Blonde (2022) is a fictionalized Marilyn Monroe biopic based on Joyce Carol Oates’ 2000 novel by the same name. In an interview for Sight and Sound Magazine, director Andrew Dominick, when asked to elaborate why he decided not to touch on Monroe’s social and political achievements, explained: “If you look at Marilyn Monroe, she’s got everything that society tells us is desirable. She’s famous. She’s beautiful. She’s rich. If you look at the Instagram version of her life, she’s got it all. And she killed herself. Now, to me, that’s the most important thing.” In addition, interviewer Christina Newland later revealed an outtake of the interview via Twitter where Dominick asked whether anyone actually watches Marilyn Monroe’s movies.
Marilyn Monroe’s life and death have never been beyond scandal — from her sex-symbol status to accusations of being a Communist spy to her iconic dress making headlines after being worn by Kim Kardashian. She is the ultimate Hollywood tragedy and effectively the industry’s greatest success story — of dying and getting immortalized in the height of her fame forever.
Through idolization or infamy, Monroe will always remain in the public sphere as the documentaries, mini-series, movies, books and musicals keep churning out over and over again, allowing Hollywood to walk along a double edge of pity for its own ruthlessness and self-aggrandization for its glamor and stardom.
However, Hollywood has always had an obsession with the dead. It enables this obsession through biopics — stories of people long gone or perhaps simply fallen out of the public sphere such as Pamela Anderson. However, since the 2010s, this obsession has only intensified with hundreds of biopics entering every crevice of pop culture. Just this year we have seen multiple biopics enter the ethos, but these post-pandemic biopics seem to be missing an important element — the truth.
From 2021’s Spencer, which revolves around a few fictionalized days in the life of Princess Diana, to the recent and perhaps more sinister Dahmer: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story, which has been criticized for changing facts and to some extent even romanticizing and exploiting the story regardless of the wishes of the many victims’ families, we have seen many variations of the oxymoronic fictionalized biography. While there is nothing wrong with fictionalizing a life story to convey a message about a person — Spencer does this well, as does Hulu’s Under the Banner of Heaven — there is a necessary level of caution to be taken when handling the life of someone known, and Netflix’s Blonde fails to do that on virtually every front.
Filled with beautiful cinematography by Chayse Irvin and hauntingly accurate shots of Ana De Armas as Marilyn Monroe, Dominick’s Blonde is just that — a visually stunning piece of offensive white noise. Filled with inaccurate, exploitative and violating scenes, Dominick sets out to dissect Monroe into her supposed two halves, the broken but radiant “Marilyn” and the innocent young girl, “Norma Jeane.”
He starts off the movie with a traumatic and deeply triggering albeit unverified depiction of “Norma Jeane” being abused by her mother as a child, almost as an attempt to set itself apart from the other Marilyn stories we have seen. It wants to be raw and visceral, it wants its viewers to gag and cry when a younger Norma is almost murdered by her mentally ill mother and wants us to try to pinpoint the moment where we can definitively say sealed Marilyn’s fate. But it wants us to do all of that at the irrepressible expense of the film’s honesty.
Dominick strips Marilyn Monroe of her agency and, through Ana De Armas’ compelling yet arguably one-note performance, reduces her to the parental issues he believes turned innocent and gentle Norma Jeane into the broken seductress Marilyn.
In an attempt to “save Marilyn,” Dominick (as well as Oates) effectively renders her unconscious, as she drifts through her life as nothing but a mere observer to be exploited over and over again without fighting against any of it, while Dominick disregards any fact in the fiction he has cooked up.
While it is true that Monroe joins many other women who had to suffer the indignities and harassment of Hollywood as victims to the predation of men around them, Dominick’s cruelty seeps through when he effectively becomes a proxy to these men that he seems to be critiquing himself.
With lingering shots of violent and fictionalized sexual assaults, two fictionalized forced abortions and a bizarre anti-abortion sentiment all packaged into an NC-17 ‘get out of jail free pass’ rating, Dominick asserts agency over Marilyn’s body after she could have any possible say in it. And considering how much of her public persona has unfortunately been diluted by the fictionalized ethos of Marilyn Monroe, he has finally crowned himself a king in the genre of exploitative Marilyn Monroe media.
His Blonde does not care about Marilyn’s advocacy, where she spoke out against nuclear war and stood by her husband Arthur Miller during the height of the United States’ anti Communist movement; it does not want to trifle with the fact that Monroe actually spoke up against the abuse and harassment she faced in a revolutionary column for Motion Picture and Television Magazine titled, “Wolves I Have Known;” nor does it even want to acknowledge Monroe as happy, depicting every moment of her wit and intellect as an attempt to get attention of a man she would later be found calling “daddy” while her iconic visage is shown naked, soaked in tears and blood. For Oates and Dominick, this is the real Marilyn: a child frozen through adulthood who should not have attempted to fly out of her nest.
Throughout the movie, Dominick keeps proving true to the ideal he espoused in the aforementioned interview: the most important thing to him is the end and everything else is prelude before the show.
And this is may be why biopics in the vein of Blonde, despite their beauty in appearance or accuracy in casting, tend to garner little critical support. Their hollowness and obsession with the dead shine beyond any love for their subject to dissect. Blonde is cold and irate to a point where hatred is a more appropriate description for their subject than love — there is no point in showing Joe DiMaggio’s fictionalized violent reaction to Marilyn’s past as a pin-up model except to slut-shame her, there is no point in seeing a laughably offensive CGI fetus of Marilyn berate her for a fictionalized abortion except to peddle it as a mistake she made or her insanity getting to her, and there certainly is no reason why scenes of Monroe’s death needed to be filmed on the actual site where she passed away except to exploit her one more time.
Movies about the famous dead will always happen whether we like it or not. People like Dominick, who assume the truth of a person, will always come along and depict only the truth that matches up with their interpretations. While we can do nothing about that, we may also find some merit in these movies. Perhaps a better way of honoring our dead may simply be through their body of work. Remembering Marilyn Monroe through her sharply funny work in How to Marry a Millionaire may be a much better alternative than this visually stimulating but empty film.
Maybe a better incentive may simply come from Marilyn’s own words. In 1953, she turned down the role of a lifetime starring as her idol Jean Harlow, an actress who served as an inspiration for Marilyn throughout her life. She reportedly explained to her agent, “She should be done humanly” adding, “I hope they don’t do that to me after I’m gone.”
“Blonde Title Logo” courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Ash Shehzad is a sophomore Psychology Major and Arts & Culture Editor. Contact Ash at email@example.com.