There is a scene a little bit less than halfway through Blonde, where Marilyn Monroe receives a standing ovation after the premiere of her film Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. She’s shedding quiet tears as she is surrounded by applause, whistles, and the adoration of everyone in the room. Marilyn then thinks to herself, “for this, you killed your baby.” It’s around here that you might get the idea that director Andrew Dominik does not like Marilyn Monroe all that much.
This probably isn’t too much of a surprise considering his recent dismissive comments regarding Marilyn’s films and how she shouldn’t be considered a figure of female empowerment because she killed herself. But Dominik himself admits, he wasn’t ever interested in making a movie about Marilyn Monroe:
I had always wanted to do a story about childhood trauma and how that shapes an adult’s perception of the world; to make a film from within a person’s mythology… but when I read Blonde I thought, well, I could do this with an actress…
In this sense, Blonde is similar to its source material, the 2000 fictional novel of the same name by Joyce Carol Oates. When Oates set out to write Blonde, what inspired her wasn’t any real interest in the actress but instead an old picture of a young Norma Jeane Baker transforming into Marilyn, the oversexualied and over-exploited sexpot. Interesting that both the author of the original novel and the director of the film adaptation didn’t gravitate to the story because of Marilyn herself but instead a desire to use her as a vehicle to explore their ideas of trauma and Hollywood stardom.
Early in the book, during the brief time when a young fatherless Marilyn, who was already starstruck by the movies and the idea of stardom, stayed with her mother, she watched the events of her life go by like scenes in a Jean Harlow movie. Different scores of music play in her head as her mother’s mood quickly shifts from loving to cruel and manic – all while Marilyn dreams of a prince (or father) coming to save her. This yearning for a father is a big part of the film too. Throughout the film Marilyn calls various men in her life “daddy,” and she is constantly reading letters from her supposed father who is watching her life and career from afar. Of course, later in this film, we learn that these letters were written by a former lover and throuple member – a revelation that leads to her spiraling further into drugs – and ultimately, her death. In Blonde, the main force behind Marilyn’s death (and all of her other problems and insecurities) is her lack of a father.
Give this to Dominik: he did make the movie he wanted to make. Blonde is steeped in the mythology of Marilyn Monroe – from her harrowing childhood to her tumultuous high-profile relationships and the controversy surrounding her tragic death. It paints a portrait of Marilyn as a tortured and victimized woman who can never get away from her past. From the early fictionalized rape scene to the multiple abortion/miscarriage sequences, the movie is cruel towards Marilyn. The movie is cruel because the audience is cruel. Because Hollywood and the industry are inherently cruel. Dominik seems to love it and he expects us to love it too.
The film is also weirdly loathsome towards Marilyn for possibly having abortions in her real life. In the film, after the first abortion sequence, Marilyn has a conversation with The Ex-Athlete (or Joe DiMaggio) about what she wants in life. She says with a big smile, “I’m crazy about babies” and the camera stays on her as her face falls soon after. Oh, the irony! She loves babies but she had an abortion! How could she! And later, in probably the most laughably bad scene in the film – Marilyn’s pregnant fetus speaks to her, telling her not to kill them like she did the last one. If you didn’t shut the movie off from pure boredom before – you’ll be tested like you never have been before after watching this play out.
This leads to the second biggest sin the film commits – it is very boring. Even with all the controversy surrounding it, along with the bold and tasteless sequences – the film is uninteresting. There’s no interiority given to the film’s Marilyn – which might have added some tension and or even humanity during the scenes of abuse – and the film adds nothing to the idea of Marilyn and stardom other than, “beautiful, famous woman is sad.” You might be better off watching the Marilyn Monroe Quantum Leap episode.
That’s not entirely true – you’ll be better off watching Marilyn’s films. Ana De Armas’s portrayal of this film’s version of Marilyn is fine but, in the moments where the movie goes out of its way to recreate Marilyn’s iconic films and cinematic moments, you’re aware how out of her depth she is in this role. There’s just something about Marilyn outside of her undeniable beauty that made her a compelling screen presence. From her comedic timing in films like How to Marry a Millionaire and Some Like it Hot to the few times she played more dramatic roles in Don’t Bother to Knock or Niagara – Marilyn was captivating on-screen. And it was something she was aware of and keenly used to her advantage in those roles.
And this seems to be something both Oates and Dominik don’t (or refuse to) understand about Marilyn. Both portray Marilyn and Norma Jeane as if they are two different people – to the point that sometimes the separation edges close to being the Madonna/Whore complex. They insist that the audience learns to separate Marilyn from her performances and that this movie is not about the performer Marilyn Monroe but the person behind that. Conveniently, they speak about Marilyn in Blonde like she is congruent with the real Marilyn.
Yes, Marilyn wasn’t anything like her most famous characters – she was intelligent, well-read, and strong in character and conviction. But her work in those films is just as important to who Marilyn was as all the trauma she possibly went through. Maybe Marilyn was as much a tortured victim as she’s depicted in this film, but she would have also been more than that – because it would have been a miracle and sign of interior strength that she was able to accomplish all that she did. She was an artist and a person – and someone who’s worth remembering and even interrogating, but not like this.
Tatiana Nunez is an English major on the Writing and Rhetoric Track and is in her Senior Year at FIU. Her favorite films include The Handmaiden and Heat. And her go-to genres are horror, action, and erotic thrillers.