Spoiler alert: Marilyn Monroe wasn’t happy, and men were mean to her.
Aside from a brilliant performance by Ana De Armas, Blonde is a tedious piece of filmmaking. It meditates on Marilyn’s sad life with such ponderousness and sadism you’re not even sure what the point of any of this is. It’s like a slasher film that, once you’ve seen three people brutally die in the first act, none of the subsequent killings mean anything anymore. It repeats certain motifs over and over again. The iconic lifting of her skirt by the breeze from the subway grating for that scene In the Seven Year Itch? Get it? She’s being objectified. No seriously, guys! They’re objectifying her! Let’s see that AGAIN!
The blood staining her dress when she miscarries. Her falling on the beach while trying to serve hors d’oeuvres. The photograph of her father who isn’t really her father. The POV of her vagina as she’s getting abortions. Blonde holds every shot several moments longer than it should. There is a painful scene where she can’t find a dollar to tip the delivery boy that takes forever. Marilyn owned many purses!
BLONDE ★★ (2/5 stars)
Directed by: Andrew Dominik
Written by: Andrew Dominik
Starring: Ana de Armas, Lily Fisher, Julianne Nicholson, Adrien Brody
Running time: 166 mins
It’s well documented that Marilyn Monroe’s breathy baby doll persona was an act. She employed it on screen to great effect. And even when the cameras weren’t rolling, she employed it to charm gatekeepers in the industry, seduce potential lovers and win over members of press. It’s safe to assume that she, a product of foster care, might have learned at an early age that acting helplessly adorable was the key to her survival. But it was an act. She could cast it aside from time to time and when she did, she could be quite witty, ambitious and shrewd. She didn’t accidentally become one of the world’s biggest movie stars.
The main problem with Blonde is that it promotes the idea that this act of Marilyn’s was her real personality, it never came off, and it was the product of a rich fantasy life induced by trauma and inherited mental illness. And then her meteoric success had nothing to do with her talent or ambition, but largely the product of various men making her do stuff against her will because they liked her ass.
Blonde, based on Joyce Carol Oates’s novelization of Marilyn’s life, isn’t supposed to be historically accurate, so I suppose I shouldn’t be nitpicking too hard. But all the liberties they take with Marilyn’s life strip her of any agency. For instance, her biographies document that Marilyn slept with or dated many men who were gatekeepers in Hollywood and thus helped her career. Are the men who took advantage of Marilyn in these instances essentially guilty of rape? Arguably, I’d say yes.
But the way that Blonde depicts the beginning of her career: she walks into a producers’ office (known as “Mr Z”) thinking she’s auditioning for a part in a movie, he sodomizes her immediately and brutally, and then she gets that part. She’s then confused as to why the actual audition never happens. Marilyn Monroe might have played the doe eyed ingenue on screen, but she understood how the world worked. I’m pretty sure that if she had sex with a producer and then he cast her in a film, she would have known exactly why that happened.
It’s documented that Marilyn Monroe was quite sexual and took many lovers. None of the sex that Marilyn has in Blonde seems fun or enjoyable…or consensual. History also suggests that as a result of her sexual activity she had a few illegal abortions…. since carrying a baby to term would have derailed her career. In Blonde, Marilyn has two abortions. Both are against her will. It’s the very opposite of pro-choice!
The problem with a lot of depictions of the life of Marilyn is that they’re not really about the woman herself but about our own uneasy relationship with fame, beauty, talent, and sexuality. When we see someone who glows like that and has so much power over the viewer, we immediately think they are lucky and happy but when we find out that being that being a famous sex symbol can be a heady burden and its rewards are often insufficient in finding love and community, we drool all over it like it’s a form of porn. Marilyn was unhappy and lots of people were unkind to her? Tell me more! Keep talking. Arthur Miller did what to her? The studio made her change her name? Blonde disguises schadenfreude as compassion.
The thing that astounds me is the extent to which everyone is aghast at how the studio made her over. They made her change her name! Her real name was Norma Jean! Yeah and when I worked at McDonald’s, they didn’t let me wear my own clothes or share intimate details of my life with the customers. I had to wear a uniform and keep the line moving. Where’s my biopic?
