Buckle up, folks, because The Blonde Discourse is going to be messy. As Lainey noted when the teaser came out last month, people are really hung up on the NC-17 rating and what that means for sex scenes, nudity, et cetera. If you’ve read Joyce Carol Oates’ book, then you know the answer is “the sex scenes are going to be depressing, potentially violent scenes of abuse and exploitation”. Blonde is engrossing, but it’s not a “fun” read. It’s a dark look at one possible history of Marilyn Monroe, in which Norma Jeane Baker is chewed up and spit out by a ruthless industry that only values her image and emotionally unavailable men who only value her body. “Marilyn Monroe” is Norma Jeane’s shield until she’s Norma Jeane’s downfall.
Blonde is a complicated entry into the Marilyn Monroe Canon. Marilyn is one of the few Eternal Movie Stars, who—like Elvis—has never faded from popular consciousness, she’s only grown in stature, as an actor, a celebrity, a feminist icon, a definition of a certain kind of femininity, and as a victim. In many ways, Marilyn is THE victim, a malleable figure who can be a victim of anything and everything—mental health, substance abuse, cruel men, the Hollywood machine, the Kennedys, the CIA, the Kennedys AND the CIA, her own excesses, whatever narrative you want to tell, you can fit Marilyn Monroe into it. And many people have, going by the sheer number of books that have been written about her life and death. Blonde is unique in that it is revisionist, Oates is not writing a biography, though the narrative in Blonde echoes many of the most popular assumptions of Marilyn—she was murdered, there was A Conspiracy, she was a tragic victim and a shining star.
Blonde bugs me, though, because 1) I don’t think she was murdered, sorry, and 2) Oates offers little in recognizing Marilyn as a person in charge of her own destiny. Norma Jeane was smart. She was ambitious. She cared about her craft and worked hard at it and was a far better actor than she has ever gotten credit for. At the height of her power, she leveraged her explosive fame to found her own production company and get a better contract out of Fox (for more on Marilyn at her peak, read Michelle Morgan’s The Girl). Blonde isn’t really about that person, though, it’s about an archetype, “Norma Jeane”, who represents the cost of the Hollywood myth-making machine. Many characters don’t even have names, they’re “The Ex-Athlete” and “The Playwright”, rendering Joe DiMaggio and Arthur Miller, among others, as archetypes, too.
But people TREAT Blonde like it’s a biography, even though the subtitle of the book is A Novel, like because it’s a doorstop of a book, it must be true. And that is not Oates’s fault, just like it won’t be Ana de Armas’s fault or Andrew Dominik’s fault if/when people treat the movie like a biopic, like another Elvis or Walk the Line or Chaplin. But it’s important to remember that Blonde IS NOT a biopic. It’s an adaptation of a work of fiction, grounded in history but ultimately an imagining of what this life MIGHT have been.
Which is why Ana de Armas works so well for me in the trailer. So what if she doesn’t completely cover her Cuban accent? She has the breathy, vulnerable tone right, and she isn’t playing Marilyn Monroe, anyway, she’s playing “Norma Jeane”. She’s playing a construct, an idea of this person. It’s grounded in fact, but it’s not factual. Demanding an actor have total fealty to a subject is a waste of time—that’s impersonation, not inhabitation—but in this case, it’s especially pointless because Blonde is not a biopic. And yes, that will be my refrain for the rest of the year, because if we simply do not treat Blonde like a biopic, we might be able to cut The Discourse off before it really gets going.