Why Marilyn Monroe Matters: Netflix’s Blonde

marilyn monroe

This week, when the Netflix streaming network announced its numbers for new releases, Blonde – director/screenwriter Andrew Dominik’s boldly unconventional, exploded reality biopic of Marilyn Monroe, produced by Brad Pitt – this lushly cinematic, but brutally told story landed squarely at the number two spot, a pretty great accolade for a film star now dead for 60 years.

At a time when viewing audiences are topped off by MCU hungry millennials, most of whom have little clue as to Marilyn’s filmic pulse – classic comedies such as Some Like It Hot and Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, or wrenching dramas such as her last work, Arthur Miller’s culturally elegiac The Misfits – reaching the upper echelon of streaming’s “box office” is a bold laurel. And yet, such a symbolic honor is no surprise for a woman as iconic for the ability to push through pain and degradation as she is her beauty.

Long portrayed as a mournful victim of everything from the last vestiges of the Hollywood studio contract system and concepts of feminine beauty in the 1950s and a lost soul taken advantage of by men more powerful than her (such as John F. Kennedy, the worst, lamest president this country ever had whose myth has been over-vaunted by those who cherished their Camelot’s king), the power of Marilyn outruns even her weakest of moments – the tears, the fears, the insecurities.

Though the over-dramatized reality and noir-heightened cinematography of Blonde was based on the bio-novel of the same name by author Joyce Carol Oates and stars a Cuban-Spanish actress Ana de Armas as a sad and striking Marilyn (this too has not come with its own controversies, as to how and why someone ‘not American’ could be made to represent such an icon of Americanism), the currency of the pop cultural rise of Marilyn’s life and image, after her 1962 death starts with Andy Warhol’s silk screened head shot – freezing her smile in Pop Art portraiture, sold off in May for $195 million at a Christie’s auction, setting a record for the most expensive piece of American art  – continues on with famously misogynistic author Norman Mailer’s shockingly poetic and highly literary “novel biography” of Monroe, Marilyn, and lands cleanly at the feet of Madonna in the 1980’s who not only sings Marilyn’s praises in her “Vogue” single, but re-created Monroe’s beloved, colorful song-and-dance scene from “Diamonds are a Girl’s Best Friend” for Maddie’s own, “Material Girl” video.

marylin monroe

Other authors and journalists such as Gloria Steinem (who placed Monroe’s pain through victimhood at the hand of Hollywood’s studio system) and Molly Haskell (who disses Monroe’s proactive vision of lurid sensuality and participation in the creation of her public persona) had their way with Marilyn’s image. Academic Sarah Churchwell took on more highly personal truths made folklore.

“The biggest myth is that she was dumb,” wrote Churchill. “The second is that she was fragile. The third is that she couldn’t act. She was far from dumb, although she was not formally educated, and she was very sensitive about that. But she was very smart indeed—and very tough. She had to be both to beat the Hollywood studio system in the 1950s… The dumb blonde was a role—she was an actress, for Heaven’s sake! Such a good actress that no one now believes she was anything but what she portrayed on screen.”

That Marilyn could have been all three of those women, and more, is what makes the mystery and iconography of Marilyn so intriguing. Even at her most frustratingly put-upon in Blonde – the blow job rape at the hands of limp dick JFK, the fear of forced abortions, being made to be “Marilyn” when all she wanted was motherhood – you sense a strength and dynamism to move forward (Until her soul-sucking public life overtook her private life, or the Kennedy clan killed her: that’s not breached in Blonde, and left to hang).

marylin monroe

That might and beauty of the possibilities of what she could have been given the chance (she was well read, book and street smart and a dedicatedly studied actor) is what’s made her an enduringly attractive icon used to speck and brighten even the dullest films (Nicolas Roeg’s Insignificance) or heighten the dramedy of bold betters (Jack Rabbit Slim’s in Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction has its James Deans, Dean Martins and Marilyn Monroes as its waitstaff). Every singer and actress who ever dyed their hair platinum blonde and left their skirts blow as did Marilyn, famously, in The Seven Year Itch and every commercial advertisement, from Chanel to Absolut Vodka to Mercedes-Benz that made her image part of its sales pitch have played into the Marilyn mystique.

When in Blonde, when we see the viciously portrayed psychic and physical wounds that ensnared “Marilyn” in its clutches and held her, sometimes bloodily at bay, we’re rapt with pain. When she finds fleeting happiness in her career and in her daily existence, we tear up and applaud because we know what and how much it took for her to win such victories. Personalizing an icon’s disasters and wins is what tithe them to us. Like Presley in Baz Luhrmann’s Elvis of 2022 (dueling, powerful exploded reality biopics ready for the upcoming Academy Awards’ Oscar race?!), we are pulled into an artist’s dreams, goals and true potential – as persons and as personas – and rue their falls from grace, their unfulfilled imaginings, their unnecessary ties to those who held them back from happiness (or necessary: who is to say if Presley would have been the massive success, he was without Col. Parker or Marilyn was courtesy those who changed her physicality from brown haired beauty to blonde bombshell), and their subsequent demise, even at their own hands.

Ultimately, Blonde, though terribly sad and frustrating to watch, is victorious. Because Marilyn Monroe was, though terribly sad and frustrated in life, victorious for having become a visceral icon whose every move is part of our everyday lives and dreams.

    • A.D. Amarosi's Headshot

      A.D. Amorosi is an award-winning journalist who, along with working for the Philadelphia Weekly, writes regularly for Variety, Jazz Times, Flood and Wax Poetics, and hosts and co-produces his own SoundCloud-charting radio show, Theater in the Round for Pacifica National Public Radio station WPPM 106.5 FM and WPPM.org.

    More Popular Articles

    Upcoming Philly Events