“For all men tragically great are made so through a certain morbidness. Be sure of this, O young ambition, all mortal greatness is but disease.” —Herman Melville, Moby-Dick
Imagine my surprise when, as a preteen girl with a budding interest in film—for whom the galaxy of the Hollywood star system was an accessible inroad to the vast universe of cinema—I checked out Joyce Carol Oates’s 2000 novel Blonde from the library, thinking it was a straightforward biography of the mythical star.
“There came Death hurtling along the Boulevard in waning sepia light,” begins Oates’s haunting prelude. I was perplexed. I’d known that Marilyn Monroe had died young and that she’d faced a lifetime of struggle. With images of Lorelei Lee and Sugar “Kane” Kowalczyk dancing, singing, and playing ukulele in my head (these roles from Gentlemen Prefer Blondes  and Some Like It Hot , respectively, feature prominently both in Oates’s novel and Andrew Dominik’s controversial adaptation of it), I hadn’t fully comprehended the gravitas of Marilyn’s allure past the multitude of cheap clothes and home-good tchotchkes on which her face was plastered.
But just as the hazy, clip-art likenesses of Marilyn on rhinestone-studded T-shirts and aluminum signs aren’t accurate representations of the star as a person, nor is Oates’s novel or any of its adaptations. “Mr. Melville obviously lacks the realist’s conviction that the bare facts of human life are in themselves eloquent,” wrote esteemed critic and biographer Carl Van Doren in an essay on Moby-Dick for a 1924 issue of The Bookman literary journal, “and so permits himself to lean a great deal upon certain misty symbols to give his meaning its rich colors and ominous shadows.”
Rich colors certainly distinguish the meaning of Marilyn, from her bright red lipstick to the Technicolor glamor of films such as Gentlemen and the earlier Niagara (1953), as do ominous shadows. Just as death hurtles along at the beginning of Oates’s book, a montage of severe chiaroscuro shots depicting how the white light of Marilyn Monroe is illuminated against those shadows—set to the film’s correspondingly portentous score by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis—begins this controversial adaptation. New Zealand-born, Australia-based writer-director Dominik (The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford , Killing Them Softly ) started adapting Oates’s novel in 2011, with Jessica Chastain at one point attached to star as Marilyn, the part which later went to Cuban actress Ana de Armas.
What’s there left to say about why Blonde is controversial? It’s rated NC-17, the first film of its kind to be released on a streaming service; there’s nudity, sex scenes, and, most disturbing, several scenes depicting sexual and physical violence against the main character. And there’s not one but two scenes shot from inside a vagina as it’s being prepared for an abortion.
Thus some viewers have criticized the film for what it’s not and what it could never be—a revisionist history that would somehow make Marilyn’s life and legacy less sorrowful. These viewers would likely prefer that Blonde focused more on facets of her personality (or, should I say, persona; much of Blonde the novel and the film are about Marilyn Monroe the construct versus Norma Jeane the person) and career that audiences could perceive as contrary to the myth of Marilyn as a poor little rich girl whose extraordinary beauty made her susceptible to exploitation from both men and the entertainment industry at large. Many also make note of Monroe’s intellectual curiosity, pointing that out as something a less offensive text would have chosen to highlight.
Such criticism, however, is not about the film, but rather the ongoing mythology surrounding Marilyn the construct, which is inherently what Oates’s novel and Dominik’s film seek to epitomize. The former has said that Monroe is her “Moby Dick, the powerful galvanizing image about which an epic might be constructed, with myriad levels of meaning and significance.” Monroe is in turn the American public’s white whale, that which we seek to dominate and claim as our own. The discussion over depictions of Monroe are often less about the depictions themselves and more about who has the right to tell her story and what version of the story it should be.
Dominik follows his source material faithfully, altering it only by omission. (The novel is several hundred pages long, so naturally a screenwriter would need to be prudent about what to keep in and what to leave out. Joyce Chopra, for example, directed an adaptation of the novel for television in 2001, largely focusing on the same sections of the book that Dominik does with a few key differentiators). It starts at the beginning of the story, with the troubled mother of little Norma Jeane Baker planting in her daughter’s head the false hope that her absent father is actually a Hollywood titan. Those familiar with the lore will recognize the image of her supposed father hanging on the wall of the dilapidated bungalow where she and her mother reside; she grew up thinking that her father was Clark Gable, a prophetic misconception that would come full circle when she costarred with him in John Huston’s The Misfits (1961).
