the stars (if only for a for a season) of a bona fide hit. In the sphere of what I do, Britt Robertson isn't a rising star. She's somebody who TV networks have been banking on (without breakout success, mind you) for five-plus years.
The same thing happened when "Me and Earl and the Dying Girl" premiered at Sundance and movie critics had to strain to identify a lot of actors who had the temerity to only be familiar from the small screen
But that doesn't mean that I don't have blindspots. "Undateable," for example, added Bridgit Mendler to its cast for Season 2 and I'd never heard of her, but she has 4.5+ million Twitter followers. Mendler, like Ciara Bravo or the periodic YouTube personalities who pop up on the reality shows I watch, is proof that there are corners of the Internet and of my TV dial in which people I've never heard of are beloved by millions.
Lifetime's two-part telefilm or miniseries or whatever you call a four-hour program on TV these days "The Secret Life of Marilyn Monroe" stars Kelli Garner and for most viewers, one of the pleasures of "The Secret Life of Marilyn Monroe" will be watching a Marilyn Monroe biopic without the leading lady being weighted down by the burden of familiarity.
But to me, Kelli Garner is a star, or at least an actress who I've wanted to see become a star for a pretty long time, going back to Larry Clark's "Bully" in 2001. After indies like "Thumbsucker" and "Lars and the Real Girl," ABC decided Kelli Garner was ready for stardom in both "My Generation" and "Pan Am," but America wasn't buying it. So for me, one of the pleasures of "The Secret Life of Marilyn Monroe" is watching Kelli Garner finally earn a role that allows her to bring together many of the skills hinted at previously.
It's nice that "The Secret Life of Marilyn Monroe" works on those two levels -- either as an immersive performance in which an actress you don't know disappears into the iconography of one of the most famous women of the 20th Century or in which a long on-the-cusp actress finally fulfills her long-evident potential -- because four hours is a lot of time to watch what is a very, very, very conventional biopic of a woman who hasn't lacked for variably conventional biopics in the past.
If you come to "The Secret Life of Marilyn Monroe" looking for biographical or psychological insights into Marilyn Monroe's life that you've never heard before, you're almost certain to be disappointed and, given the running time, you probably won't make it to Night 2 unless you're like, "I came for Joe DiMaggio and I'm not leaving until I get Joe DiMaggio."
If you come to "The Secret Life of Marilyn Monroe," airing on May 30 and May 31, looking for a sexy, nuanced lead performance and a few other highlights? There are reasons enough to stick with the movie.
[That's my review in a nutshell, but more after the break...]