It’s ironic that Andrew Dominik, director of the latest Marilyn Monroe biopic “Blonde,” wonders if anyone still watches Marilyn Monroe movies. I’d say the many Monroe biopics that exist, whether directly retelling the events of her life or loosely inspired by them like his own, says otherwise. It’s even more frustrating to look at the landscape of Marilyn portrayals onscreen and realize only two have been directed by women; and just one has been written and directed by a woman. It is that same movie, also based on Joyce Carol Oates’ novel, that seems to have a better awareness of Marilyn and her movies.
CBS aired the two-part miniseries “Blonde,” directed by Joyce Chopra and written by Joyce Eliason, in 2001. The TV movie tells the familiar story of Norma Jean Baker, aka Marilyn Monroe (played by Poppy Montgomery), as she navigates a tortured upbringing with a mentally ill mother, to eventually find fame, love, heartbreak, and tragedy. Because of the source material, CBS’ “Blonde” contains the same beats as Dominik’s film, and yet holds far more empathy and appreciation for Monroe, her career, and her life than you’ll find in the near three-hour opus on Netflix.
Just two minutes shy of Dominik’s feature, Chopra’s “Blonde” takes a standard life-to-death story and gives audiences as much of Monroe’s life as it can hold, including her adolescence and rise to stardom. If you know nothing about Marilyn Monroe, Chopra’s “Blonde” gives you everything. If you already know everything, it shows her story with an eye toward saying, “How did everyone fail her?” Chopra emphasizes that Monroe’s dance with death started young, beginning with her alcoholic, mentally ill mother telling a young Norma about her unknown father being an industry heavy-hitter (untrue, historically). Norma Jean eventually enters a series of foster homes, which intensifies her feelings of abandonment.
Dominik doesn’t include any of this in his film, jumping from Norma Jean’s mother’s mental break to a brief stay with a neighbor that transitions her to foster care and a time jump of several years. Without all this, it’s unclear how Norma Jean became Marilyn Monroe at all. Gone are the years of modeling, small roles, and a complete physical transformation dictated by the studio that gave us Marilyn. Dominik seems to say, the girl just got lucky (a rape scene early in the movie is also implied to have been her entry into Hollywood).
Showing Marilyn’s early modeling days is imperative, particularly the famous 1949 red velvet calendar images she did with photographer Tom Kelley. As Chopra’s feature states, those images became controversial once Monroe achieved fame, with studio executives claiming she committed indecency. But this Marilyn points out Hollywood’s hypocrisy, reminding those critiquing her choices that war is far more indecent than a woman posing nude to make a couple of bucks. Even if the situation didn’t happen exactly like that, it’s an opportunity for Marilyn to show her eloquence, strength, and awareness of Hollywood’s double standards. Dominik may not have wanted to focus on moments where Marilyn was trying to change Hollywood (like starting her own production company), but in Chopra’s vision Marilyn is chronically aware of the tightrope she walks and it’s this precariousness that could have driven her to addiction and suicide.
Chopra contends that Marilyn’s issues aren’t exclusively tied to men using and abusing her — though that’s certainly true and illustrated throughout the miniseries — but that a lack of female support did irreparable harm as well. It’s another reason Dominik’s Sight and Sound interview calling “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes” a story of “romanticized whoredom” (and somewhat exemplary of Marilyn’s life as a guy’s girl) rings untrue in reality and onscreen. Historically, Marilyn had several women in her life that were close to her, and as Chopra’s “Blonde” lays out, the ones that abandoned her were often compelled to because of societal influences, men, or both.
One scene has Norma staying with a foster mother named Elsie (Kirstie Alley), who sets up Norma’s first marriage; Norma can’t stay with Elsie due to the older woman’s husband’s untoward attention to Norma. As this version says, Marilyn’s status as a sex symbol made her a threat to women, and even so it was only because men just couldn’t act normal around her. Marilyn becomes a figure of loneliness routinely placed in competition that she never actively seeks.
This also manifests in her marriages, of which Dominik only shows two. Chopra’s “Blonde” focuses on all three, including Marilyn’s first marriage to Bucky Glazer (a fictitious name for her real husband, Jim Dougherty). At one point, Bucky compels Marilyn to put on excessive makeup and lingerie for him to take pictures of her to show his coworkers. Marilyn tells him it’s uncomfortable and that she doesn’t know who she is. Again, whether this scene is true or not, it draws the audience to remember several of Marilyn’s roles where the studio wanted nothing more than Marilyn wearing sexy clothes and makeup, and nothing else. While making “The Prince and the Showgirl,” Sir Laurence Olivier was said to tell Marilyn not to act but “just be sexy.”
Chopra reiterates that Marilyn never wanted to just be sexy. Where Dominik’s Marilyn gets her first job by being assaulted, Eliason’s script says Marilyn was always cognizant of her sexuality being what male executives saw first. Marilyn says “I know what that means” when she discovers she was offered a role because of the way she walked. Eliason’s script says that despite any perceived love Marilyn had with men in her life, it was always conditional and reliant on her pleasing them as opposed to the other way around.
The big takeaway from “Blonde” on Netflix seems to be how it uses its NC-17 rating, playing that up with two intense (and violating) abortion sequences, a rape, and an extended oral sex scene. Television in 2001 was far tamer, but even then Chopra’s “Blonde” emphasizes the sexual exploitation Marilyn experienced without prolonging it. Each movie contains Marilyn’s first meeting with Mr. Z (a pseudonym for Fox studio head Darryl F. Zanuck) that ends in assault.
Chopra’s “Blonde’ doesn’t show anything, having the moment take place behind closed doors, but follows it up with a scene of Marilyn in the bathroom following the assault. She talks to Mr. Z’s secretary, who acts as if this happens everyday because, as the movie asserts, it probably did. Again, the onus isn’t just on male exploitation but the complicity of women at this time who, whether Marilyn or a secretary, had to grin and bear it.
But, if anything, Chopra uses the assault to give her Marilyn a greater sense of agency and controlled hostility. When she goes to Mr. Z to demand better roles she reminds him of their first meeting. She laughs it off and mocks him, all the while reminding him that he didn’t break her as he’d hoped to. In fact, Montgomery’s performance of Marilyn feels more dominating because of the writing which always acts to support and elevate Marilyn as a person. It wants to show her as both a victim and a fighter. Marilyn herself talks to an unseen interviewer in this version, and while it’s a standard thing in biopics, it immediately puts the story in her hands. While other characters take the mic every now and then, offering contradictory perspectives in some instances, Marilyn is the predominant voice the audience hears and uses that platform to openly attack a Hollywood industry that exploits her.
Marilyn always feels like a central figure in the 2001 “Blonde,” filled with depth, complexity, and humanity. There’s sympathy for her as a person, not as a victim or a tragic figure. The TV movie reminds us that we failed Marilyn as a society, more than that Marilyn was a woman battling demons (though she certainly was). If anything, compared to the new version of “Blonde,” there’s a greater respect and love for her.