Dark Roots: ‘Blonde’ Is A Bombshell, Not A Biopic

Every awards season has one. A film that becomes a lightning rod for fervent criticism and then passionate defense, hot takes all around. It only makes sense that this year, it’s Blonde, which resurrects Hollywood’s premier poster girl as we’ve never seen her before, while continually luxuriating in the iconography that’s kept her star wattage lit brighter than all the rest for over sixty years now, with no sign of dimming. Monroe and Hollywood could never agree on the types of roles she should be playing. Was she sexy, or was she serious? In the 50s, it was unthinkable that she might be both.

So it’s fitting that we’re debating these same questions all over again, this time in disagreement not about the actress, but the movie that reframes her legacy. Blonde is both serious and sexual (though rarely sexy). But is it art, or exploitation?

Once again, the answer should be simple. Why can’t it be both? But many of its critics claim the exploitation negates the art, the same way Marilyn’s sex appeal cancelled out her skill as a performer in the eyes of so many. Perhaps our thinking about Marilyn — and the new movie that bares her breasts and fragile psyche in equal measure — is still too binary. Marilyn Monroe can be a troubled tart and a true talent, the same way Blonde drags her through the mud and places her on a pedestal. These seemingly irreconcilable aims get us closer to Marilyn than we’ve ever been at the same time they make her ever more inscrutable. Any film about Marilyn Monroe that wasn’t controversial, conflicted, rejected outright by much of the general public, and ripped to shreds by a faction of the press, would not be about Marilyn Monroe at all.

Any expectation that Blonde will satisfy requirements of the typical rise-and-demise celebrity bio should be tossed out the window immediately. Blonde is the anti-Judy; the United 93 of celebrity biopics; perhaps more aptly titled A Star Is Fucked. The novel by Joyce Carol Oates is meant to regarded as a work of fiction, obscuring the names of several real-life figures to create a more impressionistic effect of the starlet’s life. Largely by necessity, Andrew Dominik’s film adaptation must be blunter, calling out famous figures like Joe DiMaggio and Arthur Miller by name, inserting Ana De Armas’ Marilyn into movie scenes opposite actual performances by George Sanders and Tony Curtis. At the most basic level, Blonde certainly looks like a biopic about the silver screen’s most enduring icon, a woman whose fame today eclipses her renown on any day she was alive to witness it. It opens with an extended flashback to her childhood and continues through to recreate most of the highlights we encounter flipping through a Monroe biography, or scrolling through Wikipedia.

But Blonde doesn’t retell the story we already know about the celebrity we’re intimately familiar with. Dominik’s Monroe is a stranger to us. As played by Ana De Armas, she’s like an alien wearing the skin of one of our favorite actresses. Maybe some of what Blonde depicts gets closer to the heart of the true Norma Jeane than ever before. Maybe not. The point is to shake us out of our familiarity with Marilyn’s likeness and remind us that, no matter how many times we’ve seen her photograph and watched her movies, we never fucking knew her. Some viewers are upset that her long dead likeness is being exploited all over again, with partially invented occurrences of sexual violence and other trauma. They ask, Can’t we let this poor woman rest already?The answer is no. Like it or not, Marilyn Monroe hasn’t been left alone for a single moment since her demise. She’s as busy now as she’s ever been, strutting along the Walk of Fame blowing kisses at tourists, beckoning you to come hither into this here Hollywood diner. This year, Andy Warhol’s ubiquitous 1964 silk-screen portrait of her sold for a record $195 million, and Kim Kardashian borrowed Monroe’s dress and timeless elegance for the Met Gala, and found that neither one quite fit her. Marilyn Monroe posters are sold by the thousands in hopes of giving home across the world a little spritz of Hollywood decadence — but how many of the people who buy them are true fans of hers? How many have seen even a single one of her movies? Certainly not all. Perhaps not even most.

So is it really Blonde that’s exploiting the long gone starlet? Out of all the ways that Monroe’s visage is continually commandeered and replicated, used to sell both kitsch and class, is Blonde really the worst offender? Dominik’s Marilyn is meeting resistance because she’s so far removed from the lusty legend who pops up on postcards and murals and NFTs, the movie goddess who has come to represent the pinnacle of beauty, glamour, and enduring notoriety. This is not The People’s Marilyn — Blonde‘s is actually human, unlike the beaming wax figure we remember her by, the glamour puss ghost that has long outlived her. Dominik’s Marilyn is not just flawed — she’s a fucking mess. Perhaps only this thorough a degradation could shake us out of our stupor, and take steps toward curing pop culture of this mass delusion.

