Okay, so, Blonde. Or Monroe even, as that is the subject matter.
I feel like I have been threatening a blog about Marilyn Monroe for a while now. After I read Joyce Carol Oates’ book last year I had a lot of feelings about it, but none that I could fully articulate. If you haven’t read it, that book is A LOT - way more misogynistic and exploitative than the Netflix adaptation - but isn’t that always the way with women? We are forever debasing and denigrating each other in ways worse than men could ever manage or imagine.
Still, it was an interesting read. An attempt to get under the skin of what has now become a mythic public entity and seek the core of what made the peculiar societal phenomenon of Marilyn Monroe. It is also trauma porn, so make of that what you will.
So yes, I knew going in that Blonde is a thinly-disguised fictional retelling of Monroe's life, albeit one that had been heavily researched and has some truth in it. I also knew that the book was extremely graphic, so I was intrigued to see how the source material would be interpreted, especially seeing as it was being directed by the guy who brought us CHOPPER!?
I mean, c’mon Hollywood!? WTF.
THE CULT OF MARILYN MONROE
I have a complicated relationship with Marilyn Monroe. I find her endlessly fascinating and have watched almost every film and read almost every book on her, but I wouldn’t consider myself a “Marilyn Stan”. I feel a Marilyn Stan is a different breed of person entirely, somebody who sees Marilyn as this glamorous but flawed poster child for the broken. A glamourous icon for women who like their stars with a side of schadenfreude.
“Look, even the most beautiful woman in the world was messed up and had problems - she was JUST LIKE ME!'
Except she wasn’t. She was a person in the most unimaginable spotlight, the most sexiest person IN THE WORLD. I don’t think many of us can comprehend the pressures and magnitude of that. Of the kind of attention that brings and the people it attracts. It’s a light that attracts the world’s worst creepy crawlies. It must have been unbearable, especially in a misogyny heavy era like the 1950s.
And that’s not to say misogyny has gone away - it hasn’t - it’s just not as explicit (read: hidden) and more likely to be perpetuated by women, so… how’s that for progress? Yeah, I know. I don’t get it either.
But back to the film. The initial Twitter reactions I saw were all complaining about how graphic and exploitative it was, and - having read the book - I was like oh no, they went all in. But upon watching I was surprised to see that they didn’t. I mean there were some odd creative choices, sure, and it IS trauma heavy. But honestly, I will keep saying this: the book is worse.
I do get the argument of "why must we continually bastardise Marilyn’s memory?" - but the memory itself is the bastard. It’s an image, an idea… it’s not the real person. The “Marilyn Monroe” you know is a lie, a Warhol facsimile on a mass-produced canvas print on the wall of one of life’s victims. To me, a worse travesty is Kim Kardashian wearing (and ruining) her famous dress. But then, would Marilyn really want to be remembered for a dress? Wasn’t she more than what she wore?
As a pop culture cornerstone of the Hollywood studio era, Marilyn Monroe has been romanticised to the point of being unrecognisable as a real person - a cypher for asinine quotes so called “Boss Bitches” and “Full Time Mummy CEOs” share on Facebook with their friends to normalise shitty self-aggrandising behaviour. I’m looking at you, people who perpetuate the “if you can’t have me at my worst, you don’t deserve me at my best…” bullshit. GOD do I hate that quote. Like most quotes attributed to Monroe, she didn’t even say it. It’s all part of the pop culture mirage, designed to sell shit and make you feel better about yourself.
I have mixed feelings about the film, as I did the book. I don’t think either express much empathy for Marilyn as a person. In fact, I hated the film at first and started to wonder if I should be watching it. I had to stop it halfway through and went back to it this morning. I’ve experienced some of the things portrayed, but I didn’t find it triggering. Compared to the book it was actually quite sensitive. Like I said, the book is worse. SO much forced anal.
I felt that by the second half (and after the weird talking baby) the film improved and I started to get what the director was heavy-handedly trying to do, other than try and make a David Lynch homage. The whole film seemed like a love letter to Lynch. I didn’t know if it was intentional until the last couple of scenes when the music showed its Twin Peaks influences, and then I just KNEW. A ha! Still, it’s no Fire Walk With Me (the quintessential filmic text on trauma) - the difference being that Lynch has empathy.
Overall I thought Ana de Armas was an EXCEPTIONAL Monroe, the best I have seen. I wasn’t convinced on her casting at first but she really excelled and was very convincing. The story was a bit too dreamy and missed out A LOT, I would have liked to have seen more of Monroe's time in the orphanage and her first marriage, rather than a billion abortions but I get why they were there. I liked the scenes with Cass and Eddy.
