Within the Merciless Blonde, How Much of This Marilyn Monroe Is Real?

Spoilers below.

Imitation, a flattery, mustn’t all the time be met with ire. Sometimes mimicry is powerful, even transcendent; that is occasionally the case with Ana de Armas’ performance as Marilyn Monroe in Andrew Dominik’s much-derided latest film, Blonde.

But it surely is on this power that a certain responsibility resides within the hands of the imitator—and, on this case, the one directing the imitator. To approximate an actual person is to approach a sacred image; to twist and warp it’s a risk. To twist and warp it without empathy or precision? That’s negligence.


That is where the defense of Blonde as a “fictionalization” of Monroe’s life falls apart. The film, based on a very-much-fictional novel by Joyce Carol Oates, doesn’t purport to be a biopic. As an alternative it evokes the shroud of a tall tale, as a way to justify whatever decisions Dominik deemed appropriate for a singular interpretation of a singular star. Blonde’s status as fiction, by that measure, necessitates wild deviations and omissions from Monroe’s real life: The film includes multiple graphic scenes of rape, abortion, and oral sex; CGI close-ups of a talking fetus and a cervix pulled open via speculum; the gurgling sounds of a young girl nearly drowned in a tub; and the inclusion of the words “baby,” “daddy,” and “slut” in claustrophobic proximity.

True, to disclaim that Monroe was a tragic figure could be to conjure one other fiction. The Gentlemen Prefer Blondes star’s story is uniquely, oppressively sad—lots of essentially the most well known portions of her biography are painful—and to disregard this in a movie could be similarly negligent. But to disclaim Monroe most, if not all, of her joy, her wit, her strength—not to say the scraps of autonomy she wrested out of a white-knuckled industry—is an offense to Monroe and to the lady playing her. De Armas does the most effective she will be able to to embody an actual human being in Blonde’s more introspective moments: When given the chance, she soars throughout the film’s spellbinding cinematography and uncanny replications of real-life Monroe photographs. But there are too many scenes through which she’s asked only to shrivel and shriek and bleed and vomit as she’s dragged and batted between set pieces, and so the image audiences are left with is one in every of Monroe as little greater than a doll. How horrific, to be remembered just for one’s darkest moments, not a pinprick of hope forged over your corpse.

Alas, Blonde is fiction. And fictionalization is fantastic, even effective, when audiences have the tools to discern between reality and fabrication. But all too often, audiences lack these tools; and within the case of Monroe particularly, the small print of her life and death are already the topic of decades-spanning debate. Few, especially those of younger generations, might know the actual Monroe beyond Andy Warhol’s famous portrait, or perhaps her much-discussed performance of “Completely happy Birthday, Mr. President.” (Especially after Kim Kardashian wore the late star’s dress to the Met Gala.) Subsequently, an audience’s query when watching Blonde may not be, “What directorial goals necessitated a narrative change from real-life events?” but as a substitute, “Is that this what really happened?”

ana de armas as marilyn monroe beside the real marilyn monroe

Left to right: Ana de Armas as Marilyn Monroe; the actual Marilyn Monroe reading.

Netflix/Getty Images

Fictionalization should be intentional; it can’t be used as rationale to exercise complete creative freedom over an actual person’s life. Dominik has attempted multiple defenses of his treatment of Monroe in Blonde: In a viral interview with Sight and Sound author Christina Newland, he argued the film represents “the sensation of being inside any individual’s anxious thought process,” and that it’s “speculated to leave you shaking.” But perhaps most telling is when he says, “She killed herself. Now, to me, that’s an important thing. It’s not the remainder. It’s not the moments of strength.” (In a separate interview with Vanity Fair, he says, “There’s nothing sentimental here. Seeing the raw trauma within the film humanizes her.”)

But then he seems to contradict his own point (that witnessing Monroe’s trauma—and only her trauma—is “necessary”) by adding, “Individuals who make movies are likely to think they’re incredibly necessary. But it surely’s only a movie about Marilyn Monroe.”

That is such a nihilistic perspective on the treatment of an individual’s actual life events that it seems manufactured to elicit rage. (And, on Twitter, it definitely did.) I haven’t any issue with the provocative nature of Blonde, only in the way it eschews humanity to be provocative.