Blonde doesn’t aim to show us the “real” Marilyn. It means to shatter our illusions about who she was, reaching into our happy Hollywood memories and plucking cherished image after cherished image out of the collective consciousness. It’s no accident that Blonde opens on Hollywood burning. Here, Dominik deconstructs Hollywood’s most precious fairy tale, one with hooks in true tragedy. Marilyn wouldn’t be the poster girl for effortless bliss if her real life wasn’t so hard and so sad. Like James Dean, it’s only through a tragically young expiration that Marilyn could have achieved larger-than-life forever fame, unparalleled before or since. (If we’d witnessed her aging, we could have proven she was a mere mortal like the rest of us.) Marilyn Monroe is Hollywood. Think “movie star,” and it’s likely her face is the first to flicker in your imagination. How ironic is that? At best, Marilyn Monroe had a strained relationship with the film industry; at worst, she fucking hated it, and then it killed her.

Now it’s wearing her face. She has become the very embodiment of her own killer, to the extent that when we look at her, we only see it. There’s no longer any distinction between them in the minds of the general public. Sexy, happy, glamorous, fun — that’s Hollywood, baby! (She has not received a dime for this, her greatest performance.)

An assault on Marilyn is an assault on the whole Hollywood dream factory, on every illusion we have about how glamorous and cool the life of a beautiful young thing in the movie business must be. This Marilyn Monroe is not necessarily the Marilyn Monroe, but a Marilyn Monroe — an avatar for all the starlets and dreamers who ever hoped to find a silver lining out in La La Land. (And died trying, in some cases.) De Armas makes for a mesmerizing Marilyn. She looks the part — sometimes. Other times, she merely looks like she looks the part. Her Cuban accent is often present, which is only a problem if you choose to believe this is the really real, truly true, God’s honest Marilyn. (She says it herself throughout the movie — that woman doesn’t exist.)

The overall approach is probably best compared to a film about the other famous woman in the 35th president’s life, though Blonde‘s refusal to smile for the cameras — even just a little — makes Jackie look like Gidget. (Who would have guessed the film about the president’s assassination would be less of a downer?) Like Jackie, Blonde is more about a moment in history, a collective loss of innocence, and the deconstruction of an institution than it is about one woman. It pulls back the curtain on all the ugliness and rot hidden just out of frame in your favorite classic movies, more a bombshell aimed at the dark heart of Hollywood than a biopic. It won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, but when the time comes for a rude awakening from one of Hollywood’s chintziest fantasies, some like it ice cold. I’m one of them.

Blonde‘s Monroe is no less a construct than the carefree breathy babe on the sewer grate who lives on in our collective consciousness, the only version of Marilyn the public was ever meant to see (if the studio execs had their way about it). It’s also as raw and as real as she’s ever been on screen — a paradox that’s perfectly calibrated for this star of such extremes. Dominik certainly cherry-picks which true life details he will depict, pointedly avoiding others. He blatantly lies to us sometimes, too. (But did you really come here for the truth?) His Monroe is a tragic figure, damned at birth. In 1962, no one knew Monroe would become the ultimate embodiment of film celebrity for the ages. But Blonde unfolds as if Marilyn does know, and spends every waking moment tortured by the colossal responsibility — a bleached-white Cassandra who knows that what’s coming is inevitable but tries like hell to avoid her fate, believing that only true love can save her from the fame monster. The weight of Hollywood history in its entirety bears down upon every frame like the hand of God. This is how it always was, the only way it could ever be, Dominik’s otherworldly directorial choices and Nick Cave and Warren Ellis’ transcendent score tell us, standing in for the Greek chorus.

You don’t have to squint to see Dominik’s Marilyn as a stand-in for the parade of Weinstein accusers who are now finally getting to see some measure of justice served (too little, too late). In Monroe’s day, there was no opportunity to speak out. Blonde also echoes a more contemporary tale of a girl we called lucky once — an impossibly sexy blonde who dominated the media in her prime, then became largely defined through her failed relationships with men and mental health crises, middle name Jean — daddy issues and all. Blonde was not intended to be a stealth Britney bio in disguise, but I’ll wager it is meant to echo the experiences of once and future starlets who were not all Marilyn Monroe — a wider swath of fame than even she alone could have known. Marilyn’s tears are her own, but they’re also the tears of every other famous actress who was ever demeaned or assaulted or written off — and all those who strove for it, but never even got that far. She’s a Christ for the fools who dream.

