How fictional biopic Blonde turns Marilyn Monroe into a symbol of celebrity tragedy

While some reviews have praised Blonde as a feminist reimagining of Marilyn Monroe's life — including Oates herself — others say it perpetuates the very same exploitative attitudes that it is supposedly critiquing, by depicting Monroe's life as a spectacle of unrelenting misery. 

A film about the star's life was released in select theatres Friday, to mixed reviews

Ana de Armas plays Marilyn Monroe in the fictional biopic Blonde out Wednesday on Netflix. While some see the film as a feminist reimagining of her life, others say it wallows in her tragedy and misses any triumph. (Netflix)

It's been 60 years since Marilyn Monroe died at the age of 36, and Hollywood continues to immortalize the actor — for better or worse — as a symbol of celebrity tragedy and mythmaking.

Blonde, a Netflix film about Monroe directed by Andrew Dominik and based on a 2000 novel by Joyce Carol Oates, offers a fictionalized account of the indignities that punctuated Monroe's life before her death. 

While some reviews have praised Blonde as a feminist reimagining of Marilyn Monroe's life — including Oates herself — others say it perpetuates the very same exploitative attitudes that it is supposedly critiquing, by depicting Monroe's life as a spectacle of unrelenting misery. 

As the film began streaming on Netflix Wednesday, CBC News spoke with film scholars and experts to understand where the myth of Marilyn Monroe begins and ends.

Latest in a trend of celeb-sploitation films

Even before it was released in select theatres last week, Blonde — which stars Ana de Armas — was making headlines for getting stamped with a NC-17 rating, after which director Andrew Dominik promised it would "offend everyone."

De Armas, left, and director Andrew Dominik attend the premiere of Blonde at the San Sebastian International Film Festival on Saturday. Dominik has promised the film will 'offend everyone.' ( Juan Naharro Gimenez/Getty Images for Netflix)

That's because it turns Monroe into an archetype of female victimhood, opting to recreate — and imagine — the worst parts of her life, rather than explore her interiority or her craft as an actor. 

We see abortions ordered by a film studio, domestic and sexual violence, substance abuse and professional humiliation — not to mention her father's absence and her mother's institutionalization.

There is tragedy but no triumph. Monroe's friendships with women, including her fellow actor and teacher Susan Strasburg, are not onscreen; you would never know from this film that she founded her own production company in the 1950s in pursuit of stronger roles; and she's depicted as being constantly tormented by her absentee father, so much that all of her romantic relationships become placeholders for him.

In an interview with film magazine Sight and Sound, Dominik said that he was more interested in images taken of Monroe and what they represented rather than in her real life or her work.

"We were always trying to make her look like specific images of Marilyn … I'm not interested in reality, I'm interested in the images," Dominik said. "So I selected every image of Marilyn I could find and then tried to stage scenes around those images."

In the film, Dominik said he aimed to stage scenes around iconic images of Monroe, including standing above a subway grate in a billowing white dress in The Seven Year Itch. (Netflix)

Many of those images are indelible: Monroe standing above a subway grate, her white dress billowing around her, while filming The Seven Year Itch; or singing Diamonds Are a Girl's Best Friend in a bright pink gown in an iconic scene from Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.

Even images the public has never seen, but can easily conjure, are present in Dominik's film: the final scene of Blonde shows what Monroe was described as having looked like when she was found dead, lying nude in her bed with one hand clutching a telephone.

Yet, as one reviewer wrote in Rolling Stone, "Blonde tries to deny who [Monroe] was in order to tell us who she was, punishing her to punish us." Dominik, who told the Associated Press that people "like to be offended" (isn't that what he wanted?) said the film is not exploitative.

"The primary relationship in the film is between the viewer and her," he said. "I've never made a film that tells me more about the viewer than this one."

Several recent movies have reimagined the lives and struggles of pop culture icons through an experimental lens, sometimes blurring the lines between fact and fiction to do so.

