By Zach Terrillion
1 hour and 45 minutes into Blonde, Netflix’s new 2 hour and 46 minute fictionalized biography of Marilyn Monroe, I hit a revelation. It was like the giant STOP sign that, quite subtly, encourages Monroe in the film to not get rid of her baby. A flip of the brain. A deus ex machina. A rage-quit. In the scene, Marilyn stumbles upon the typewriter of her then-husband, playwright Arthur Miller. On the typewriter is a page of dialogue recounting a conversation between the two. In it, she asks her husband to never write about her. He asks, “why?” She says, “it’s what people do. Sometimes. Writers.”
In this scene, she is reprimanding the media system. The one that picks and prods apart her every joy and pain. That casts her out into the predatory court of public opinion. It’s a violation she’s aware of and wants to stop. Supposedly, the movie wants it to stop too. The issue, I realized, is that director Andrew Dominik is pulling the very act Marilyn fears. He does “what people do.” Exploit.
At first glance, Blonde is one of many new models on a conveyor belt of biopics. It comes out only a few months after this summer’s Elvis. We’ve got one on Queen, Elton John, Tammy Faye, and another for Whitney Houston this December. The 2-hour job that puts a famous actor in thick make-up and assembles some clips for the Oscars ceremony. Some are pretty good. Some are god-awful. And then there’s Marilyn.
The drama’s reception has been polarizing, to say the least. In a state of production hell since 2019, it premiered this year at the Venice Film Festival to a 14-minute standing ovation. Reception by the general public has not been as warm, with the film receiving a brutal 2.1/5 rating on Letterboxd, a worse rating than Tommy Wiseau’s The Room (and honestly good for The Room). Much publicity about the biopic’s NC-17 rating has been raised, the first and likely last given to a Netflix film. It has been condemned by feminist critics for its graphic depictions of assault and violence against women, part of a clear “male gaze” towards a feminine icon. The graphic sequences depicting Marilyn’s abortions were also condemned by organizations like Planned Parenthood for pushing an anti-choice narrative.
It’s just so much. This hype, good or bad, has attached a meaning to the film beyond its bloated runtime. I admit I walked into it with some bias. I’d scrolled through the online draggings. I read the cringe-inducing interview with Andrew Dominik, who claimed the classic film Gentlemen Prefer Blondes was about “well-dressed whores.” To review it, I’d still need some journalistic integrity. It’s worth mentioning Dominik’s film isn’t technically a biography but rather an adaptation of a novel by Joyce Carol Oates. About 90 percent of what happens in this movie didn’t happen in real life, a lot even for the average “Hollywoodized” story.
When viewed with an open mind, the movie still sucks. However, I’ll politely make some time for the good. Ana de Armas proves her critics wrong by giving the best possible performance with what she’s given. The resemblance is uncanny when she reenacts Marilyn’s most famous snapshots. Her child-like innocence gives way to lighting bolts of fury and the most upsetting breakdowns you can imagine.
The filmmaking itself makes some bold choices that somehow worked for me. The polyamorous relationship Marilyn shares with two men is elevated by some neat warping that I can only describe as a spicy funhouse mirror. A lengthy sex scene of Marilyn and her boyfriends is bookmarked by their naked bodies lying on top of Niagra Falls (no, seriously). The sound design is precise, with the chaos and paranoia of Marilyn’s celebrity channeled into her fan’s piercing screams and the cameras’ harsh snaps.
Ok. Now for why this movie doesn’t work. The whole time I watched it, I could only think of a similar film. 2021’s take on Princess Diana, Pablo Larraín’s Spencer, starring Kristen Stewart. Both movies center on pop culture icons and are more impressionistic, taking more interest in the psychology of the leads than providing a Wikipedia summary of their lives. They also both star Stan Twitter girl crushes. Neither Blonde nor Spencer shy away from the darker aspects of the lead’s life. Marilyn constantly deals with disgusting studio moguls, domestic violence, and mental illness. K-Stew’s Diana must deal with eating disorders, mental struggles, and being married to Prince (King?) Charles.
