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‘Marilyn Monroe was never respected. Not in her lifetime. She was consumed’

Is Andrew Dominik’s controversial biopic the latest act of exploitation of the star’s life?

Last May, Kim Kardashian took part in a red carpet turn requiring preparations and manoeuvres that would put most military operations to shame.

In order to wear the most expensive dress in the world, a garment that had sold for $4.8 million at auction in 2016, and was later acquired by Ripley’s Believe It Or Not Museum, Kardashian changed in a specially erected tent, paused for photographers, ascended the steps into the Met Ball, and then quickly changed back into a replica of the gown.

That outfit, embellished with more than 6,000 crystals, is valued for its historical worth rather than its sheer fabric and many gems.

It’s the dress that Marilyn Monroe wore to sing “Happy Birthday, Mr President” in front of John F Kennedy in 1962.


In the same month that Kardashian took that frock out for a rare airing, Warhol’s 1964 screen-print image of Monroe, became the most expensive piece of 20th-century art at auction, with a $195 million price tag.

Some 60 years after Marilyn Monroe’s death, the star of Some Like It Hot and Gentlemen Prefer Blondes remains something more than a movie icon. The subject of Blonde, the latest screen iteration of her short tragic life, is as voguish now as she was when cartoonist Don Wright depicted the Earth weeping following her death in August, 1962.

“There is something about her,” says Ana de Armas, who plays the title role in Blonde. “Because she had no boundaries, people feel close to her. It was so emotional for me. It took so much of myself to be that every day for nine weeks. My own feelings and exhaustion, and everything would kind of blend with exactly what the character was going through. I feel like all her emotions had to be just under the skin and very palpable. It was a lot but it was incredible to experience. The kind of opportunity that as an actor you don’t get. To put yourself there and just go with it and be fearless.”

“She has something you can’t name,” suggests Julianne Nicholson, who plays Monroe’s emotionally unbalanced mother, Gladys. “She still attracts fascination. I think it was her beauty. I think it was the people that she was connected to in her life. I think you couldn’t put her in one box. And then, of course, when someone dies at such a young age, they live in that beauty for all time. You don’t see them age and get wrinkles and have more failed marriages.”

I worked with Ana de Armas and I was completely blown away by her work and her interpretation of this character

In addition to the thousands of documentaries and biographies that have covered Monroe’s abusive childhood, three failed marriages, and a career beset with predators, she has been the inspiration for at least three operas, hundreds of songs, graphic novels, paintings, and around a dozen plays, including the semi-autobiographical After the Fall and Finishing the Picture, as written by Monroe’s former husband, Arthur Miller. She’s the inspiration for everything from Elton John’s song Candle in the Wind to Nicolas Roeg’s film Insignificance to Pauline Boty’s 1963 painting The Only Blonde in the World.

“I think at the crux of it, she was a struggling artist,” says Adrien Brody, who plays Arthur Miller in Blonde. “Anyone with any sensitivity can see that. Artists understand that struggle. All artists struggle. Look at Van Gogh. He’s probably the most pre-eminent artist of his time but didn’t sell one work during his life. And his brother was an art dealer.

“He didn’t experience the glory and in a way Marilyn Monroe didn’t either because she was lost in mental and emotional suffering. Anyone who’s genuinely in the business for the right reasons — a compulsion to create and make work in whatever capacity — understands her yearning and her plight. And you know, in spite of all of that, she’s created this vast amount of work. She’s managed to be one of the most enduring cultural icons today. That is a remarkable achievement. Whether it brought her a sense of fulfilment or not is another matter.”

Following on from Joyce Chopra’s underrated 2001 miniseries, Andrew Dominik’s Blonde is the second adaptation of the 2000 novel by Joyce Carol Oates. Hovering (sometimes disconcertingly) between fact and flights of fancy, Blonde is a fictionalised account of the life of Marilyn Monroe. It’s a method that the author has used, controversially and repeatedly. In her novella, Black Water, she chronicles the events around the drowning at Chappaquiddick of Mary Jo Kopechne in a car driven by senator Edward Kennedy; in My Sister, My Love, she reimagines the JonBenét Ramsey murder, as narrated by JonBenét’s renamed surviving older brother, Skyler Rampike.

Most of Blonde is told in a third person narrative that follows Norma Jeane, the abused, abandoned child who grows up to be a pin-up and later a movie star. Several fig leaves held over history. Monroe’s real-life first husband, merchant marine James Dougherty, is transformed into Bucky Glazer, a Lockheed employee.

