Trigger Warning: this article contains mentions of sexual assault, abortion, and miscarriage
With the rising interest in biopics like Spencer (2021) and Elvis (2022), it’s no surprise that one depicting 1950s actress Marilyn Monroe has just been released on Netflix. Based on the novel of the same name written by Joyce Carol Oates, Blonde is a partially fictional account of Marilyn’s life. Although Ana de Armas bears a striking resemblance to Marilyn and gives a moving performance, the portrayal of Marilyn as a woman with no authority and her almost-constant crying takes away any enjoyment from watching the film.
Blonde begins with Marilyn, originally Norma Jean, as a child with her mother Gladys (Julianne Nicholsan) who tries to drown her in a bath and is then committed to a mental hospital. This is one of many traumatic events that happen to Marilyn over the course of the film. With scenes of sexual assault, abortions, and miscarriages, there are very few moments in the film where she is happy. The film details her journey through Hollywood and her relationships, showing two failed marriages and a very unflattering depiction of her alleged affair with JFK.
The film, directed by Andrew Dominik, has been criticised for the amount of nudity shown with Marilyn often being topless for no reason relevant to the story. This unnecessary nudity reduces Marilyn to her sexuality and depicts her as vulnerable. She is often punished in the film for her nudity, especially by her husband, reinforcing the idea that Marilyn Monroe was solely a ‘sex symbol’ with no ownership of her own body. Rather than being a feminist film about an iconic woman, it feels like a perspective of Marilyn through the male gaze.
The stereotypical ‘madwoman’ trope comes into play as Marilyn is often managed by people because she is having a meltdown or is too drunk. Her depiction as ‘crazy’ prevents her from being a well-rounded character and reduces her to her mental illness. There is a focus on how exploitative Hollywood was in the 1950s with a particularly upsetting scene where Marilyn is sexually assaulted in an audition but ends up winning the part. However, the assault is brushed over as if it is something that Marilyn just had to deal with as an actress meaning there is no sense of real justice.
Despite her ‘dumb blonde’ persona Marilyn reportedly had over 400 books in her library and was very well-read. There is an attempt to show this when a character remarks “she’s nothing like I expected. She’s so well-read.” However, it is a futile attempt compared to the rest of the film with these scenes being few and far between. There is little focus on her talent as an actress and performer, but Dominik does pay homage to her more famous films with a recreation of her singing ‘Diamonds are a Girls Best Friend’ and a clip of her in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953).
Dominik’s aim with the film is unclear. It is not a feminist depiction but a version of Marilyn devoid of glamour and character, an exploited woman at the mercy of men. The cinematography, which shifts from black and white to colour, may be beautiful at times but is wasted on this portrayal of Marilyn. The constant upsetting and disturbing scenes leave audiences feeling emotionally drained with very little sense of who Marilyn really was without the context of her trauma.
Blonde is available to watch now on Netflix.