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The degradation of Marilyn Monroe

In death as in life, the actress has been used, abused and commodified. Netflix’s film Blonde is just the latest demeaning fiction.

By Tanya Gold

Marilyn Monroe died 60 years ago and is now buried under her cult which, as cults tend to, exists not to celebrate but to conceal and damn her. Monroe has been traduced, fictionalised and commercialised. She has been made into a cautionary tale: that’s what happens when you look like Marilyn and act like Marilyn. You die and your autopsy photograph ends up in a bestselling biography. Why not sell she who always sold herself?

When I think of Marilyn I see Sugar in Some Like It Hot, dancing down a train carriage in black silk. I see her laughing. But that is only on the screen. Elsewhere, there are many Marilyn archetypes, and they are at odds with each other, which make her absurd, for no one can be so many things at the same time. Norma Jeane, abandoned child of a mad mother and a nameless father, washing plates at the county orphanage; a cheerful pin-up with darker hair and bigger nose then we recognise; Marilyn Monroe, gleeful satirist of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and Some Like It Hot, mocking the character she invented, and mocking the world for being bewitched by it; saleswoman for consumer capitalism (was she shtupping those diamonds as she danced in the ice-pink dress under a lamp made of women in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes?); career woman who fought with Twentieth Century-Fox studios and won (until she didn’t); autodidact; wife; drug addict; murder victim; suicide; mistress of the president (JFK, serial abuser of women – where is his autopsy photograph?); whore.

The last is the most persistent, because a woman cannot be forgiven for her power. The Monroe cult is all about power: taking it away, shaking a finger at it for its presumption, burying it. When Monroe died, likely of an accidental overdose, her death had to be framed as inevitable: almost every piece of art about her foretells her death, even those by Arthur Miller, her third husband. A woman cannot inhabit her gifts, if they are that combustible and singular. She can only be cursed by them.

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The cult shows no sign of pausing: like insanity itself, it speeds up. Andy Warhol made screen prints of her face in Niagara, and placed her at the centre of the pop art movement: he helped turn her into a cartoon character, like Wile E Coyote falling nude off a cliff. Elton John called her a candle in the wind, and he and his lyricist Bernie Taupin fell into the archetypal Monroe trap: insisting that her gifts killed her (“Hollywood created a superstar/and pain was the price you paid”). I expected better from Elton. Would he give up his career? Madonna impersonated her for years, badly, because her Monroe was empty, without wit or charm. She didn’t understand that when Monroe sang for diamonds she didn’t mean it: this is tribute as misunderstanding, projection and theft.

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There is merchandise – an action figure, salt-and-pepper shakers, a tea-cup, a dildo – a musical in which the happy ending is Monroe’s remarriage to her second husband, Joe DiMaggio (in fact he beat her), an opera, and more than 600 books, one of which features an invented daughter called Normalyn.

Marilyn left her moderate fortune – she was always patronised and underpaid, so she brought acting coaches on set to terrorise directors on her behalf – to her acting coach Lee Strasberg. This gives you some idea of her imperatives in life. When he died it passed to his third wife, Anna, and Anna scattered her images and her possessions to the wind. This is a typical Monroe outcome: she is perceived as being cheap, for she is everywhere, when really she was ill-served by those she trusted. This is how Kim Kardashian borrowed one of her dresses – it was bought for $4.8 million in 2016 – and wore it to the Met Gala this year. But without Monroe in it, it was just an old dress. Would Kardashian have worn her corpse? I think it’s possible.

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Now Netflix has released Blonde, a film by Andrew Dominik, adapted from Joyce Carol Oates’s novel, which has Monroe battered, splattered, blood-drenched, tear-drenched and adrift. Is there any liquid left to toss on her? Chanel No 5? Petrol? If there wasn’t enough pain in her real life – who would be a starlet in the 1950s? – Oates imagines more, as passive-aggressive tribute: she is Mrs Gaskell to Charlotte Brontë, burying her subject in myth, because her reality was too threatening. “She made herself into the blonde who looks dumb,” Oates said. “So she was complicit in her own fate, I’m afraid.”

Watching Blonde, it feels like Oates and Dominik hate Marilyn Monroe. In this film’s telling, she is doomed from the beginning, made of pain. You watch Ana de Armas’s Marilyn and think: where is the drive that must have existed? The narrative structure – it begins with the young Norma Jeane seeing a picture of the man she believes to be her father, and ends with her death, dreaming of him – is a search for Daddy, who will kill you and you will kill in return. (Monroe cultists owe a lot to Sylvia Plath.) Multiple scenes are actually set inside her vagina. At one point, Marilyn’s theoretical unborn child is rendered in CGI, and given a speaking part. Brightly lit in utero, he begs her not to harm him in a cartoonish voice: did 40 Days for Life endorse this film? When the Arthur Miller character discovers Monroe is not stupid, he cries.

Ana de Armas as Marilyn Monroe in Blonde
Some like it not: Ana de Armas as Marilyn Monroe in Blonde. Courtesy of Netflix

The myth-making began with her competing biographers, who created a mystery they could pretend to solve, for money. Did she sleep with John F Kennedy? Probably. Did she sleep with his brother Robert? Probably not. Was she sexually assaulted by multiple men a few weeks before she died? Probably not, but enjoy the image. Was she murdered and, if so, by whom? The insinuation is: who wouldn’t want to murder Marilyn if you couldn’t fuck her (at least first?). It’s a reimagining of her life as pornography – the male biographer’s desire – but it’s unlikely. Serious female drug addicts tend to die before 30: she got half a decade more. Women diminished her too, before Oates. Even her feminist biographer Gloria Steinem, stooping to use Marilyn as material – why not? – called her “a minor American actress”. 

