(Plan B Entertainment, 2022)
It seems to be a Hollywood fantasy to have Marilyn Monroe’s life, her whole life, recorded on a giant film reel. Considering how much she wished in her diaries for nonexistence, it’s strange that directors, actresses, and writers still harbor this flat and pointless desire. It’s as if recording and reimagining all the acts and words of a lifetime would be revelatory of something, but that’s not at all the way things go. To explain a life, you’d also need the subject’s input, and even then, something remains concealed that cannot be exposed. As it is, Andrew Dominik’s Blonde (2022) is the twenty-second movie about Monroe, and when you look past its eye-rolling shock factor, its high-profile actors, and its attempts at arthouse, it remains the same tired story we’ve always gotten. But this time, Andrew Dominik, Joyce Carol Oates, and even Ana de Armas have the audacity to tell us that what they’ve done to Monroe is a feminist act.
Oates called the film “startling, brilliant, very disturbing and (perhaps most surprisingly) an utterly ‘feminist’ interpretation.” De Armas told reporters that she knew Monroe was “happy” with the movie, as her ghost would “throw things off the wall sometimes and get mad if she didn’t like something.” And Dominik said the film is “interested in what her emotional life was like,” and not “looking at her lasting legacy” because “she’s not even terribly concerned with any of that stuff.” Though Blonde is a work of fiction, adapted from Oates’s biographical fiction novel of Monroe’s life, the main players involved have strong opinions about how the real Monroe would feel. They speak, impossibly, for a dead woman—as is only expected when their story relies on an incomprehensible rendition of the actress as entirely lacking agency.
“My mind is my own to change,” Monroe says on the way to her first abortion in Blonde. Lying in the examination chair, she tells the doctor, “Please, won’t you listen? I’ve changed my mind.” The movie cuts to a vaginal POV shot of a phallic instrument being inserted into her body, and Monroe screams and throws herself onto the ground. She knocks over the medical cart and runs through empty hallways in nothing but her hospital gown, still screaming as the camera follows behind her. In a hallucinatory turn, the lights flicker and she opens a door to a burning house and finds a baby crying in a drawer. She holds the infant for a tender moment. Then the movie cuts to Monroe crying in her dressing room on the set of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. Her mind, Blonde tells us, is not hers to change—and neither is her body.
I’ve long ago dropped the idea of knowing the truth about Monroe’s life. Her story, in its constant retellings, has become closer to fiction, as even her biographers can’t agree on the facts. But it’s curious that writers use the unknown as a carte blanche to deconstruct her trauma for their own purposes. Blonde—the book and the movie—relies on our collective amnesia for us to applaud it: namely, that its framing is unoriginal. “Many films about Marilyn Monroe are kind of upbeat and have a lot of music and singing,” Oates said in an interview with the New Yorker. “This one is probably closer to what she actually experienced.” Yet before Blonde, this story—where daddy issues forever scar the actress’ life—was told in Norma Jean & Marilyn (1996), The Sex Symbol (1974), and Goodbye, Norma Jean (1976). Most movies about Monroe are decidedly not upbeat, too fascinated with solving the misogynistic paradox: how could such a beautiful woman be so sad?
Goodbye, Norma Jean purports to tell the “true” story of Monroe’s rise to fame, yet fictionalizes the rest of its cast of Hollywood characters to preempt any lawsuits. “This is the way it was,” its title card declares. The movie subjects Monroe to a slew of sexual assaults: her foster parent, a man in a cinema, a traffic cop, an actor, and three interviewers all attack her, with multiple assaults stacked into the first fifteen minutes. The result is a house of horrors with a heroine repeatedly stumbling into obvious traps laid by seedy men. “I’m dumb,” she admits, and promises to sleep with whoever will make her a star. Monroe may have dropped out of high school, but she wasn’t dumb. She got to know reporters and photographers who hung around film sets, and called in tips about herself to gossip columnists. She continuously took acting and singing lessons—eventually with Lee Strasberg at the Actors Studio—and even signed up for a night course at UCLA called “Backgrounds of Literature” in 1951. Though she fought to perfect her craft, Goodbye, Norma Jean, writes out this context in favor of the narrative that she slept her way to the top.
If writers want to explore a small, single theme from Monroe’s life, why not write a new story? This is the ethical dilemma that clouds not just Blonde, but all the Monroe biopics: if they’re supposed to be fiction, why do they also capitalize on an actress’s fame? They reflect shameless exploitation, especially as they write out Monroe’s ties to communism and her fight against segregation. The biopics simply aren’t interested in how Monroe helped Ella Fitzgerald to book shows at the Mocambo, a famous LA nightclub, by telling the owner that she would sit at a front table every night Fitzgerald sang. “She was an unusual woman—a little ahead of her times,” Fitzgerald supposedly said of Monroe. The actress’ political fights aren’t of interest to the biopics, because they don’t serve the narrative of her as helpless or insane. “Hers is a mystery illness,” a doctor says of Monroe’s mother in Blonde, calling to mind nineteenth-century diagnoses of hysteria. “Is it inherited?” Monroe asks nervously. The doctor nods, spurring her decision to get the abortion. In real life, Monroe’s mother had a diagnosis: paranoid schizophrenia—an illness that, while hereditary, by no means evades modern psychology.
