A woman built from fiction – De Groene Amsterdammer

In May 1957 Marilyn Monroe became photographed by Richard Avedon. For fourhours, the actress danced around his New York studio, singing songs andflirting with the camera. Later Avedon would put it this way: ‘She _did_Marilyn Monroe.” But when the evening was over, and the wine finished, thesame Monroe sat in the corner of the room, staring blankly ahead, “like achild.” Avedon crept up to her with his camera and pressed. It was that photo,the portrait of a lost child, that would become world famous. The photo showedwhat would later become abundantly clear after her death in 1962: that therewas something chafing between the laughter and the suffering, between thepersona and the woman behind it.

blonde, Directed by Australian Andrew Dominik and produced for Netflix, itis not a true biopic of Monroe’s life, but an adaptation of Joyce Carol Oates’fictionalized 2000 biography, which blonde is called. What attracted him toMonroe, Dominik is asked interview after interview, and he always replies thathe was not attracted by Monroe, but by that book. Oates’ blonde isambitious, experimental and thick as a brick. It is a book full of bravado,just like Dominik’s film is. The story that Oates in blonde tells, is abouta woman who only existed in the gaze of the other – a woman who was entirelymade up of fiction and would perish under fiction. Dominik made an almostthree-hour horror fairy tale about this woman. This is not the woman we knowfrom the glamor photos, who seduces, flirts, plays and laughs, but the womanwhose life was like a downward spiral, which started with neglect and endedwith suicide, which revolved around men, daddy issues and an unfulfilleddesire to have children. The lost child in the corner of the room staringblankly ahead.

Blonde opens in Hollywood, where Marilyn Monroe grows up as Norma JeaneMortensen, in the 1920s and 1930s. Raging forest fires are the backdrop of ahellish childhood with a cruel, psychologically unstable mother. Her father isonly present in her mother’s frustrated desire, who blames Norma Jeane for hisdeparture. blonde works towards a gruesome climax, after which Norma Jeaneis taken away from her mother. She ends up with the neighbors, and then in anorphanage. That’s how she is born: the child no one wanted, who would cravefor a lifetime just to be seen. Almost twenty years of flushes blonde aheadin time. In the early 1950s, Norma Jeane has a new haircut, a new face and anew name: Marilyn Monroe. The child has turned into a persona. As she tries toshape her career, we see her searching for an identity. Everyone turns aroundas Marilyn Monroe walks by, but no one understands who she is. Nobody reallywants to know.

In blonde the American Dream is a nightmare and that is how Dominik portrayshis story: like a Lynchian fever dream. Here the emotional traumas are sogreat that they barely fit on your TV screen. Here good and bad stand againsteach other as black against white. Here we see how Monroe is betrayed andbelittled, how success is always followed by disappointment. How she firstmarries a jealous and violent man, and then a contemptuous intellectual.Trauma piles on trauma, addiction piles on addiction. The problematic extendsto the pathological. Dominik seeks the extreme in everything: in the technicalingenuity, the aesthetic boast, the crude urge to experiment. He flexes hismuscles. From Monroe’s life he distills a world like a haunted house, a darkuniverse into which not even a ray of light manages to penetrate. Here he letshis protagonist wander – blind, helpless, lost.

The extreme stretches to the reactions that blonde calls. In reviews and onsocial media, the film is just as often slammed as it is praised, Dominik isalternately incensed and reviled. In her review of blonde in de Volkskrant_Pauline Kleijer writes that Dominik is accused of having exploited Monroe ‘byshowing her in all her vulnerability’. Rather than looking at a victim,Kleijer writes, Dominik’s critics would rather look at ‘a feminist heroine whoradiates power, for example, or just something more cheerful’. And Coen vanZwol also writes, in the _NRC, that female characters today must be ‘strong,active and formidable’ – ‘Marilyn Monroe as portrayed by Madonna’.