Perhaps critic Bilge Ebiri was correct when he wrote, in his Vulture review of Blonde, that—since the film is fictional—“it’d be hard to provide you with any biographic timeline from it. (And if one did, it’d likely be incorrect.)” Most accounts of Monroe’s life are incomplete, if not outright speculative. But it surely seems crass, within the wake of Blonde’s release on Netflix, not to handle a few of the questions on the real-life Monroe that a startled audience is likely to be left with. That seems, on the very least, a dignity she was not afforded within the film.

Below, a few of Blonde’s most pertinent plot questions—and the way they compare to the actual, dazzling Norma Jeane Mortenson’s story.

Was Marilyn Monroe’s mother abusive?

The kid referred to as Norma Jeane Mortenson was born to Gladys Pearl Baker nèe Monroe in 1926, in Los Angeles, California. She never knew her father, whom DNA testing later revealed to be the Consolidated Film Industries worker Charles Stanley Gifford, whom Baker had a relationship with while working as a movie negative cutter.

Through much of her young life, Monroe lived in foster homes and orphanages, particularly after Baker suffered a mental break in 1934, was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia, and was committed to a state hospital. (The circumstances around this breakdown were complex, nevertheless it seems likely that the lack of Baker’s son and grandfather in quick succession contributed to her mental state.) There isn’t any concrete evidence that Baker abused Monroe in the style depicted within the film (attempted drowning, etc.), nevertheless it is true that Baker was unstable and that her relationship with Monroe was perpetually one tinged with pain and abandonment.

It has also been reported that, during her time staying with family friends and foster parents Grace Goddard and Erwin “Doc” Goddard, a young Monroe was sexually abused. Film became Monroe’s escape, as she told Life in 1962: “A few of my foster families used to send me to the flicks to get me out of the home, and there I’d sit all day and way into the night.”

Was Marilyn Monroe in a threesome?

In Blonde, Monroe engages in a threesome with Charlie “Cass” Chaplin Jr. and Edward “Eddy” G. Robinson Jr., a gaggle which refers to themselves as “the Geminis.” Although these men each existed in Monroe’s real circle, the inclusion in Blonde serves mainly to elicit lurid fascination, and there’s no evidence Monroe participated in the same threesome in point of fact. A temporary affair between Chaplin Jr. and Monroe was rumored and discussed in each the biography Goddess: The Secret Lives of Marilyn Monroe and Chaplin Jr.’s own book, My Father, Charlie Chaplin, but there isn’t any evidence that Monroe’s supposed relationship with Chaplin Jr. overlapped with a romance with Robinson Jr., and definitely not that the three participated in an affair together. (Nor was an alleged romance with Robinson Jr. ever confirmed.)

adrien brody and ana de armas as arthur miller and marilyn monroe beside the real playwright and actress

Left to right: Adrien Brody and Ana de Armas as Arthur Miller and Marilyn Monroe; the actual Miller and Monroe.

Netflix/Getty Images

Did Marilyn Monroe have miscarriages?

Monroe’s troubled attempts to change into a mother are well-documented, and it’s true that she experienced multiple miscarriages and an ectopic pregnancy, likely as a consequence of her endometriosis. Nonetheless, the miscarriage depicted in Blonde—through which she stumbles on the beach, falls on her stomach, and miscarries—is fictional.

Did Marilyn Monroe have abortions?

There isn’t any confirmed report that Monroe had an abortion, let alone two abortions forced upon the non-consenting actress, as depicted in Blonde. It’s, after all, very possible that Monroe might need actually chosen to undergo abortion procedures that went unreported; these procedures were commonplace enough in 1920-50s Hollywood that an anonymous actress referred to them as “our contraception,” per Vanity Fair.

During these years, Hollywood pregnancies—especially those experienced by bombshell actresses—were considered a detriment to studio profits, and due to this fact studios introduced “morality clauses” into their contracts with these actresses. The clauses meant that pregnancies would violate studio policy, which in turn led to abortion becoming practically commonplace in Hollywood’s most storied halls.

