By now the Netflix film Blonde is notorious for its length, it’s NC-17 rating, and its cruelly narrow view of film star Marilyn Monroe (Ana de Armas) as a relentlessly abused and exploited waif from early childhood through her death of a drug overdose at age 36.
Joyce Carol Oates, whose 2000 novel of the same name was adapted into the film, claims that she was allowed to watch various rough cuts of the film but finally had to stop because “the film is emotionally exhausting.” But accurate, she says:
Oates argues that Blonde, which vividly depicts miscarriages, abortions, and sexual assaults, is “probably closer to what she actually experienced” than other films about Marilyn Monroe; “The last few days of her life were brutal… The real things that happened to Marilyn Monroe are much worse than anything in the movie.”
Oates’s high-literary ghoulishness, which made her significantly fictionalised novel Blonde such a nasty read, is faithfully translated into the film medium by writer-director Andrew Dominik (Killing Them Softly, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford). He’s opted for representing Monroe as continually, horribly abased in an aesthetically fancy style that shuttles between different aspect ratios as well as colour and black-and-white film, elaborately recreating scenes from Monroe’s movies, like Niagara (1953) and Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953), or digitally blending footage of Armas as Monroe into existing scenes of films such as Some Like It Hot (1959).
Dominik recreates famous photos of Monroe throughout the film — the one of Monroe and Joe DiMaggio sitting together in a window seat in intimate communion, for example — as if they were the lynchpins of truth that allow for wildly speculative fictional narrative in between, including Monroe’s supposed thoughts, narrated by Armas.
In interviews, Dominik indicates his indifference to the facts of Monroe’s life, claiming that his goal is primarily aesthetic: “I’m not interested in reality, I’m interested in images.” Besides, “Nobody really knows what the fuck happened. So it’s all fiction anyway, in my opinion.”
He also repeatedly underscores how accurate the film really is: “I’ve read everything there is to read about Marilyn Monroe. I’ve met people that knew her. I’ve done an enormous amount of research…”
Then he tops it off by insisting he’s really just adapting Joyce Carol Oates’s book:
But in the end, it’s about the book. And adapting the book is really about adapting the feelings that the book gave me. I see the film, in some ways, as Joyce’s vision of Marilyn, which is also really Joyce… Joyce is trying to understand how it expresses a certain female experience, or a certain human experience. You have to play fast and loose with the truth in order to have a certain narrative drive.
Regardless of what Dominik thinks he’s doing, the main point that needs to be made about Blonde is that it’s a damn silly film.
At one point, a foetus in Monroe’s womb rebukes her for having aborted an earlier child, speaking in — you guessed it — baby talk. At another, we’ve got a toilet bowl’s view of Monroe vomiting down on us repeatedly.
And throughout, we’re asked to accept the idea that Marilyn Monroe, even a semifictionalised one, could somehow be the biggest star in the world for ten solid years while hating every minute of it, wanting no part of it, never working to get established in the movie business, and resisting at every turn the maintenance of her stardom once she has it. When legendary retired baseball player Joe DiMaggio (Bobby Canavale), Monroe’s second husband, who’s presented as a blockheaded brute, asks her how she became a star, Monroe can think of nothing but her brutal rape in a studio executive’s office, which somehow rocketed her to the top in one act of ugly violence. She says tremulously, “I guess I was… discovered?”
Tremulousness is the keynote of Armas’s performance, and she does wonders finding variations in the one note she’s asked to strike ten thousand times over. Her only happy moments — tremulously happy moments! — occur when she’s pregnant or first married to Arthur Miller (Adrien Brody), who’s presented as weak and clueless about the woman he married.
It seems that this version of Monroe only ever wanted to be plain Norma Jean Baker, the unglamorous name she was born with. She longed only to be the mother of a child of her own, and the beloved daughter of an unknown father who apparently writes to her year after year, promising throughout the film to make an appearance in her life, but never showing up.
Alas, all her dreams were denied her!
That’s a ludicrous story to spin out of the remarkably focused and determined struggle for stardom of a young woman who rose out of a grim Depression-era childhood. It took her years of constant striving to become, first, a popular model appearing on countless magazine covers, then a bit player in movies, then a starlet playing small but increasingly showy roles, and finally a star.
On her way up, her bitter experiences of poverty and powerlessness gave her leftist, class-conscious politics that nobody in Hollywood took seriously. She was mocked by the press for being observed reading the autobiography of socialist investigative journalist Lincoln Steffens, and cautioned by the studio not to be seen carrying radical books around. She was a supporter of civil rights and Fidel Castro’s revolutionary Cuba, and “she became a founding member of the Hollywood branch of the Committee for a Sane Nuclear Policy.”
She married playwright Arthur Miller right after he was called to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) in 1956, testimony demanded in part because his play about the Salem witch trials, The Crucible, was so clearly an allegory for the anti-communist witch-hunt in America. Monroe’s immense stardom and expert handling of the press probably helped shield him from the harsh consequences of refusing to name names as demanded by HUAC, consequences that befell other writers such as, for example, Dashiell Hammett, who served five months in prison and was financially ruined.