All stars get distilled down to their essence over time — often just a single image, and maybe a couple of sound bites. For Charlie Chaplin, it’s the Tramp costume; for July Garland, pigtails and a gingham dress. Marilyn’s got a few — the sheer nude “Happy birthday, Mr. President” dress, the diamond-draped pink gown worn to perform “Diamonds Are A Girl’s Best Friend” — but mostly, it’s the The Seven Year Itch‘s billowing white skirt. These are all of a piece, all explicitly about teasing and titillating a man, whether he’s real (JFK), fictional (Tom Ewell’s tempted hubby in Itch), or theoretical (any guy who can afford to adorn a pretty girl with ice in “Diamonds”). Though some roles traded less on her sexpot reputation, nearly everything she’s remembered for did. (She did not sing “Santa Baby,” but many credit for it anyway — because the girl couldn’t even be trusted to behave next to Old St. Nick.) Her legacy was framed almost entirely through her effect on men.

Dominik doesn’t attempt to correct that. He uses it to tell that story through Marilyn’s eyes, rather than try to imagine what the true one must have been like. We see the star through a male gaze, just as it always has been. Many of Blonde‘s critics complain that nearly every scene concerns Marilyn’s damaged relationship with men, starting with her father. It’s a justifiable grievance, though perhaps a bit too narrow and naive a read on this carefully crafted film. Would a movie about Monroe’s star power that didn’t orbit around men really even be about Marilyn Monroe?(It’s worth noting that, up until now, the highest-profile depiction of Monroe on screen has been Michelle Williams’ Oscar-nominated portrayal in My Week With Marilyn — a story told through the eyes of a twenty-five year-old male who knew her for seven days, and used it to sell two books. Is that the better version? It was certainly less controversial.)

Blonde is episodic, using Marilyn’s relationships with men to provide its structure. Each of these dalliances plays out like its own mini-movie, usually side by side with one of Monroe’s screen roles. Marilyn’s coming out as a sex goddess in the splashy marketing for Niagara is paired with the rushing torrent of her own sexual awakening. Even Monroe’s much-sought-after vagina is stripped of its mystique. Only once does Marilyn Monroe come alive as a superstar in her own right, under nobody’s thrall (except everybody’s). That’s her widely publicized, now-signature skirt whirl in 1955’s The Seven Year Itch, the pinnacle of her career as a superstar (if not as an actress). It’s a glorious, elongated moment — recreated to be about one hundred times more momentous than it was in Billy Wilder’s film — luxuriating in its soon-to-be-iconic import. In Blonde, history is always well aware when it is in the making.

Monroe experiences brief bursts of bliss in her personal life, too — but they’re few and far between, because Marilyn’s frozen smile has done enough heavy lifting over the years. Some of these men are worse than others, but each relationship ends in cosmic sabotage, dragging her one step closer to Hell. (Assholes prefer blondes, too.) It’s a lot to take — because it was a lot to take. It’s ugly — because it was ugly.

Nobody knows for certain which of these miserable catalysts contributed to Marilyn’s suicide, so Dominik supposes every single one of them did, rendering every setback equally devastating. Maybe, in her lonely final days, this is how it really felt; by the time it ends, it is all too apparent how her turmoil became too much to live with, because it’s almost too much to watch sometimes. Blonde is one of the all-time great screen depictions of manic depression; brief bursts are ecstatic, then hopelessness sinks again. There is no way out. (Well, there’s one, isn’t there?)

Certainly there was more to the real Norma Jeane than daddy issues and doomed love, but was there really more to Marilyn Monroe, the carefully constructed screen siren? Blonde doesn’t set out to tell us the truth about Norma; It’s all about her evil twin. Dominik depicts a hellish mirror image of Monroe’s luminous legacy. All the iconic moments are here — the classic movies, the famous looks. And, same as it ever was, Norma’s movie star avatar only exists when cameras are rolling and shutters are clicking, every inch and every gesture calibrated to ooze sex and please men. This time, though, we’re on the inside, looking out. We see the male gaze looking back at us, and it’s horrifying. The film’s detractors aren’t wrong — Blonde really does exploit Marilyn Monroe all over again. But that’s only to make her leering legion of adulators queasy until it’s clear that they’re complicit in it. Call it Marilyn’s revenge.

There’s no question that Norma Jeane Mortenson was worthy of more love than she got. She settled for our attention. I can’t actually blame those who feel more revulsion than rapture at Dominik’s bleak vision of mid-century stardom, told through the eyes of its top-billed victim. The film is frequently disturbing, dwelling on mental illness, substance abuse, physical and sexual violence, and other miseries. Precious few moments give Monroe agency over her career or personal life. After she becomes a superstar, men are shown to drive nearly every decision “she” makes. She is sexually assaulted by a Hollywood bigwig during an audition, without even a pretense of seduction that might give her an opportunity for escape. One of her husbands demands she give up a film role he doesn’t want her to take. He also decides that they’re getting married. Her tryst with the leader of the free world certainly doesn’t give her any sway. She’s even powerless to prevent an abortion taking place in her own body.