“But it’s not true!” I hear you say. And neither are those quotes you love so much but you don’t seem bothered about the veracity of those. And anyway, how do you know? You don’t know with absolute certainty either way. Nobody does, it’s all extrapolation like any biopic.
However, there is no doubt in my mind that Marilyn Monroe’s life was incredibly traumatic; from her abusive upbringing to the nature of her fame to her turbulent relationships - these are all well-documented facts. To try and sugar coat or glamourise these parts of her life would be to do her a great disservice. But then, how do you show that trauma? Is there a KIND way of doing it? I don’t know if there is.
This film is a body horror, showing the horrors of owning a “sexy” female body in the public sphere, by showing how your body becomes not your own (hence all the crowd scenes with fans shown as a grasping, baying mob). But by also showing Marilyn’s intimate private moments it showed that at her core she was the same as any of us, and her horrors were the same suffered by all women.
I actually liked the vagina shots. I liked that it showed her body in an unusual, almost clinical way. The way that is a lot of women’s reality - of periods and smear tests and abortions. The side of women that is decidedly unsexy and NEVER SEEN. Why should these things NOT be shown? We should be able to see our own reality presented on screen, hiding them keeps them repressed, secret, and taboo.
Marilyn Monroe suffered greatly with Endometrosis. Her fertility was something she struggled with until her death. In her private sphere these would have been the things that defined her and by all accounts she lived a troubled life and died a troubled death. It’s why we remember her now. Why sugar coat? Do you really hold that pretty image of her so dear?
Marilyn didn’t go through life as helpless or as explicitly looking for her daddy as the film would suggest, but that WAS the core of her trauma. As it is for many people who have experienced abandonment early in life. I suppose I can relate to that on some level, the childhood trauma, the sexy modelling career, the way she strived to be seen as sexy AND a serious person… but the thing I relate to most of all is that she is a complete fabrication. “Marilyn Monroe” as we know her is a fictional character, and THAT is what this film is clumsily trying to get at.
Like I said, Marilyn Monroe is a mirage. As someone who has masked their entire life, fabricating a persona to get ahead and deal with difficult situations is something that I can more than empathise with. The part of the film that touched me the most was when she was sat by the mirror begging for Marilyn to come. It brought me to tears as it is a pathetic situation I have found myself in hundreds of times, of having to switch on the glamour when you really don’t feel like it. It captured the duality of the duty of being sexy personified. No-one, not even Marilyn Monroe, can be sexy all of the time.
And I know my experiences are a minuscule fraction of what she would have experienced, but they are enough that I can relate and empathise in a way that those that haven’t lived that life cannot. Being “sexy” is a heavy burden, one that has many perks, but just as many pitfalls and it is a way of life that can leave you feeling lost.
I see Marilyn Monroe as someone who sought - for her whole life - to find someone who could see her and embrace her as a whole person. As both Norma Jean, AND her creation. It seems to me people could only either see her as one or the other: either Marilyn Monroe, the “dumb blonde” international sex symbol, or Norma Jean, the smart but troubled girl-next-door, never BOTH.
Whether you see her as Marilyn Monroe or Norma Jean, or both like I do, the biggest favour you could do for her legacy is to NOT see her as a dumb quote or a poster child for the broken, but as a complex woman who tried her best to live up to the puritanical ideals of society at large - a task she was doomed to fail as it is impossible. She was given her sex symbol status and did her best with it, but as a traumatised individual she WAS exploited and I think it is fair for this film to show that, as it is something that continues today.
I do think it is important to show the “truth” of these worlds. As a society we are fed lies about the nature of Hollywood and celebrity that don’t represent the reality of it. For many women in the studio system in Hollywood, their reality was brutal. Just look at Judy Garland, Loretta Young, Shirley Temple… the list goes on.
I don’t think Marilyn Monroe’s real life was as extreme as the film (or the book) portrays but I do think her reality was uglier than what many Marilyn Stans can bear to see and we have to ask ourselves why as a society we romanticise women’s lives like this. Why we put certain women on a pedestal and deny their humanity. Why we can only see them as sexy OR intelligent, not as a whole human being.
Women are equally guilty of this, if not more so, which is what makes Oates’ book all the more shocking. If you are looking for the misogyny at the core of this film, look to her, not the director.
Like I said: the book is worse.