It started two rows behind me. A gasp in a fist. A chuckle spread through the room like a fire. The couple in front of me looked around, disturbed. Then there was a liberating slash from the left – a woman laughed. I started to laugh with relief myself. We watched Marilyn Monroe’s death scene in the new movie blonde.
Earlier this month, during the Venice Film Festival, the premiere received a historically long standing ovation of over twelve minutes. The film is based on the 2000 novel of the same name by Joyce Carol Oates.
There was an excited atmosphere at the cash register and popcorn. I too was really looking forward to it, whereas ten years ago I would have probably turned my nose up at a Monroe biopic. I’m sure I’m not the only one. In an essay for the American vogue Lena Dunham describes her initial disinterest in Monroe. Dunham was more interested in women helping to shift the cultural landscape, contrarian forces. “I found women who called Monroe an inspiration corny at best, boring at worst.” It wasn’t until she started reading about Monroe—like the classic Marilyn from Norman Mailer – she discovered the complexities behind the Hollywood star, her intellectual interests and her traumas. About the ways sexism and the media pushed her to the top and toppled her at 36.
Typically something to make a film about in 2022 (see also: Princess Diana). Too bad it was done by director and screenwriter Andrew Dominik, whose script leaves no room for even a sliver agency. Instead, he drowns Monroe in victimhood and beautiful tears. Almost all looks are accurately based on existing photo shoots. But that is precisely why the film maintains its golden cage, instead of bending the bars open.
“You can’t believe anything you read in the magazines,” Monroe says in the film. You shouldn’t just believe director Dominik either. In one scene we see Monroe and President Kennedy. There was plenty of gossip about their alleged affair; little of it has ever been confirmed. Dominik let his imagination run wild. Kennedy calls Monroe his little slut in the movie. And we see her sucking off the leader of the free world while he’s on the phone with a journalist. Close-up, from Kennedy, and insanely long. I looked away, not out of prudishness, but because I felt I was looking at something really perverse. A made-up sex scene about a woman who was plagued during her lifetime by hyped media scandals.
It is a film that, under the guise of a more progressive zeitgeist, glorifies what it pretends to criticize.
The final scene shows Monroe’s blond locks, luscious between the stark white sheets, her hand voluptuously along her neck, her heart – so sexy – giving way under the barbiturate overdose. The laughter in the room showed no disrespect to the main character, but rather protected her. It was the refusal to take this image for truth. It was one of the most loving bursts of laughter I’ve heard in a long time.
Madeleijn van den Nieuwenhuizen writes a column on this site every other week.
A version of this article also appeared in the newspaper of September 26, 2022