Both films feature scenes that are hard to digest, showing the living hell that these young women lived. What makes these scenes work in Spencer is their balance with happier moments. For every surreal and horrific encounter between Diana and the royals, we also get a sweeter interaction with her young sons. Larraín’s film makes room for joy. For tragedy to be tragedy, you need to have some comedy too. You must develop nuanced characters- build them up, tear them down later, and perhaps build them up again. That is how real life works. It has its ups and downs.
Blonde completely fails at this balance. There are very few scenes where Marilyn is truly happy. For the ones where she is, Dominik is sure to swiftly slide in a new slice of trauma porn for his audience to eat and then spit out. She suffers and suffers, with the movie ending in her drawn-out death. There is little mention of her positive and healthy relationships. Her sense of humor. Her activism. Dominik clearly wanted a raw profile of the star, but that profile needed to have more layers. It’s way too simple to say someone was just miserable all their life, especially when most of it was made up here for shock value. Suffering doesn’t always mean depth.
By focusing just on Marilyn’s struggle, Blonde also strips its star of all agency and control over her story. Marilyn becomes a star to find her birth father- a supposed Hollywood actor who’ll return one day, in his words, “to claim her.” Her entire “character” depends on the approval of a man who is revealed to not even exist, a made-up story from her disturbed mother. Marilyn’s fixation makes her submissive and hysterical. She’s the modern version of the “woman in the attic.” She lacks autonomy and goes insane like the lead of a dollar-store Almódovar movie. She has few chances to stand up against the forces that oppress her, and when she does, she’s simply screaming and crying rather than asserting. These one-note reactions also limit Ana de Armas’ performance. The actress eats, but she is given very little on her plate.
Again, Diana in Spencer endures oppression but has the opportunity to oppose that oppression and show agency. She insults her trash husband. She takes her kids away from their father for a meal at KFC. She is given a moment of happiness where she, however temporary, is free from her toxic environment. Happiness itself is rebellion. Diana’s fighting back. Her talking about personal loves for cake and musicals shows who she is beyond what she suffers. A “psychological profile” needs to have these dimensions. Blonde doesn’t. There are no deeper ambitions for Dominik’s Marilyn than the hope of resolving her father issues. To no longer call every man in her life “daddy” (yes, this is an actual plot point).
The portrayal of Monroe in Blonde reveals a deeper issue I have with biopics as a genre. They often say they hope to depict a celebrity’s life with empathy and nuance. They are tributes to their craft and influence while also wanting to de-glamourize the facade. To show how “they really lived.” This is hypocritical. The creators are already buying into the facade by making a movie about these people. Creating yet another image for the world to digest. Blonde does this as well. The movie’s tagline, “Loved by all. Seen by none,” implies it wants to show Marilyn as Marilyn, or perhaps by her birth name Norma Jeane. It doesn’t. It buys right into her mythology by giving a constantly traumatized, constantly brutalized, and constantly victimized picture of the woman. One for the public to gawk at. She’s not allowed to grow beyond this picture like Stewart’s Diana. She’s trapped in a box, a box of horrors and celebrity.
Spencer is my favorite biopic because it manages to break out of the genre’s box. It develops Diana as a character even more than as a persona. The exploration of her trauma is present, but it serves as a means of deconstructing the meaning of celebrity itself. The film argues by the end that despite all that Diana suffers, she is still “the people’s princess.” The world still loved her when no one else would. She is an icon larger than the oppression she faced. Within this strength lies the complexity of celebrity. It’s trauma, passion, privilege, but also maybe an opportunity. An opportunity to control one’s narrative, one the biopic rarely grants. Spencer is a de-glamorizing film because it takes Diana on her own terms. She was a woman above all else, and that womanhood fuels her celebrity, one also filled with nuance. Blonde and many biopics like it don’t even know what nuance means.
Overall, Blonde is exploitative, miserable, and frankly messy. It tries to be this art house character story but never captures Marilyn’s character. She deserved better. Ana de Armas deserved better. And honestly, the nearly 3 hours I spent watching it deserved better. It is the biopic box at its worst. Like Monroe says, I guess it’s just “what people do.” Quite too often for my comfort.