The Sex Symbol functions as a thinly veiled portrait of Monroe’s life that ends with her death. Little happens in terms of plot; instead, we play voyeur as an actress whines to her psychiatrist on the phone about her bad publicity. She lies across her satin bed sheets in a pink and purple room, drunk and erratic. “I can't stand being alone. I’m a big star, I’ve had two husbands, and they dumped me,” she cries, pouring herself a glass of wine from one of the multiple bottles on her breakfast table. “I have hundreds of letters and calls from people, men and women, who tell me how much they love me.” She takes several pills and downs them with alcohol. “I need somebody to tuck me in bed. I need somebody to put me to sleep.” In this rendition, Monroe is a self-destructive starlette at the whim of her mood swings.
Monroe was repeatedly suspended by Fox Studios for not showing up to work, and she would use it as an opportunity to renegotiate her contract with better terms. Despite years of underpaying and dismissing her as a dumb blonde, the studio increasingly caved to Monroe’s demands of bonuses and higher weekly salaries until eventually granting her picture approval, publicity approval, and director approval. Monroe only filmed The Seven-Year Itch (1955) after renegotiating her contract with a 100,000 dollar bonus, and the movie’s success allowed her to launch her own production company. Blonde ignores this context, covering only the film’s massive PR stunt, which alerted the press that Monroe would be filming a scene with her dress blowing above her knees. Juxtaposed is Joe DiMaggio’s rumored abuse: after filming, she returns home to a drunk DiMaggio, who beats her with his belt and tells her, “Everybody, they’re gonna fuckin’ know what a fuckin’ whore you are.” The abuse she endured, Blonde tells us, is Monroe’s legacy—not her victories over Fox or her lifelong fight for working artists.
Monroe famously did a nude pinup shoot in 1949, a job for which she made fifty dollars off twenty-four frames—though the photographer sold two to Western Lithograph for 200 dollars. The photos of Monroe resurfaced in 1952, and despite the morality clause in her contract, Monroe refused to apologize for the photos. She paved the way for the free love of the sixties, anticipating a sexual revolution often attributed to Betty Friedan a decade later. Public demand for Monroe grew, and rather than fire her, the studio cast her in more films. (Hugh Hefner then bought the two shots of Monroe and featured them as the centerfold and cover of the very first issue of Playboy, building an empire off a job this woman was paid pennies for.) Yet Norma Jean & Marilyn posits the actress as willing to use her sexuality to get ahead: “I learned I could make anybody love me just by taking off my dress,” she says, seducing a man. But she’s still not in control—two actresses play Norma Jean and Monroe, and the strain on her starlette alter-ego almost sabotages every gig.
In what was supposed to be a new kind of role for Monroe, Arthur Miller, her third husband, wrote the script for The Misfits (1961). Monroe plays an ex-stripper filing for a divorce and drifting in Reno, Nevada with four equally lost men. While driving in the desert, one of the men tells her she must be the saddest girl he’s ever met. Surprised, Monroe’s character says she’s always been told how happy she is. “That’s because you make a man feel happy,” he replies. Miller, in typical fashion, uses his characters to share a personal insight: too wrapped up projecting their own emotions onto her, no one ever knew what Monroe felt. Even he doesn’t claim to know her. Yet Dominik and Oates, buffeted by what can only be the arrogance of distance, insist they know better than Miller. “I felt an immediate sense of something like recognition; this young, hopefully smiling girl, so very American, reminded me powerfully of girls of my childhood, some of them from broken homes,” Oates said on writing Blonde. Dominik confessed, “I guess in a way I don’t see the film as essentially female. I see it as being about an unloved child. I relate to it.” Writing nearly eighty years before Oates and Dominik, Miller knew their presumption well and presages they’ll have nothing new to offer.
Blonde, like most of the Monroe biopics, is a study in selective storytelling. It teaches how to frame a narrative so it cuts every inconvenient truth. Fox fired Monroe from Something’s Got to Give (1962) because she made an appearance to sing “Happy Birthday” to John F. Kennedy after calling in sick for more than half her days on set. They then launched a smear campaign, saying she was impossible to work with and none of her footage was usable. Yet they’d also paid the actress one hundred thousand dollars for her role, while Elizabeth Taylor was making one million dollars for Cleopatra (1963). Monroe countered by giving interviews, doing photo shoots, and saying the people would always be the ones to determine who was a star. The documentary Love, Marilyn (2012) covers how it was discovered in 2002 that Fox had rehired her with a million-dollar, two-picture deal of her own. After successfully parlaying the contract she’d always wanted, she wrote to her acting coach just a few days before her death, “As far as I’m concerned, the happiest time of my life is now. There’s a future, and I can’t wait to get to it.”
There are nearly two dozen films, documentaries, and biopics about Monroe. And by the end of each one, she remains as unreachable as she has always been. Blonde is no different. Perhaps we try to keep her alive because she is an actress whose story resonates with so many of us—one of abandonment, abuse, and mental illness—made somehow alluring by the fact that she remains the twentieth century’s most famous bombshell. But there comes a point at which we must relinquish the dead. Let her remain the actress in the old movies. We do not need to keep prying into her private life and ripping out what can be used to further our own, much paler, careers.