As VF reported, “Within the heyday of the Hollywood studio system, women were at their most desirable and their strongest—nevertheless it still didn’t afford them the best to decide on when it got here to governing their bodies. Hollywood’s production codes prolonged to women’s reproduction.” It’s a shame that what was (and is) such a pertinent women’s rights issue in Hollywood is examined with such little nuance in Blonde.

Did Marilyn Monroe’s husband, Joe DiMaggio, abuse her?

This is maybe one in every of the areas where Blonde adheres most to fact, in that quite a few reports confirm Monroe’s second husband, the baseball star Joe DiMaggio, was jealous and abusive. He disliked his wife’s image as a sex symbol for public consumption, but he also expected her to stop working and change into a full-time housewife. In keeping with Monroe’s friend and fellow actor Brad Dexter, she told him, “[DiMaggio] doesn’t need to learn about my business. He doesn’t need to learn about my work as an actress. He doesn’t want me to associate with any of my friends. He desires to cut me off completely from my whole world of motion pictures, friends, and artistic people who I do know.”

When she participated in a famous publicity stunt for her film The Seven 12 months Itch—through which Monroe stood above a subway grate for a several-hour photo shoot, attracting an audience of 1000’s—DiMaggio was livid, and inside months the couple divorced.

bobby cannavale and ana de armas as joe dimaggio and marilyn monroe next to monroe and dimaggio in real life

Left to right: Bobby Cannavale and Ana de Armas as Joe DiMaggio and Marilyn Monroe; Monroe and DiMaggio in real life.

Netflix/Getty Images

What about her third husband, Arthur Miller?

Monroe met the famous playwright Arthur Miller within the early Fifties, but their relationship only became serious after Monroe’s divorce from DiMaggio was final and Miller had separated from his own wife. On the time, Miller was under investigation from the FBI for supposed ties to communism; he had been a vocal opponent of the Vietnam War in addition to a supporter of civil rights. A 1951 FBI report identified Miller as an informant “under Community Party discipline” within the Thirties, in keeping with The Associated Press, and a Party member within the Nineteen Forties. Miller denied this report, saying that in 1940 and again in 1947 he was “sufficiently near Communist Party activities so that somebody might truthfully have thought that I had change into a member.”

Whatever the extent of Miller’s involvement, the eye—through the height of McCarthyism—led studios to induce Monroe to finish her relationship with Miller. She refused, selecting as a substitute to support Miller (an motion that “helped to maintain him out of prison,” per The Guardian), and so the FBI opened a file on her as well. The bureau ultimately found that “the topic’s views are very positively and concisely leftist; nonetheless, if she is being actively utilized by the Communist Party, it is just not general knowledge amongst those working with the movement in Los Angeles.” The couple had a Jewish wedding ceremony, and Monroe converted to Judaism. They were captivated with one another’s minds; The Guardian reports that Miller saw Monroe “as a revolutionary idealist.”

Little to none of that is depicted in Blonde. What’s depicted is Miller’s fascination with Monroe as a muse, her miscarriage—or at the least a version of it—and his co-opting of her words and likeness for his writing.

Did Marilyn Monroe call men “daddy”?

Perhaps some of the cringe-inducing narrative decisions Blonde makes is the choice to have De Armas’ Monroe call every man in her life “daddy,” an on-the-nose allusion to her daddy issues. There’s some reported truth to this depiction, nonetheless; the book Joe DiMaggio: The Hero’s Life states that Monroe called her first husband, James Dougherty, “Daddy,” and that DiMaggio signed his letters to Monroe as “Pa.” In Miller’s obituary, The Guardian similarly reports Monroe called her second husband “Papa.”

But Blonde extends this trend to other men, including her talent agent, suggesting that her childlike helplessness diminished her within the presence of any male in her orbit. Perhaps this selection wouldn’t have seemed so egregious, had Blonde depicted greater than a pair incidents of her toe-to-toe sparring with studios, and had Blonde not entirely conjured the story of Chaplin Jr. posing as Monroe’s absent father.

Did Marilyn Monroe really receive letters from a person posing as her father?

In Blonde, Monroe receives letters throughout her profession from her “Tearful Father,” claiming that he’s watching from afar and that they’ll finally meet soon. Father and daughter never do meet, nonetheless, and it’s eventually revealed that Chaplin Jr. has been writing these letters to Monroe for the reason that Geminis’s breakup. In a posthumous confession, he admits to Monroe that it was all a sick joke: There was never any “Tearful Father.” A distraught Monroe overdoses soon after.