Pablo Lorrain's psychedelic Princess Diana biopic, Spencer, depicted a tumultuous week in the royal's life before her divorce from then-Prince Charles. Baz Luhrrmann's Elvis was a feverish examination of the King's troubled relationship with his abusive manager, Colonel Tom Parker.

Like these figures, Monroe grappled with the gulf between her famous persona and her private life. In one of her final interviews, she said, "It's nice to be included in people's fantasies but you also like to be accepted for your own sake. I don't look at myself as a commodity, but I'm sure a lot of people have."

Another iconic image recreated in Blonde from the 1953 Monroe film Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. (Netflix)

'She's just this image that can be reduced'

Samita Nandy, the director of the Centre for Media and Celebrity Studies based in Ontario, says the idea that Monroe was a victim of her own fame is a very well-trod one — from biographers to film historians to tabloid journalists.

"That's the dominant myth, apart from the myth that she's a sex goddess. So the fact that she is a victim of her own fame needs to be questioned."

The myth of Marilyn Monroe has changed drastically in the years since she died, according to Amanda Konkle, the author of Some Kind of Mirror: Creating Marilyn Monroe and an associate professor at Georgia Southern University.

"It has the same elements, but the attitude toward it has changed from when she was a living, breathing person walking around in the world to now, where she's just this image that can be reduced to the sensational," Konkle said.

Monroe at a press conference at the Savoy Hotel, London, in 1956. On the left is her co-star Laurence Olivier in The Prince and the Showgirl, produced by her self-titled production company. (Harry Kerr/BIPS/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

"I think that she had this opportunity and ability during her lifetime to turn a lot of the things that would be scandal into support for her, into acceptance, into sympathy for her in a way that she doesn't have the ability to do now," she added.

Monroe tried to shed the image that she'd developed during her early acting years — as a dumb blond, a sex pot, a bombshell in films like Some Like It Hot and Gentlemen Prefer Blondes — and gain respect for her skills as an actor, like in The Prince and The Showgirl and The Misfits, the latter a collaboration with her ex-husband, the playwright Arthur Miller. 

She began working with Lee Strasberg, the acting coach who developed The Method, a famously intense form of acting that encourages performers to tap into their own experiences and memories to evoke a stronger emotion while they are in character.

The personal drama was "part of Monroe's star persona in the 1950s as well," Konkle added. "A lot of magazine stories talked about early suicide attempts, or miscarriages, or her difficult relationship with her mother.

"Monroe herself was obviously aware of the pain and tragedy in her life, but also always trying to move beyond that to overcome it."

Monroe started her own independent production company, Marilyn Monroe Productions, in the mid-1950s. She only made one movie with that company,The Prince and the Showgirl with Laurence Olivier. The project's shoot is depicted in the 2011 film My Week With Marilyn, which tells a fantasy version of the story from the perspective of a male production assistant.

In this Sept. 9, 1954 file photo, Marilyn Monroe poses over the updraft of a New York subway grate while filming The Seven Year Itch in New York. (Matty Zimmerman/The Associated Press)

"There's all these films that people are making about how she was mistreated and manipulated and so on, and we're able, from historical distance, to see the misogyny of the industry clearly written in a way that was not visible in the 50s and 60s," said Catherine Russell, a professor of film studies at Concordia University in Montreal.

"People were in the middle of it; they took it for granted."

Though she hadn't seen the film at the time of this interview, Konkle said that Blonde could offer a "sensationalized, extreme, kind of rough reality TV mentality" that drives people towards Monroe's biographies rather than her films.

"Part of the difficulty of that for her during her life, and definitely as a cultural icon now, is that that image became so associated with her — that image of tragedy and pain and the dumb blonde image — that no matter how hard she tried, she was never able to fully break away from that" 


Jenna Benchetrit is a web and radio journalist for CBC News. She works primarily with the entertainment and education teams and occasionally covers business and general assignment stories. A Montrealer based in Toronto, Jenna holds a master's degree in journalism from Toronto Metropolitan University. You can reach her at jenna.benchetrit@cbc.ca.