Later, after an early career defined by exploitation and degradation, herHollywood peers are vaguely anonymised: Tony Curtis becomes “C” and Ava Gardner is “the Rat Beauty”. Lovers and husbands are trade descriptions. Joe Di Maggio, Arthur Miller, and JFK, are respectively referred to as “the Ex-Athlete”, “the Playwright”, and “the President”.

“It’s kind of a split responsibility,” says Brody. “Because it is based on a real human being. At times, you feel torn because the story is an adaptation of a wonderful best-selling novel and it’s clearly a fictionalised interpretation of their relationship. But it’s about two people who had a relationship. Andrews is a remarkable filmmaker. I think he made an incredible film. To be immersed in that is its own kind of safety, even if you’re conflicted about certain things. I worked with Ana de Armas and I was completely blown away by her work and her interpretation of this character. When I left the set after the first time we worked together, I felt like I had had the privilege of working with Marilyn Monroe.”

Fictionalising history is a precarious business. Writing in The New York Times on the release of Joyce Carol Oates’s novel, Michiko Kakutani denounced Blonde for “playing to readers’ voyeuristic interest in a real-life story while using the liberties of a novel to tart up the facts”. Dominik is aware that his film is, to some extent, in keeping with the industry that has sprang up around Monroe’s tragic life.

“Our movie is a rescue fantasy, just like every other thing that’s ever been written about Marilyn Monroe,” says Dominik. “It’s a rescue fantasy to protect her. And even the people that would object to me saying it’s a rescue fantasy; they want to rescue her from me. That is the meaning of Marilyn Monroe, right? And that’s what the film is about. It’s about the meaning of Marilyn Monroe. It’s not about the person. It’s about the psychology of all of us, the person within and the person without.

“I think many people triangulate the world. There’s a victim, a perpetrator, and a rescuer, right? It’s a way that’s how we think and negotiate our relationships with each other. It’s not the right way to think. But it’s the way that the majority of people do think. There’s clearly something wrong with the rescue fantasy. Because it ends badly. Just like the movie ends badly. Blonde is a cautionary tale. It’s not a recipe for how to live life.”

Long before Blonde premiered at this year’s Venice Film Festival, the film was generating headlines, speculation, and a degree of derision. The first movie released by Netflix with an NC-17 rating — handed down in the US presumably as a result of a rape scene, a forced and bloody abortion, and a womb POV shot — began filming in 2019 and has been subject to Covid delays.

Even the pre-production period was epic. Dominik struggled for most of a decade to get the project off the ground before “discovering” de Armas in Eli Roth’s thriller Knock Knock.

De Armas worked with a vocal coach for nine months to approximate Monroe’s baby-doll voice, but, when the trailer dropped, that didn’t prevent an onslaught of online criticism aimed at her occasionally audible Cuban accent.

Marc Rosen, president of entertainment at Authentic Brands Group, which owns the Marilyn Monroe Estate, countered the disquiet with a press statement: “Any actor that steps into that role knows they have big shoes to fill. Based on the trailer alone, it looks like Ana was a great casting choice as she captures Marilyn’s glamour, humanity, and vulnerability. We can’t wait to see the film in its entirety!”

For de Armas’ part, she insists that — despite several high profile deepfake sequences that place her in scenes from Some Like It Hot and All About Eve — she was playing Norma Jeane rather than Marilyn Monroe.

“She herself didn’t feel like she was this person,” says de Armas. “She didn’t have a feeling of certainty and security or that she was owning this character. She was always talking about Marilyn as a third person. I think for the most part I was playing Norma Jeane. And then there are moments where she has to play the part, like when she smiles at the mirror. Only those moments are Marilyn.”

Ana de Armas remains convinced that she felt Monroe’s presence during production, even dreaming entire conversations with the star

In 2021, Netflix reportedly declined to screen Blonde at the Cannes film festival, due to France’s strict theatrical window. “Netflix doesn’t want to come to Cannes ... they want to (play) in competition but films that are part of the competition must be released in France,” explained festival director Thierry Frémaux in June 2021.

Industry insiders have variously reported that the streaming giant was unhappy with Blonde’s adult content and that Tenet editor Jennifer Lame was called in to tone down the final cut. Other commentators have suggested that Netflix was more concerned with the film’s inaccessible experimentalism.