Andrew Dominik revels in Monroe’s suffering, stretches it as far as he can,loves it

This is not the Monroe that Dominik shows. Dominiks Monroe is not strong andactive, but weak and passive. Dominiks Monroe is not a feminist heroine. Butshe’s also not the woman Norman Mailer once met ‘ angel of sex’ mentioned:the cheerful sex bomb with the blowing dress. ‘I believe’, Dominik said to deVolkskrant, ‘that most of us (…) relate not so much to everyday reality as tostories. We make a story about ourselves: that’s what we experience.’ This isthe Monroe Dominik wants us to see: the story she made of herself, a storybigger than life itself. But to show that story, he also has to show somethingof what was hidden behind it. He has to walk the line between the allegoricaland the factual, between fiction and reality. So he meticulously copies thephotos we know so well of Monroe and brings them to life, as if to say: Thisis the reality in which those photos were taken. But at the same time, heabstracts reality by magnifying or smoothing it out. Characters are reducednot only to their profession (Monroe’s exes are called the ‘Ex-Athlete’, the’Playwright’ or the ‘President’), but also to their betrayal, their violence,their abuse. They are one-dimensional bogeymen; Big Bad Wolves next toMonroe’s Little Red Riding Hood.

Is it true what Kleijer says, that we would rather see Marilyn Monroeportrayed as a ‘feminist heroine’? In recent years, Monroe’s life and careerhave been viewed through all sorts of new lenses. Suddenly we saw Marilyn-Monroe-the-proto-feminist and Marilyn-Monroe-the- girl boss. Suddenly wesaw, in photos in which she with a frown Ulysses reading, Marilyn-Monroedeintellectual. Is that feminism – or is it marketing? In de Volkskrant writesHerien Wensink about the Monroe that is being placed in blonde, which shecalls ‘revolutionary’. This “fragile” Monroe, she writes, is “a Marilyn forthe MeToo era.” But shouldn’t a feminist heroine be strong? And is it reallyMonroe’s vulnerability that Dominik in blonde shows – or is it somethingelse?

In blonde the broad outlines of Monroe’s life are correct, but the sideroads are made up. To arrive at a clear story, Joyce Carol Oates writes in thepreface to her book, she has simplified or otherwise adapted some events. Butthe worst things that Monroe in blonde happened—rapes, plots, abortions, andattempted murder—simply never happened. Dominik himself calls his film a’rescue fantasy’, but the fetishism that blonde It’s not about saving – it’sabout suffering. Dominik revels in that suffering, stretching it as far aspossible. He fantasizes about it and adores it. He lifts Monroe’s mask, butfinds another mask behind it. He exchanges one abstraction for another, thesex symbol for the martyr.

As simple as feminism seemed at the time of #MeToo, that’s how complex itturned out to be in the period after. You read it in the pieces that deVolkskrant published about blonde, in which first the strong and then thevulnerable woman are bombarded as a feminist example. Is it true that in thepost #MeToo era we only want to see “strong” female characters? Or are wetalking about the film studios and streaming services that ‘ strong femalecharacter’ elevated to a movie category? The question we ask ourselves after#MeToo is this: if a woman identifies as a victim, is she strong orvulnerable?

Marilyn Monroe was not a feminist heroine. She was neither an intellectual noran activist businesswoman. But she was outspoken. She was witty, witty and alittle strange. In blonde we jump from the 1930s to the 1950s, from Monroe’schildhood to her first Hollywood success. It is precisely in that gap in timethat we could find the answer to the question of why she chose acting in thefirst place. It is precisely in that hole that her willpower and passion arehidden. The Monroe that Dominik us in blonde shows, was a woman who happenedto anything, but the real Monroe made choices, had opinions, known color. Thereal Monroe was ambitious and eager to learn, pouring all her heart into hercraft. The real Monroe was indeed a victim, but victimhood, as we now knowbetter than ever, is complicated. It cannot be captured in a story that seeksextremes. The Monroe Dominik shows us is a bare-breasted wandering soul, avictim viewed with the male gaze. This Monroe must suffer so that she can besaved by Dominik. The real Monroe was smart and stupid, lively and lost. Bothvictim and heroine. The real Monroe was paradoxical, complicated, interesting.The real Monroe was human.

For four hours, Richard Avedon took pictures of Marilyn Monroe. Photos whereshe jokes and laughs, takes different poses and makes different faces, likethe professional she was. Of all those photos we chose only one, only onebecame world famous: the one in which she looks lost. This Monroe, we say toeach other, is the real Monroe. Is that the story she told about herself? Oris it the story we made of her?