Blonde Deprives Marilyn Monroe of the Dignity She Earned

Stunning cinematography and an Oscar-worthy performance by Ana De Armas can’t save this off-the-rails cinemagraphic meditation on Monroe's life

By guest author Samuel R. Staley
December 20, 2022

Some movies simply should not be made, regardless of their artistic potential. Blonde, now streaming on Netflix, is one of them. A distasteful, shockingly incomplete, and highly fictionalized cinematic meditation on Marilyn MonroeBlonde clocks in at three and a half hours. And it’s a slog.

Much more troubling, however, is the stunningly one-dimensional depiction of Monroe’s life. While narrative filmmakers are given a tremendous amount of license, Blonde effectively eviscerates Monroe’s legacy and robs her of the hard-earned dignity she deserves.

Mental Health Centers Blonde’s Story

Certainly, Monroe was troubled. Born Norma Jean Mortenson, Monroe was abused from a young age. She spent her early years in 12 foster homes and orphanages. At 16, she married to avoid returning to an orphanage. Her modeling started three years later.

To think that Monroe would not be traumatized by these experiences would be implausible and truly extraordinary. This trauma and Monroe’s inability to address the mental health consequences are the center of the story in Blonde. Indeed, Monroe tragically committed suicide by drug overdose at just 36 years old.

Blonde is a visually stunning film. Chayse Irvin has skillfully used just about all the tools in a cinematographer’s toolbox to engage the audience and provide dimension to the story artfully. The audience is drawn into Monroe’s fluid and increasingly desperate psychological state with each scene and frame.

The film is also well-cast and universally well-acted. The story’s anchor is Ana de Armas’ (Blade Runner 2049Knives outNo Time to Die) impressive portrayal of Monroe. She beautifully and artfully melds into the role, putting her range as an actress on full display. De Armas’ Golden Globe nomination as Best Actress in a Motion Picture – Drama is well earned.

These elements undoubtedly led to the movie’s 14-minute standing ovation at the 2022 Venice Film Festival where it premiered.

Blonde will likely be remembered as director Andrew Dominik’s most impressive work.

But the movie’s story goes off the rails.

Where Blonde Goes Off The Rails

Blonde is also an example of a film that, at its core, goes-of-the rails. In the end, Blonde is a stunningly disrespectful, misleading, and distasteful take on an industry icon. The film lacks any sense of balance, diminishing Monroe’s cultural and economic significance as an industry trailblazer.

Those watching Blonde, for example, will get no insight into why Monroe, among all the other beautiful actresses that would have competed for the same limelight, rose above the rest. Monroe was an ambitious actress who took control of her career.

While her deteriorating mental health created instability on movie sets, her talent as an actress became increasingly well-recognized. She actively broadened her range. She actively pursued method acting as part of Lee Strasberg’s Actors Studio. The romantic comedies like Some Like It Hot were her bread and butter, but she break-though as a critical success in film noir dramas and thrillers like Clash By Night and Don’t Bother to Knock.

By the time she passed away, Monroe had appeared in 29 films. She had starring roles in a majority of these movies and provided lead billing in most of those made in the latter half of her career. Her movies grossed the equivalent of $2 billion in 2021, and she emerged as one of the most iconic figures in American pop culture.

Unfortunately, none of this comes through in Blonde. Instead, the movie’s story trades completely on Monroe’s sexual aesthetic and a hypothesized contradiction between the public image and her personal identity. But the movie never rises above the salacious tabloid headlines that defined the era. Blonde’s adult rating of NC-17 reflects this dark, sexually focused, one-dimensional take on Monroe’s life.

Blonde Marginalizes Monroe

Unfortunately, the story underlying Blonde squanders some of the industry’s best artistic talent. Rather than presenting a story that gives breadth, understanding, and dimension to a complicated figure, the filmmakers present a nearly three-hour existential mental-health nightmare. While it’s true and obvious that Monroe never successfully grappled with her mental health, Blonde simply shows the deterioration with what amounts to armchair pop psychology. The shallow story matters because the movie grapples with important, transcendent, and highly relevant issues. The real-life Marilyn Monroe’s legacy suffers as a result.

Some have claimed that Blonde’s depiction of Monroe is unethical. Lost in the discussion of ethics is that the movie is based on a novel, a fictionalized account of Monroe. The fictional account becomes clear in the movie (and likely the novel, which I have not read) because the screenplay’s internal and external dialogue involves thoughts, mental struggles, and judgments that no one other than Monroe could know.

Critics are correct, however, in recognizing the movie’s problematic nature. Real events frame the story structure. Monroe’s thoughts and mental health are interpreted in the context of specific and verifiable professional and personal milestones—movie premieres, casting decisions, marriages, miscarriages, etc. Andrew Dominick’s movie, working from the novel, consciously and manipulatively blends interpretation with fact. This is clearly intentional. The filmmakers want audiences to feel like they are watching a fact-based biography rather than a highly fictionalized one.

For some, this is high art in filmmaking.

The Real Marilyn Monroe Positively Impacted the Industry She Loved

The consequence is a re-centering of Monroe’s life on its most tragic elements. This diminishes her agency as a person and minimizes her professional impact.

Filmmaking is an art. But it should add to our cultural understanding, not diminish it.

Blonde doesn’t even scratch the surface of what can be learned from Marilyn Monroe’s life, ambitions, and impact on the movie industry. In the end, as the credits roll, the story told on the big screen is transparently exploitative. It marginalizes the real-life Monroe and deprives her of the dignity she deserves. (It’s also extraordinarily self-indulgent for the filmmakers.)

Monroe’s personal troubles were well known. But without balancing these elements of her life with her professional accomplishments in the business, she loved and adored, the filmmakers do Monroe and her legacy a severe injustice.