Blonde, which features a talking foetus and a threesome distorted into a series of mirrored streaks, is certainly the most art house film yet from the director of The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. Dominik had no interest in crafting a linear or straightforward account of his subject’s life, but rather aimed to capture the duality of Oates’s novel, in which Norma Jeane is simultaneously herself, “the Blonde Actress,” “Marilyn” and a debased impostor called the Beggar Maid.

“The film is concerned with creating the experience for the viewer of being another person, of having another person’s experience of life,” says the director. “It explores Norma Jeane’s relationship with herself and with this other thing, Marilyn, which is both her armour and something that is threatening to destroy her. The thing about Marilyn is that she was self-created. The studio didn’t push her. (20th Century Fox founder, Daryl F) Zanuck hated her. So she cultivated relationships with photographers. She would get them to take pictures of her and she became a pin-up girl who was in magazines all the time.

“She started getting fan mail. And then the studio had to pay attention. And then they had to work out what to do with her. They tried to make her into like a femme fatale, like the castrating female in Niagara. That didn’t work. It was Howard Hawks who basically said, no, this girl is like ice cream; you’ve got to make her a little baby -oll thing. At a certain point, the machine takes over, and then she finds herself inside of it. Things are happening around her. She wanted to be taken seriously. She wanted to be a serious actress. She wanted respect as an actress. And she was never respected. Not in her lifetime. She was consumed.”

Dominik’s fictionalised adaptation of a fictionalised account entails further distortions, several of which underscore the ethical difficulties inherent in the source novel. “It’s hard not to see Blonde as a chronicle of exploitation and abuse which merrily carries on the tradition,” writes Fionnuala Halligan of the new film in Screen International; “It’s not that Andrew Dominik has made an implausible film about the experience of a poor young beauty haunted by fears of madness who was chewed up by the Hollywood machine,” says Sophie Monks Kaufman at Indiewire; “The issue is that he has made a film inspired by Marilyn Monroe where she is monotonously characterised as a victim.”

In condensing Oates’s 700-page-plus novel, the movie loses a lot of Marilyn. While Oates’ s novel doesn’t list off the 400 books on Monroe’s shelves — featuring everyone from Samuel Beckett to Sigmund Freud — the author does touch on Monroe’s love of literature and her politics. (In 1960, Monroe became a founding member of the Hollywood Committee for a Sane Nuclear Policy; she was elected as an alternate delegate to California’s Democratic caucus, where she spoke of her pro-Castro views on Cuba.)

In Dominik’s film, Monroe’s intellectual commitment to Lee and Paula Strasberg’s acting “Method” is dismissed by one character as akin to “watching a mental patient”. Her inner turmoil is articulated in cries and screams. Her childhood with Gladys makes the final cut and, in common with the source material, translates into the most powerful scenes in the movie.

But her years at an orphanage, her first marriage, and her early career as a model are excised completely. Elsewhere, her death scene is radically altered and Oates’s imagined three-way liaison between Marilyn, Charles Chaplin jnr and Edward G. Robinson Jr is reworked to demonise the two men.

Various surviving family members from various estates, including the Kennedys and Chaplins, are unlikely to turn out as fans.

“I think the book actually deals with Cass Chaplin and Eddy for like 70 per cent of it almost,” says Dominik. “And then the other marriages are a lot more compacted. I guess it’s instinctive that you just go with what feels urgent. I wasn’t really interested in the early marriage, and teenage years, and all that sort of stuff. I wanted to detail the childhood trauma and then I wanted to show an adult life through the lens of that trauma.”

He pauses: “I’m always on her side.”

de Armas remains convinced that she felt Monroe’s presence during production, even dreaming entire conversations with the star. Dominik suggests that the cast and crew could “... feel her dust all over” the Los Angeles-based shoot.

“I truly believe that she was very close to us,” says de Armas. “She was all I thought about, she was all I dreamed about, she was all I could talk about. She was with me and it was beautiful. I think she was happy. Being in the same places that she was, filming in her house, it was a very strong sensation there was something in the air and I think she was approving of what we were doing.”

Blonde is at the Irish Film Institute from Friday, September 23rd, until Wednesday, September 28th; it will also be available on Netflix from September 28th

Tara Brady

Tara Brady

Tara Brady, a contributor to The Irish Times, is a writer and film critic