There is this pervasive myth that Marilyn just wanted to be known to the world as Norma Jeane and the movie star known as Marilyn Monroe was a complete studio creation foisted on her. Yeah, and RuPaul really wanted to be known to the world as Andre Charles, but the drag police wouldn’t stand for it! Blonde implies that all the other actors and actresses in post-WWII Hollywood were taken seriously, enjoyed career autonomy, got to dress and style themselves as they wished, used their real names and weren’t scrutinized by the press or compelled to participate in the publicity machine.
Read Jeanine Basinger’s The Star Machine. Being a movie star is a job. Most jobs suck. Even jobs that are callings or vocations come with certain duties that are unpleasant. Teachers experience the joy of shaping and stimulating young minds…..but they also have to submit to endless evaluations, buy their own school supplies, and the system judges them largely by how their students perform on standardized tests.
Everyone’s like “oh they forced her to be glamorous!” I’m not diminishing what it must have been like for a woman in post war America to be that much of an icon for femininity and to have to bear all that cultural baggage. I’m not pooh-poohing the notion that she might have thought that being a movie star would be an awesome experience but was disappointed and found it to be harder than she thought. But the reason we’re still talking about her is because she was that glamorous. If they let her keep her hair brown and call herself Norma Jean and be a normal girl, we would not be seeing biographical films about her. The movies she made would feature the girls who DID dye their hair blonde, and we’d all be talking about THOSE girls.
Marilyn wanted to be a movie star. She managed to become one because she was quite shrewd and observant. And when she became one, she was very good at being one. Yes, she was difficult to work with, but the work itself — when finished — was rarely less than sublime. There is a great deal of evidence that she sought to improve her acting skills by training at the Actors studio and that she read a lot of serious literature. This becomes “oh, poor Marilyn! She wanted to be serious actress and they didn’t give her that opportunity. They made her play those dumb blonde roles.”
Let’s unpack this: is it that weird that a supremely talented woman who was at the top of her game professionally and who, due to her fame, was able to meet many distinguished minds, artists, and world leaders might have wanted to be good at her job, informed and well read? She had dinner with Albert Einstein, for crying out loud! There is something very condescending about our astonishment that Marilyn Monroe might have read a book or two and how AMAZING that was. And is it that weird that a young actress might be aware of the transient nature of stardom, might have been willing to pay her dues by being an ingenue/sex symbol for a while and might aspire to do some serious acting later in life after she aged out of those roles! Is it possible that she might have been (gasp) ambitious?
Remember, Marilyn died at a relatively young age. The fact that we never got to see her in anything more substantial (if we’re calling Josh Logan’s Bus Stop, Wilder’s Some Like it Hot, and The Seven Year Itch, John Huston’s The Misfits and Howard Hawks Gentlemen Prefer Blondes insubstantial) might have simply been due to fact that she never got to age. I’m not disputing or diminishing the fact that Hollywood has always been a horrible environment for actresses, but there are many examples of leading ladies whose careers really became more rewarding and interesting and enjoyed more agency as they grew older and less “fuckable”: Ginger Rogers, Joan Crawford, Jessica Lange etc.
Marilyn’s death puts a period on the end of a sentence. It crystallizes her. It seems inevitable. Yes, she was quite self-destructive, but the fact that she sought to improve her craft, exposed herself to literature and underwent psychoanalysis indicate investments in herself that suggest that she was planning on having a meaty future. Although it’s tempting to blame “the studio” for not letting her play Hedda Gabler, it’s more likely that her death was far more responsible for that.
I’m not arguing that Marilyn got what was coming to her because she wanted to be famous and enjoyed being a sex symbol. She deserved to enjoy a sexual harassment-free work environment, fair treatment by the press, and privacy. She deserved respect from the men she dated, married and/or had sex with. I just find it problematic that in order for us to feel sympathy for Marilyn’s mistreatment at the hands of Hollywood (and mankind in general), we have to tell ourselves that she never wanted to be a star in the first place.
It’s a shame that Blonde isn’t good or has anything valuable to say about Marilyn Monroe’s life because Ana De Armas’s performance is exquisite. She looks just like her and she has captured her mannerisms and essence. I barely even noticed that Cuban accent that everyone was buzzing about when the trailers came out. Blonde presents plenty of other distractions, none of them positive.