Self-determined. Body positive. Wake up.
These adjectives were not common in Hollywood in the 1950s at the height of actor Marilyn Monroe’s career.
More often labeled a “blonde bombshell” or “sex symbol”, she actually bucked some of the mid-20th century social trends that still affect today – and that’s 60 years after she succumbed to a overdose of barbiturates on August 5. 1962.
On September 28, Netflix’s Monroe biopic “Blonde” hits the streaming platform in Europe, Australia and beyond.
After premiering at the 2022 Venice Film Festival and releasing in cinemas in the US on September 16 and the UK on September 23, many critics have already celebrated the film, and in particular the performance of the principal, of Cuban origin, Ana de Armas.
Other reviewers, including the Chicago Sun Times, called it “too long” and “overworked” and lamented that the film “paints the life of Marilyn Monroe as a joyless nightmare”.
But Ana de Armas, the latest actor to portray the troubled Hollywood icon, has been widely hailed. American Entertainment Press Briefing Variety wrote that she “gives us nothing less than what we came for. She becomes Marilyn Monroe.” During this time, the Guardian newspaper called the Cuban actress “simply extraordinary” in the role.
Fiction, not a biopic
“Blonde” recreated scenes from iconic Marilyn Monroe films – including the moment the star stood above a subway ventilation duct that whipped her white dress. The star’s wardrobe was also faithfully recreated for the film.
But the film is mostly fictional, borrowing its title from – and inspired by – the 2000 novel by American author Joyce Carol Oates. This Monroe story is an attempt to drive the wedge between the private Norma Jeane Mortenson (Monroe’s birth name) and the Marilyn figure she created.
Writer and director Andrew Dominik (“Killing Them Softly”) said he wanted “Blonde” to play out the tension between Monroe’s inner life and the “collective memory” of her.
Beyond the Two-Dimensional Character
With her mother struggling with mental health issues and her father’s identity unknown, Norma Jeane Mortenson grew up in foster homes where she was sexually abused.
Monroe’s troubled private life has been thoroughly dissected over the decades: failed marriages, miscarriages and abortions, drug addiction, rumors of affairs with movie studio bigwigs, as well as the Kennedy brothers.
Professionally, her looks, her breathy voice — a strategy suggested by a speech therapist for overcoming a stutter — and the sexually-focused roles she’s landed, have reduced her to a two-dimensional persona who primarily delights in male fantasies.
One of the film’s most shocking scenes involves Monroe being raped by John F. Kennedy, with whom she allegedly had a consensual affair.
Although there is no official record of this abuse, the scene highlights Monroe’s victimization and debasement as a sex object.
American news site The daily beast called the sequence “the most horrifying scene in the film”, after dubbing the biopic “a horror spectacle filled with disturbing imagery”.
Such scenes are likely what led to the NC-17 rating, which the de Armas actress told the French fashion magazine The Official, which she disagreed with.
“I can tell you about a number of shows or movies that are much more explicit with a lot more sexual content than ‘Blonde’,” she said. “But to tell this story, it’s important to show all those moments in Marilyn’s life that ended the way she did. It had to be explained. Everyone [in the cast] knew we had to go to uncomfortable places. I wasn’t the only one.”
An unlikely feminist icon
In the decades following Monroe’s death, she was considered a feminist icon. Originally held up as an example of the need for feminism to counter the sexual exploitation and objectification of women, it has since gained recognition for its own claims of self-determination.
Long before Facebook boss Sheryl Sandberg pushed women to “lean in” and claim their rightful place at the executive table, Monroe had already warmed the seat.
Signed to Twentieth Century Fox, she had grown tired of “dumb blonde” roles and wanted more say in the scripts and roles she took on. She established Marilyn Monroe Productions in 1955, becoming the second woman in the United States, after Mary Pickford, to start her own production company.
After numerous legal wrangles, Monroe and the movie company reached a deal that saw her successfully negotiate back pay, higher pay and a role in selecting screenplays, directors and cinematographers. – a rare victory for an actress at the time.
She called dating #MeToo
In “Wolves I Have Known”, an article Monroe wrote for the January 1953 issue of Film and television magazineshe denounced the sexual harassment that was rampant in Hollywood at the time.
Describing the men in the industry, the then 27-year-old wrote: “There are many kinds of wolves. Some are sinister, some are just good-time Charlies trying to get something for nothing. and others make a game out of it.”
Meanwhile, she was unapologetic about her curves and embracing her sexuality in a way once considered the antithesis of feminism. Today, she is considered a pioneer of body positivity.
Marilyn woke up
His quick wit and informed views on politics and social justice were also often overlooked. One of her most mentioned acts of self-awareness was when she used her fame to allow jazz star Ella Fitzgerald to perform at a club that initially refused to hire her.
Mocambo’s club management apparently thought Fitzgerald lacked the glamor to perform in the Hollywood hot spot. Monroe urged club owner Charlie Morrison to book Fitzgerald and, in return, promised to personally attend every show and sit front row.
Monroe was an “eternal shape-shifter” whose “multiple transformations allow each generation, indeed each individual, to create a Marilyn to their own specifications,” wrote one of Monroe’s biographers, Lois Banner, a history professor and of gender studies at the University of Southern California.
Despite her fictional origins, “Blonde” dwells on the complex character of a superstar who still resonates with audiences 60 years after her death.
This is an updated version of an article originally published on August 4, 2022.