In 2010 three chest and pelvic X-rays of Marilyn Monroe sold for $45,000. Famous memorabilia will always fetch a pretty penny, but auctioning an X-ray felt extra grueling—even for someone like me, who was thrilled to have the opportunity to touch Sylvia Plath’s hair in an academic archive.
She is all gold and grotesque about the galaxy, even today. But what is often lost in mythologising is its humanity.
Monroe commands this kind of obsession because of her unique talent, iconic looks, complex personality, relationship to the cultural moment she was part of, and — yes — the trauma she experienced during her short life. But as most people hope, understand, suffering did not define Monroe’s life. To see “blonde”, however, is to see a picture of someone who experienced mostly pain and very little joy.
‘Blonde’, based on the novel by Joyce Carol Oates and directed by Andrew Dominick, is not a biography but a fictional work. (I haven’t read the 700+ page novel, but Oates seems satisfied with the adjustment.) Impressionistic, haunting and sparse, the film moves abruptly through Monroe’s life without establishing much cause and effect for anything other than childhood trauma. The result is here to convey a version of Monroe ebbing and flowing, not steering her own ship.
American culture is obsessed with appearances; nothing grabs our attention like a glossy veneer with rot underneath. Hollywood embodies this story and Monroe embodies Hollywood. She is all gold and grotesque about the galaxy, even today. But what is often lost in mythologising is her humanity, her happiness and her desire to live an extraordinary life.
It is tempting to portray her as a tragic figure in the vein of a contemporary Antigone or Cassandra in which we focus only on her suffering rather than her success. The real Monroe had the guts to break a contract with 20th Century Fox and start her own production company, which she called Marilyn Monroe Productions.
With a lesser actor in charge, this parable of fear could have been a total disaster. Ana de Armas, however, grounds the film. She fully embodies Norma Jean/Marilyn Monroe, bringing vulnerability and empathy to a character that has always been blatantly portrayed as a fantasy of suffering. De Armas’ Monroe has a calm determination that comes across, even if the film itself seems fixated on exploiting her victimhood.
“Blonde” is full of suffering. Monroe’s world is colored by sexual violence. It is one of men who lurk, rape and abuse her. When she finds rescuers, they inevitably abandon her. These men use her, their identities intermingle until, in one scene, her husband’s face, dubbed only “The Playwright” in the film, is actually scratched out, and she wonders who he is as she passes in a daze. runs. In another scene, faces distort into terrifying masks, mouths elongate into grotesque smiles. Throughout the film, she yearns for her absent father, and a revelation about him is posited as the force that ultimately pushes her to her death.
Monroe’s unrealized desire to become a mother is also a big part of the movie – as it was for her in real life. She desperately wants a child and is overjoyed every time she gets pregnant, only for every pregnancy ends under traumatic circumstances, also truewhich plunged her further into depression.
It can be powerful when women share their reproductive trauma. But in ‘Blonde’ it feels exploitative. The film unnecessarily takes us inside Monroe’s cervix, not once but twice during abortion scenes – for what reason? The cervix shots are low points in the film and feel sadistic, much like the framing of other gynecological trauma Monroe experiences (a recurring talking fetus reminds me of a low-fi anti-abortion video I may have seen in my Catholic high school).
There are glimpses of a different, more powerful kind of story in “Blond”.,” although. The scenes where Monroe practices her craft on acting studios are some of the most powerful – allowing Monroe to be seen as an artist of uncanny talent and passion.
In these creative agency moments, Monroe shows that she is a genius and a hard worker. She is committed to her art and that gives her life meaning. However, these glimpses are limited. In a telling episode, Monroe apparently presents a monologue that brings the initially unimpressed playwright to tears – but the audience can’t watch her recite. We see The Playwright’s reaction, not the acting that touched him so deeply.
I’m not saying that movies about Marilyn Monroe should be filled with butterflies and sunshine, or that art should never be difficult or emotionally disruptive. Rather, I say it’s important to honor every part of this woman’s life, even in a movie based on fiction. Instead of just hanging on her body with pain, stick on her body with force as well. Embrace a more holistic story. Scenes that show Monroe alive and loving her life — gardening, playing on the beach — are some of the most moving parts of the film.
We’re ultimately left with a bleak vision of Monroe’s life, albeit one that, perhaps because of De Armas’s acting more than the script itself, is still influential. How much more moving and thought-provoking this film could have been if it had kept Monroe’s trauma in its true proportion rather than blowing it up in yet another portrait of exploitation.