Then a worse fate befell her: the attention of serious writers. The first was Norman Mailer, who put it about that she slept with Robert Kennedy and was murdered, and co-wrote a play about her: Strawhead, in which she talks a lot about menstruation and admits to 12 abortions. We have no idea how many abortions Marilyn had, if any, but the image of the beautiful woman cut within is irresistible. Mailer also wrote a sexually deranged book about her: “a novel biography”.

“She was our angel,” he writes, “the sweet angel of sex, and the sugar of sex came up from her like a resonance of sound in the clearest grain of a violin…Marilyn was deliverance, a very Stradivarius of sex, so gorgeous, forgiving, humorous, compliant and tender that even the most mediocre musician would relax his lack of art in the dissolving magic of her violin.” This is not biography, of course, but fantasy: “Yes, she ran a reconnaissance through the Fifties and left a message for us in her death, ‘Baby go boom’.” Quite so: and yet Mailer is writing about a woman he feels he can intellectually patronise, while calling her a “sexual oven”.

Truman Capote’s writings are less deranged, but then, being gay, he didn’t want to sleep with her. They met at the funeral of Constance Collier, a British actress, in 1955 – Monroe had been working on her Ophelia with Collier. The most valuable thing in Capote’s 1980 essay “A Beautiful Child” is the judgment of Collier herself: “I don’t think she’s an actress at all, not in any traditional sense. What she has – this presence, this luminosity, this flickering intelligence – could never surface on the stage. It’s so fragile and subtle, it can only be caught by the camera. It’s like a hummingbird in flight: only the camera can freeze the poetry of it. But anyone who thinks this girl is simply another Harlow or harlot or whatever is mad.” This is Sybil Thorndike’s assessment too: “She’s really the only one of us who knows how to act in front of a camera!”

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Capote recycled two Monroe myths: the dangerous duality of Marilyn and Norma Jeane, and the inevitability of her early death. He has Collier saying, “somehow I feel she’ll go young”. Later he found Marilyn in a bathroom. “I said: ‘What are you doing?’ She said,” – and she is in front of a mirror, painting herself – “‘Looking at Her.’”

If these episodes sound novelistic, this feels true. Marilyn asks Capote what Elizabeth Taylor is like. He recounts: “I said well, she’s a little bit like you, she wears her heart on her sleeve and talks salty, and Marilyn said fuck you…”

Arthur Miller fictionalised her too, though she fictionalised him also, and when she realised her delusion – he was not morally impeccable – she left him. He worked fragments of her character into his film The Misfits, her last, in which she played Roslyn, a young divorcee. Miller called The Misfits his gift to Marilyn, but it is a cruel tribute. One scene has Marilyn opening a cupboard filled with photographs of herself as a glamour girl. “Don’t look at those,” Miller makes her say, “they’re nothing. Gay just hung ’em up for a joke.”

In his play After the Fall – staged 17 months after her death – he battled with her still. She calls herself (as Maggie) “a joke that brings in money”. He (as Quentin) says: “I should have agreed she was a joke, a beautiful piece, trying to take herself seriously! Why did I lie to her, play this cheap benefactor?” Even so: “She had a strange, surprising honour.”

In his memoir Timebends he polished the myth. “The branching tree of her catastrophe was rooted in her having been condemned from birth – cursed might be a better word.” “Her first night in the orphanage must have withered up the blessing of life, and it died in her there.” “She was ‘Marilyn Monroe’ and that was what was killing her.”

Miller’s subconscious was more honest: though he placed the fantasy in the desires of others. He once dreamed, he wrote, that Marilyn was sucked into a machine and came out as a hamburger, something as emblematic of the 1950s as she: “One man pulled it free and ate, blood dripping from his lips.”

These three writers collude to create the cautionary tale of Marilyn Monroe, which has reached a foul nadir in Blonde.

It places Ana de Armas in real scenes from Monroe’s films, but there is something tinny about these, something off. De Armas cannot inhabit Marilyn Monroe: the actor who is not, presumably, a drug addict is more shrivelled than the one who was. It’s a bad impersonation, particularly in these sequences: there is nothing alive about it, while Monroe, however unwell, could still steal a film from Jack Lemmon.

De Armas, almost as badly served by this film as Monroe herself, does better with the beatings and the rape scenes – in a revolting 90-second depiction of Monroe giving JFK a blow job, he forces her head down and her eyes are frightened and huge. But of Marilyn on screen she can do nothing. This film does not understand her, and so it cannot pay her tribute. It breaks her down to her constituents parts, and finds nothing in its hands.

In her superb analysis, The Many Lives of Marilyn Monroe, the cultural historian Sarah Churchwell warns that Monroe is now less a woman than a mirror, offering you only your own reflection: you see what you want to see. In Monroe, these men – Capote aside, who liked only a good story – see their desire, their envy and, though unconsciously, their guilt. I see a genius, witty and generous, fighting for her status and her calling, despite – not due to – her drug addiction. I see her laughing. I wonder if the very scope of the culture she created – the confounding – is a tribute.

The film critic David Thomson’s writings on her are only a collection of notes, as if she were fragments that cannot be assembled. Yet it is Marilyn Monroe who stands on the cover of his great The New Biographical Dictionary of Film, dressed as Sugar Kane Kowalczyk, raising her ukulele.

This article was originally published on 1 October 2022.

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This article appears in the 05 Oct 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Crashed!