Blonde locates the dark roots of Marilyn’s mood disorder in absentee daddy issues, which is a little too easy. De Armas spends a lot of this film in tears. (Does any actress in film history spend more screen time crying?) Blonde is a mostly joyless experience for its heroine — and, I expect, for much of its audience. (The craft of the filmmaking is a thing of beauty, which does frequently spark joy for those who care for such artistry.) Dominik’s script skips over the years of Marilyn’s life that are, arguably, most critical to our understanding of who the real Norma Jeane was. After an extended sequence set in her childhood, we are reintroduced to her after her “Marilyn Monroe” doppelganger has been created and shopped around town. (A film that opted to bring the real Marilyn to life would be unwise to miss this transformation.) In Blonde, “Marilyn Monroe” is a ready-made costume Norma Jeane is forced to slip into when she’s in the public eye, or starring in a film. She disdains it like an itchy uniform, but she must wear it to work. Norma Jeane speaks of Marilyn like she’s someone else entirely, a Frankenstein’s monster built out of scraps from her own body, now running amok in Hollywood — or, at best, a tedious standing engagement she’s stuck with, night after night, show after show.

I do not believe that the real Marilyn Monroe had so little to do with crafting her movie star persona, or that she got so little pleasure out of performing the part. I do not believe that she allowed herself become Hollywood’s punching bag without putting up a fight, or that she was so blindly victimized by so many men in her life. But I don’t have to buy that to believe this character in this film. Blonde merely samples the life of a legend to create an entirely new track; Marilyn’s only the hook. Those who don’t care for this film would prefer a soulful cover version — a tribute to the original artist rather than this gloomy remix. I don’t agree, but I understand.

Sixty years after her death, Marilyn Monroe is such a fixture in the public imagination that audiences are irrationally protective of her. (Who else who has been dead so long would provoke such vigilant reactions to an admittedly sensationalized biopic?) We’re deeply invested in her, whoever she was. Critics of the film can’t bear to see her abused all over again — but is that worse than ignoring her pain for the sake of a palatable piece of entertainment? Is it not better to memorialize her, wounds and all — and to make sure that it hurts?

No other star’s likeness has been so scrubbed, sanitized, and stripped of context at such a grand scale. The myth of Marilyn, indistinguishable from the mythology of Hollywood, towers over the actress. There is no corrective now — it’s too late. With that understood, I’m all for wild stabs at acknowledged half-truths over further perpetuation of one of Hollywood’s biggest lies. Some would prefer Dominik to be a gentleman about it; I prefer Blonde. Monroe was a controversial figure in her day, beloved but never fully embraced, adored but never trusted. Men’s eyes and underpants bulged at every glimpse of her up on the big screen. Women loved to talk about her. But she was considered dangerous — not someone you’d leave your husband alone with, not the woman you wanted your darling wife to emulate. They held her at arm’s length, derision and dismissal deployed to counterbalance her obscene charms. Fans loved the fantasy, but were never comfortable with Monroe as a flesh and blood human being. Neither were her employers. If she’d risen to stardom just a few years later, Marilyn might have avoided the era when studio power players held their talent in a vice-like grip. It’s difficult, but not impossible, to imagine what space Marilyn Monroe might have occupied in the New Hollywood alongside the movies that rewrote the rule book, like Bonnie & Clyde and Easy Rider. If she’d held on another seven years, could Marilyn have been riddled with bullets in that 1934 Ford Fordor Deluxe, or riding shotgun on Peter Fonda’s chopper? It’s possible, but we’ll never know.

Blonde makes Marilyn controversial again, taking her back to her roots and echoing the love-her-or-hate-her debate that raged in her day. Is this Blonde cheap and tawdry, or is she a work of art who got all dolled up just to get our attention? Dominik has finally given Marilyn the lead role in a daring drama, the part she always craved. The film is her primal scream heard at long last, belated but in no way diluted over the six decades since it originated. It’s a refraction of the male gaze that looks at us looking at her, with the courage to be cruel to her so we know how it felt. It’s a horror movie about what it was like to be a desirable woman trapped in a man’s world, pursued and pawed at — the blonde who doesn’t make it out of the first act alive. Critics of the film would rather cast Marilyn Monroe as the final girl, the one who makes it through Hollywood’s horror show in one piece. Wouldn’t we all? A Hollywood ending!

But that’s wishful thinking. She was never going to get that part.


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