There isn’t any evidence that anything similar ever took place in Monroe’s real life. She was definitely tormented by abandonment issues—and so-called daddy issues—but Blonde’s treatment of those insecurities (each within the book and within the film) is especially cruel.

ana de armas as marilyn monroe next to the real marilyn monroe

Left to right: Ana de Armas as Marilyn Monroe; the actual Marilyn Monroe.

Netflix/Getty Images

Did Marilyn Monroe have a sexual relationship with President John F. Kennedy?

The precise nature of Monroe and President John F. Kennedy’s relationship stays the topic of feverish debate to today. (Some conspiracy theorists posit that the actress’s overdose was orchestrated by the Kennedy family as a cover-up for her involvement with JFK; his brother, Robert; or each). This text won’t concern itself with all the small print of those allegations, but suffice to say that plenty believed the 2 had a romantic relationship. And yet the likelihood that it played out in such a demeaning manner as depicted in Blonde—Monroe is known as a “dirty slut” while she performs forced oral sex—is low.

Although such an encounter was never confirmed outright, the biographer Donald Spoto wrote in Marilyn Monroe: The Biography that the couple shared one weekend together at Bing Crosby’s Palm Springs home in March 1962, and that Monroe had no desire to proceed the connection beyond that. As Susan Strasberg—friend of Monroe’s and daughter of her acting coach, Lee Strasberg—said, in keeping with Spoto, “Not in her worst nightmare would Marilyn have desired to be with JFK on any everlasting basis. It was okay for one night to sleep with a charismatic president—and she or he loved the secrecy and drama of it. But he definitely wasn’t the type of man she wanted for all times, and she or he was very clear to us about this.”

Did Marilyn Monroe abuse pills?

This much, as depicted in Blonde, is true: Through the course of her profession, Monroe became hooked on prescribed drugs, which she often took with alcohol. (She struggled with quite a few ailments, including insomnia, anxiety, endometriosis, gallstones and depression.) She overdosed multiple times in her life, including the ultimate overdose that led to her death.

How did Marilyn Monroe die?

On August 5, 1962, Monroe was discovered unconscious in her Brentwood, Los Angeles, bedroom. She was 36, found along with her hand outstretched to her telephone and multiple empty prescription bottles next to her bed. Her death was ruled a probable suicide as a consequence of the number of medicine discovered in her system.

What of Marilyn Monroe’s life is not noted of Blonde?

A lot. We barely get to look at her impressive profession play out, nor her devotion to the craft of acting—only the moments through which she decries “Marilyn Monroe” as a fiction. (The irony speaks for itself.) We never see her first marriage to James Dougherty on the age of 16, nor her relationships with quite a few friends and co-stars, particularly female ones including actress Jane Russell and mentor Natasha Lytess. Blonde includes no mention of the film production company Monroe founded in 1954, nor does it acknowledge the ways through which Monroe crafted and executed her own image. It depicts her mental health issues—and eventual suicide—as “an important thing” about her, as Dominik revealed in interviews, due to this fact condemning her because the everlasting victim. Nobody can deny Monroe was a victim, at quite a few times and in quite a few ways. But to suggest she was never anything more is itself a falsehood.

“I believe that, if you end up famous, every weakness is exaggerated,” Monroe told Life, mere days before her death. “This industry should behave like a mother whose child has just run out in front of a automobile. But as a substitute of clasping the kid to them, they begin punishing the kid.” Blonde is the punishment of a negligent parent, dragging Monroe’s image through all her real-life horrors (and a number of other fabricated ones) within the name of an abstract truth Dominik seeks but never realizes in his film. “Woman, traumatized” is removed from a latest genre, but neither is it one robotically condemned to mistreat its subjects. Monroe, as in life, deserved a kinder touch. But as Marilyn: The Passion and the Paradox creator Lois Banner wrote, “Within the case of Marilyn, people imagine what they need to imagine.”

Lauren Puckett-Pope is an associate editor at ELLE, where she covers news and culture.

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