Note from Laura: As I have been torn between giving Blonde (2022) a watch, going back and forth between whether I want to subject myself to a film which depicts Marilyn in what is set to be an exploitative and dehumanising way, I asked a friend and fellow Marilyn fan, April Chambers, to discuss her thoughts immediately after watching it. Enjoy!
When brute force meets the life force, it is the former that has to yield.
– Alexander Walker, Stardom, pg. 311
Trigger warning: Sexual abuse and sex acts
In 1970, Alexander Walker wrote Stardom as a way for people to understand why we follow celebrities. Unlike other books in the genre that tend to focus on Monroe, Walker dedicates a single paragraph to her—likely due to the time the book was written—to discuss how she played off Gable in The Misfits, declaring her full of life compared to Gable’s manufactured masculinity.
Walker likely would have devoted himself to an entirely different set of stars than the ones he chose in 1970, but it gives us a peek into how Marilyn was viewed before the death rumors began to swirl a couple of years later. She was more than a footnote but unworthy of an entire chapter. This isn’t to say she was overlooked or underestimated. Walker’s description of her as the life force that “exists in the moonlight she dances in” shows someone who respects her talents. However, there are days I wish we could go back to when Marilyn was deemed worthy of little more than a paragraph because at least her memory wouldn’t continuously get sullied.
Andrew Dominik did not set out to create a faithful biopic of Marilyn’s life. Although some film critics are labeling Blonde as such, the film is not attempting to portray Marilyn’s life with any semblance of accuracy. Instead, Dominik has set his sights on accurately adapting Oates’ novel, Blonde.
Blonde, written by Joyce Carol Oates, uses Marilyn as a symbol of everything that was wrong in the 50s and the studio system. Women are expected to be weak. They’re expected to be victims. Marilyn is the weakest victim, and her life fits in perfectly as a starting line for the dark, grotesque and macabre worlds that Oates relishes in creating. Dominik seems to fit right in with this world as well, creating a faithful adaptation of Oates’ book.
As a Marilyn fan, you’ve probably read ten thousand reviews of the film so far. I’m not going to give you a thorough debunking article. If you would like to read a lot of the main misconceptions and lies the film pushed, you can read my debunking tweets here (highlights include: Dominik has her 1958 miscarriage happening in 1957, caused by a fall on the beach when serving a platter of food. He has her landing the role of Miss Caswell because of Darryl Zanuck raping her. He has Whitey injecting her with amphetamines to get her to work.):
Marilyn discussed how she was a mirror for many people, reflecting their lewd thoughts rather than being lewd herself. This film is a giant mirror for all involved, but especially Dominik. He leaves no room for Marilyn to grow, instead relegating her to a box of constant woman-child victimhood. He has Armas speak in the baby doll voice throughout the film, likely to help cover her accent (a plan that succeeds quite well btw, proving the accent discourse wasn’t necessary). He puts her in exploitative situations. He never shows her grit, her meanness. Instead, he declaws the kitten that used ruthlessness and cunning to climb her way to the top and stay there. He makes her a shell of what she actually was. In short, he makes Marilyn a sniveling angel constantly getting tarnished by coming in contact with lecherous mortal men.
What Dominik accomplishes by following that path is put Marilyn’s eccentricities on full display, magnifying them until the real person is lost and a caricature of herself emerges. Yes, contrary to what other reviewers have claimed, Marilyn did call all of her husbands “Daddy.” She did become neurotic, especially in her later life. She was both the victim and the victimizer. But rather than unpack these factual aspects of her personality and treat them with nuance, Dominik chooses to make them her entire personality until the real Marilyn is no longer there.
He also makes some left-field creative decisions. For starters, he perfectly matches a number of her costumes and outfits—and then he puts them in completely different time periods (like her 1962 rose costume for Something’s Got to Give gets portrayed as an item in her personal wardrobe circa 1957). If you’re going to work to the point where you’re matching clothing and hairstyles, why put them in completely wrong time periods?
My biggest grievance for the film, however, is having everyone call her Norma Jeane. Although there are a few instances of people using that name well after she was Marilyn Monroe, this idea of Norma Jeane and Marilyn Monroe being two different people is such an overused trope in both films and books. Norma Jeane and Marilyn Monroe were the same person, at least in private. This idea that people just kind of discarded their pasts after changing their names is a popular idea in fan discourse, but it completely flattens the subject into a before and after, allowing people to place their own thoughts onto how one or the other was the “better” time in the person’s life.
Now, onto the elephant in the room: the NC-17 stuff. There are hundreds of reviews at this point going into detail about rape scenes and vaginal shots. Pretty much anything you’ve read is all here in graphic detail (although some of it was a little sensationalistic in how it was described). The most graphic scene is the JFK blowjob which has him laying in bed on the phone, wearing a back brace and begins with him forcing her to give him a hand job. While she’s pumping away, and then giving him a forced POV blowjob, he’s getting lectured on sexually assaulting three girls while watching fireworks explode on tv as he explodes himself. It’s gross and unnecessary, but it’s really just a great metaphor for the film’s reliance on falsehoods.
On the plus side, the film is beautifully shot and Ana de Armas does a good job with a weak script. I don’t think I would ever say she looked like Marilyn, but she does capture some part of her personality. Little touches like shaking the hands when warming up for a scene and that wide-eyed wonder look are perfectly emulated by Armas.
Overall, I don’t think the film deserves the attention it received. It’s not a great representation of anything, even when looking at it as a symbolic representation of the 50s and the studio system rather than a biopic. It’s just exploitative nothingness that relies on tits and ass to generate publicity instead of a well-written script. The recreations are interesting, but really not worth watching a nearly three-hour film for. In short, the movie has pushed itself into our consciousness with brute force, but Marilyn’s life force will make it yield.