These parts are especially fraught. Norma Jeane’s mother, Gladys Pearl Baker (Julianne Nicholson, who’s harrowing in the turn), is shown trying to drown her daughter in a bathtub, which results in the mother being institutionalized and Norma Jeane being sent to an orphanage. The film glosses over other facets of Monroe’s early life, such as her first marriage at age 16 and when she was discovered as a pinup model for cheesecake magazines, jumping instead to her first movie audition. Before the latter event, she’s raped by the studio head (implied to be Darryl F. Zanuck from 20th Century Fox); after, she’s ghoulishly mocked during the screen test. This passage is in color, one gimmick of the film being that it’s in color when it depicts Norma Jeane and in black-and-white when it’s Marilyn. That preternatural intelligence that so many claim goes unrecognized is on display during her screen test, as she compares the script of the film she’s auditioning for to Chekhov, which prompts condescending scoffs from the male studio employees.
Nevertheless getting the part as a result of the rape, Marilyn’s star is soon on the rise. Here begins the most hallucinatory part of the film, wherein she enters into a ménage à trois with Charlie “Cass” Chaplin Jr. (Xavier Samuel) and Edward G. Robinson Jr. (Evan Williams), boys about town with daddy issues (being the sons of their respective seniors) and substance abuse problems. This sexual and emotional algebra problem eventually yields a pregnancy, something Marilyn had long yearned for; however, realizing that her mother’s mental health issues could be passed down to her child and having been offered a part in Howard Hawks’s Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, she undergoes her first abortion. The relationship between the three is perhaps the most embellished aspect of whatever parts of Marilyn’s real life exist in this allegorical rendering; she allegedly was involved with the men, but not in a sexually charged throuple as depicted in the film.
Then she meets her second husband, the Ex-Athlete, baseball legend Joe DiMaggio (Bobby Cannavale), who is possessive of Marilyn and becomes abusive toward her, especially after the stunt for Billy Wilder’s The Seven Year Itch (1955) that found her standing atop a subway grate, letting her white dress blow up in front of thousands of onlookers. Next comes her relationship with The Playwright, Arthur Miller (Adrien Brody, excellent in the role), who appeals to Marilyn’s intellectual side; he seems genuinely interested in her notes on his play After the Fall. They soon wed, and a relationship that seems idyllic becomes fraught after Marilyn suffers a miscarriage of their much-wanted child.
Now in an emotional free fall and separated from Miller, Marilyn enters into an affair with President John F. Kennedy, which becomes the symbol of her impending demise. She’s brutally assaulted by the president, then forced to have an abortion against her will, all leading up to the day Death comes knocking with its special delivery.
NC-17, 166 min.
Streaming on Netflix
I’d argue that Blonde exists independently of some criticisms that have been leveled against it but not that it’s always a good film. One can’t deny the boldness of Dominik’s artistic choices. The visual delineations between Norma Jeane and Marilyn Monroe, for example, are successful, even striking. Other choices, like the frequent shifts in aspect ratio, are ambitious but not as affecting.
Some are outright disastrous, as in multiple sequences where what looks like a 3D ultrasound of a baby does a Malickian song and dance in an attempt to impart the meaning of life upon its poor, defenseless mother. Shots during the honeymoon phase of Miller and Monroe’s marriage (meant to mimic real-life photographs of the two) are almost unbearably schmaltzy, especially as Cave and Ellis’s nightmarishly ethereal score plays alongside it.
Naturally the question of whether Dominik, a male director, is qualified to depict such specifically female issues has arisen. I can’t make a case for the film being feminist one way or the other, if only because that isn’t the point. Dominik’s depiction of Marilyn’s suffering, excessive though it may be, is aggressively confrontational in such a way that some have termed broaching on torture porn. An alternate viewpoint could be that it’s intentionally repellant at times to underscore the depths of her hardship. I can’t help but think that in many ways it’s us, the viewers, who are still asking too much of Marilyn: we want to acknowledge her pain, but not too much, attempting to forge a balance that may not have existed. Perhaps we want Marilyn to have been a certain way in spite of her pain, which represents yet another projection onto the eternally blank slate.
We search not for the real Marilyn Monroe but the idea of Marilyn that conforms with our respective image of her. Thus the demand that such an undertaking be wholly representative is difficult at best, hypocritical at worst. “Blonde . . . is a work of fiction and imagination,” writes literary critic Elaine Showalter in a review of the novel, “and Oates plays with, rearranges, and invents the details of Monroe’s life in order to achieve a deeper poetic and spiritual truth.” Whether or not Oates and Dominik succeeded in doing so is, like the mythos of Marilyn, ultimately a matter of personal interpretation, of belief in one’s conviction. To again quote Moby-Dick: “Let faith oust fact; let fancy oust memory; I look deep down and do believe.”