Sam Shaw, the photographer who billowed a pleated white skirt over a subway grate in New York City and created a 20th century icon, also captured Marilyn Monroe at the altar of a dressing room mirror in 1954. Almost 70 years later, Ana de Armas gazes at the same bleach-blonde hair and black strappy bodice staring back at her. She smiles, kisses the air, transfixed by her own incandescent beauty. Yet the longer the viewer looks, the more they will realise that what they once saw as Marilyn’s reflection is actually Norma Jean’s fragmentation. These two personas, torn but inseparable within her identity, form the foundation of director Andrew Dominik’s obsession with pain, mental illness, victimisation, and violence in Blonde (2022).
The film’s direct reference to Marilyn’s real life makes Dominik’s recent statement to the British Film Institute, that the film is about “a person who is going to be killing themselves… it’s not looking at her lasting legacy”, completely implausible. No matter how hard Blonde allegedly tries to resist autobiographical accuracy, invoking her name necessarily involves Marilyn’s legacy – and falsifies it. Norma Jean is permanently stuck on the screen, rewritten into a destiny that she was never permitted to write herself. The exploitation of her image is therefore not just worrying because it capitalises off the deeply personal afflictions of a vulnerable individual. Rather, it holds a mirror to past and present cultural institutions that have manufactured her face.
Based on the fictionalised events of Joyce Carol Oates’ 2000 novel by the same name, Blonde attempts to explore Marilyn’s life between her “discovery” as a pin-up girl and her drug-induced death in 1962. Despite being nominated for a Golden Lion at the 79th Venice Film Festival, the film has attracted condemnation for being an abuse of Marilyn’s suffering and sadness. Its US NC-17 rating (equivalent to Australia’s R18+) appears as the latest indictment of the film’s explicit scenes depicting sexual assault, abortion, and nudity.
The problem is not that these themes are explored in the film per se. Once the viewer realises that Blonde is not the “biopic” that Netflix claims it is, Dominik’s joking retort to its moral criticism — that the movie “is not running for public office” — appears to miss the point. Taking Oates’ aesthetic rearrangement of Marilyn’s life as a starting point, Dominik searches for the “real Marilyn” in a story designed to reveal some deeper truths about fame. The results are distressing, dragging Marilyn “through the meat grinder” in similar ways to a 1950s Hollywood movie executive.
Perhaps this is best illustrated in Blonde’s simultaneous flattening of, and fixation on, Marilyn’s legacy. The film is built upon her sexualisation, appearing first in an historically-inaccurate threesome with Charles Chaplin Jr. and Edward Robinson Jr., and later a graphic blow-job with President John F. Kennedy. Marilyn is an object before she is a woman, promiscuous and topless for long scenes even when experiencing extreme mental and dissociative turmoil. Marilyn is again needlessly violated when the audience is taken inside her cervix, portraying an abortion she never had to reinforce the connection between hysteria and femininity. Despite Dominik’s defences, Planned Parenthood has since condemned his portrayal of Marilyn’s fully-formed foetus asking her “you won’t hurt me again, will you?” from inside the womb as “anti-choice propaganda”. Marilyn’s oppression is therefore mistaken for willing submission, infantilised during frequent temper tantrums in the film and throughout her marriages with “Daddy” Joe Di Maggio and Arthur Miller.
Blonde certainly leans into wider social obsessions with Marilyn as what Gloria Steinem called “a survivor” in her 2006 Ms. Magazine editorial on Marilyn’s legacy. To some extent, Dominik’s holy trinity of gendered stereotypes subverts her construction in the public eye as a fantasy men think they want, and women know they do not want to be. But it is also a testament to Dominik’s vision of Marilyn as a “guy’s girl”, embodying a much broader male gaze. He does not direct like he believes Marilyn “was in charge of her own destiny”, because he does not “see the film as essentially female.” In a context that privileges sensitive portrayals of questionable male figures like Elvis Presley and Freddie Mercury, Blonde is important as a marker of the stagnation and regression of the treatment of women in popular culture, and in particular the biopic genre.
This film cannot commemorate Marilyn Monroe because its memory is clouded by images of sex, hysteria, and victimisation. De Armas cries more than she smiles for 164 minutes, neglecting the moments of resistance and joy Marilyn found in calling out powerful Hollywood studio executive Darryl F. Zanuck as a “wolf”, and creating her own production company. Blonde is therefore a result of, rather than a protest against, the conditions which gave rise to the #MeToo Movement that Dominik claims to respect. It reinforces an entitlement to male ownership over female bodies, made worse for Marilyn as a “public woman” who posthumously cannot defend herself. Although public outcry to the film highlights some societal awareness of these shortcomings, Marilyn’s legacy ultimately matters because it reflects far more about us – and the inequalities we are unwilling to admit – than it does about her.