Marilyn Monroe “was never a victim, sweetheart,” according to her friend, Amy Greene. “Never in a million years.” You wouldn’t know that watching Blonde, the new Netflix behemoth charting the starlet’s life. Based on the fictionalised 2000 novel of the same name by Joyce Carol Oates, each of the film's 166 minutes is more depressing than the last, depicting Monroe as a zonked-out, boozed-up plaything for a conveyor belt of men all too willing to abuse her.
Her career is a barely-there backdrop to the doomed relationships she jumps from – some imagined, some real – including a throuple with Charlie Chaplin Jr, her marriages to Joe DiMaggio and Arthur Miller, and tryst with President John F Kennedy. Most she calls ‘Daddy’; every mention a reminder, lest the viewer forget for five seconds, of the father figure whose abandonment propelled her lifelong craving for men.
The disturbing vision painted by director Andrew Dominik is at odds with the Monroe many who knew her describe; a woman who went from foster care to grossing $200m (equivalent to $2bn today) at the box office within the space of two decades, and set up her own production company (responsible for 1957’s the Prince and the Showgirl, starring Laurence Olivier). To Greene, whom the actress moved in with after her marriage to DiMaggio broke down in 1954, Monroe was – as she put it to Vanity Fair – “a young, vital woman who loved life, loved parties, and had a good time.”
Earlier this year, a CNN docuseries reframed the star of Some Like it Hot and Gentlemen Prefer Blondes as a shrewd operator, with its executive producer, Sam Starbuck, describing her as “so much more interesting and smart and funny than I ever could have actually imagined. She was a total power broker and trailblazer.”
There is one glimmer of that in Blonde, where we see Monroe, played by Cuban actress Ana de Armas, choose her stage name. Waving off Norma Jeane Mortenson - who had grown up in the shadows of her mother’s psychiatric issues - and recasting herself as Marilyn Monroe was no accident. “I wanted my mother’s maiden name [Monroe] because I felt that was rightfully my name,” she later explained. “And true things rarely get into circulation.”
That edict feels prescient given Netflix’s film. Oates’s book, which was later made into a mini-series, sought to blur the lines between fame and fiction, but there is no such forewarning ahead of the film of Blonde, which appears to present itself as truth. Like expecting The Crown to faithfully depict royal goings-on behind closed doors, Blonde is a window into a world that only half-existed; one that criticises the sexualisation and shoddy treatment of Monroe while doing the exact same thing.
De Armas is often naked, or referred to as “meat”; there are shots with a vantage point through her legs, or face down atop presidential genitalia (the film is rated NC-17, the US-equivalent of an 18, the highest level). Blonde lurches from lurid to downright grotesque – notably the whirling CGI-foetuses to represent Monroe’s miscarriages – in spite of Dominik’s prior assessment that his film would be “one of the ten best movies ever made.” The other nine on his list don’t bear thinking about.
De Armas’s quivering and coquettish Monroe does not portray a woman well-versed in the movie-making machine; one who knew that the right PR, angles and men would set her on the career trajectory she craved. That began when Monroe - then 19-year-old housewife Norma Jeane Dogherty - was working in a California munitions factory during WWII, and spotted by a photographer on assignment. She began modeling for snapper David Conover and his friends, signing with a modeling agency the following year.
That swiftly brought an end to her first marriage – her Marine husband, James, didn’t want a wife with a career – with her pinup shoots ultimately leading to contracts with Columbia Pictures and 20th Century Fox, the ditching of her brunette hair, and name. “I can be smart when it’s important,” Monroe’s Lorelei Lee says in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, seeming to echo the actress herself. “But most men don’t like it.”
That appeared to be the case for Harry Cohn - the womanising head of Columbia Pictures, and onetime most powerful man in Hollywood. While Monroe was under contract there, he invited her onto his yacht, to which she responded, “Will your wife join us?” Her contract was not renewed.
Still, there were plenty of other bigwigs with whom Monroe blended the personal and professional; her “intimate relationship” with executive Johnny Schenk was to thank for the Columbia contract, and Johnny Hyde, three decades her senior, served as both her agent and lover. Monroe’s hard-fought seven-year contract with Twentieth Century Fox was rumoured to have been underwritten by Hyde himself.
As Mira Sorvino, who played Monroe in 1996’s Norma Jean and Marilyn, once put it: “I think Marilyn accepted that she was going to have to date people to get what she wanted. And I don’t think she ever should have had to choose that. But at least there was a decision in it on her part.”
When lines were crossed, Monroe spoke out. As her star was rising, she co-authored a MeToo-esque 1952 essay titled the Wolves I Have Known, damning Hollywood’s casting couch predators. One such wolf “should have been ashamed of himself, because he was trying to take advantage of a mere kid,” she reflected of an audition in which all the poses “had to be reclining, although the words I was reading didn’t seem to call for that.”
On finding out that Frank Sinatra was to be paid three times her fee for the Girl in Pink Tights, Monroe stormed off set and refused to return. (After scrawling the word "TRASH" on the script and throwing it in the bin.) She promptly put on a dark wig and glasses and caught a plane to New York under the name Zelda Zonk, staying there until Twentieth Century Fox agreed to give her more money and better roles.
After a year, she was cast in The Seven Year Itch with a $100,000 salary, given full script and director approval, and became the first actress since Mary Pickford to set up her own production company. "Actress wins all demands," read one headline the following day, with the news story continuing: "Marilyn Monroe, a five-foot-five-and-a-half-inch blonde weighing 118 alluringly distributed pounds, has brought Twentieth Century Fox to its knees." The Sinatra film was never made.
“She knew what she had to do - shake her ass,” said Greene. “But she understood what she was doing when she did it.”
Politics hardly passed her by, either: she was vehemently against nuclear weapons, and converted to Judaism for Miller, her third husband, who had been subpoenaed over his former links to the Communist Party. Of these things, Blonde makes no mention, favouring shots of her fellating White House inhabitants and passed out on planes instead.
Monroe’s death of an overdose at 36, like all those lost while young, blonde and beautiful, means she is forever consigned to myth. Whether feminist hero or doomed femme fatale was closer to the mark, or how many times she might have veered between the two in the years that never followed, remain up for debate. As does something else - the purpose films like Dominik’s serve. If Hollywood was guilty of abusing Monroe then, what excuse is there now?
Blonde is in cinemas now, and on Netflix from September 28