But Monroe was vulnerable to the sexist expectations of her day, and the biggest tale female stars of 1950s Hollywood used to tell the press was that they didn’t want to be stars at all — that they only wanted to be contented wives and mothers leading fulfilling domestic lives, subservient to breadwinning husbands. Some probably believed it, for the anti-feminist ideology of that era had intense brainwashing strength. Doris Day, for one, seemed to have honestly convinced herself that she was a huge movie and recording star for 15 years through no desire of her own. But at least some of them must have known it was simply good 1950s PR.
Monroe expressed similar wife-mother longings, while simultaneously evincing the most titanic career ambitions since Joan Crawford. The less well-known but much more impressive story of Monroe’s life is not her miserable, squalid childhood in foster homes after her mentally ill mother was institutionalised — not the cruel way she was sexually exploited by men in the film industry, about which she was startlingly frank in her own lifetime — not her marriages and relationships with famous, powerful men which started hopefully and ended disastrously. It’s the story of Monroe’s astonishing drive to achieve amazing things in her life, and become a person of distinction.
“I don’t care about the money,” she said. “I just want to be wonderful.”
It’s the ambitious Monroe that doesn’t get nearly enough attention, while an unwholesome delight in the abject Monroe generates endless biographies in all media. That Monroe who was a tragic mess in her last few years, who went so deep into depressions she didn’t bathe for many days at a time, wandering around in a dirty bathrobe in her lonely house, living on a diet of champagne and barbituates, unable to sleep nights and placing desperate, suicidal calls in the wee hours to less and less patient friends.
Blonde, of course, dwells a lot on that Monroe at the end of the film. But even the way Monroe is portrayed in her earlier years — when in reality she was athletic, humorous, hardworking and, though she could be shy at times, quite social — reflects the late-Monroe state of neurasthenic angst. Armas does impressive work realising this morbid version of Monroe, though it involves repeating similar scenarios over and over to the point of monotony. It’s telling, for example, that Monroe is shown in this film version to be involved in a fictional “throuple” with two troubled sons of movie stars who eventually betray her, Charles “Cass” Chaplin Jr and Edward Robinson Jr to the exclusion, it seems, of any other relationship in life.
At around that time, she was briefly dating just Cass, and also rooming with her jovial, high-living, strongly left-wing friend who was equally bent on becoming a movie star, Shelley Winters. As Winters tells it in her autobiography Shelley Also Known as Shirley, they had hilarious times together, partying, dating lots of men, and pooling resources so they could take turns wearing fancier outfits that neither could have afforded on her own.
Dominik’s Monroe has no women friends, because that would complicate the film’s narrative of endless victimisation at the hands of men. When asked why there’s no Jane Russell or any other woman friend represented in the film who was actually supportive of Monroe at various points in her life, Dominik says,
Well, that’s the way the book is, and I think it’s the way it was. I think Marilyn was a guy’s girl. I don’t think she was a woman who had a lot of female friends. But then I think she was a woman who didn’t have a lot of friends. There is a sense that we want to reinvent her according to today’s political concerns. But she was a person who was extraordinarily self-destructive.
She was also a person who was exuberantly self-creative, and for all her suffering, achieved nearly everything she set out to do in life. You have to wonder what’s at stake for Joyce Carol Oates and Andrew Dominik in seeing Monroe as a pathetic victim who never had a friend or a career triumph. It’s notable that scenes from the films Monroe was probably most proud of are not recreated in Blonde. Her zany and delightful screwball comedy performances in How to Marry a Millionaire (1953) and Gentlemen Prefer Blondes are not shown — only the famous scene of her singing “Diamonds are a Girl’s Best Friend” in Gentlemen, while Monroe watches herself in the audience, cringing at her own her sexy gold-digger number and thinking, “I’m not that thing.”
Also left out is Bus Stop (1956), which was based on a prestigious play by William Inge. The film represents Monroe at her zenith, demonstrating everything she’d learned while studying at the Actors Studio, for which she’d been cynically mocked. Her astute, emotionally rich performance earned her excellent and amazed reviews from some of her harshest critics. And though The Prince and the Showgirl (1957) was an unhappy experience to work on, it was a hugely prestigious project and made by her own company, Marilyn Monroe Productions. It involved her professionally with Laurence Olivier, the most admired actor in British theater, as director and costar. And in the end he stuck to his broad, stagy performance while she acted him right off the screen.
It’s a gloomy and mortifying experience, witnessing Oates and Dominik drag down Marilyn Monroe yet again in Blonde. And they do it with such a sick relish that it really makes you wonder about them.
Eileen Jones is a film critic at Jacobin and author of Filmsuck, USA. She also hosts a podcast called Filmsuck.
Featured image: Netflix
This article was first published on Jacobin.