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Monroe is more than a sex symbol in new film

September 27, 2022

A new film about the Hollywood icon shows how Marilyn Monroe was ahead of her time politically. It also highlights the personal tragedies that drove her to an early grave. "Blonde" premieres on Netflix on September 28.

Film still from "Blonde," Ana de Armas sits in front of a mirror and laughs.
Ana de Armas in 'Blonde'Image: Netflix/picture alliance/dpa

Self-determined. Body-positive. Woke.

These adjectives weren't common in 1950s Hollywood during the peak of actor Marilyn Monroe's career.

More often labeled "blonde bombshell" or "sex symbol," she actually bucked some of the social trends of the mid-20th century that still strike a chord today  — and that is 60 years after she succumbed to a barbiturate overdose on August 5, 1962. 

On September 28, "Blonde,"  Netflix's Monroe biopic, is released on the streaming platform in Europe, Australia and beyond.

Having premiered at the 2022 Venice Film Festival and been released in cinemas in the US on September 16 and in the UK on September 23, many critics have already celebrated the film, and especially the performance of the lead, Cuban-born Ana de Armas.

Other reviewers, including the Chicago Sun-Times, called it "overlong" and "overwrought" and lamented that the film "depicts Marilyn Monroe’s life as a joyless nightmare."

But Ana de Armas, the latest actor to embody the troubled Hollywood icon, was roundly lauded. US entertainment news outlet Variety wrote that she "gives us nothing less than what we came for. She becomes Marilyn Monroe." Meanwhile, the Guardian newspaper called the Cuban actress "simply extraordinary" in the role.

Ana de Armas in the iconic white dress which is being blown up by the wind.
Actress Ana de Armas was lauded for her portrayal of MonroeImage: Netflix/Picturelux/IMAGO

Fiction, not a biopic

"Blonde" recreated iconic Marilyn Monroe movie scenes —  including the moment when the star stood over a subway ventilation shaft that whipped up her white dress. The star's wardrobe was also faithfully recreated for the film. 

But the film is mostly fictional, borrowing its title —  and inspired by —  the 2000 novel by US author Joyce Carol Oates. This Monroe story is an attempt to delve into the gap between the private Norma Jeane Mortenson (Monroe's birth name), and the Marilyn figure she created. 

Writer and director Andrew Dominik ("Killing Them Softly") has said that he wanted "Blonde" to play out the tension between Monroe's interior life and the "collective memory" of her. 

Beyond the two dimensional character

With her mother struggling with mental health issues and her father's identity unknown, Norma Jeane Mortenson grew up in foster homes where she was sexually abused.

Monroe's troubled private life has been thoroughly dissected over the decades: Failed marriages, miscarriages and abortions, drug abuse, rumored liaisons with film studio bigwigs, as well as the Kennedy brothers. 

Professionally, her come-hither looks, breathy voice — a strategy suggested by a speech therapist to overcome a stutter — and the sexuality-driven roles she landed, reduced her to a two dimensional character that pandered primarily to male fantasies.

One of the film's most shocking scenes implies that Monroe was raped by John F. Kennedy, with whom she was said to have been having a consensual affair.

While there is no official record of this abuse, the scene works to highlight Monroe's victimization and debasement as a sex object. 

Xavier Samuel as Cass Chaplin (left), Ana de Armas as Marilyn Monroe and Evan Williams as Eddy G. Robinson Jr.
The film depicts the actress's fraught relationships with the men in her lifeImage: Netflix/Picturelux/IMAGO

US news site The Daily Beast called the sequence "the most horrifying scene of the film," having dubbed the biopic "a horror show filled with disturbing imagery."

Such scenes are likely what led to the NC-17 rating, something actress de Armas told French fashion magazine L’Officiel, she disagreed with. 

“I can tell you a number of shows or movies that are way more explicit with a lot more sexual content than 'Blonde'," she said. "But to tell this story it is important to show all these moments in Marilyn’s life that made her end up the way that she did. It needed to be explained. Everyone [in the cast] knew we had to go to uncomfortable places. I wasn’t the only one."

An unlikely feminist icon

In the decades since Monroe's death, she has been embraced as a feminist icon. Originally held up as an example of why feminism was necessary to counter the sexual exploitation and objectification of women, she has since been recognized for her own demands for self-determination. 
Way before Facebook boss Sheryl Sandberg rallied women to "lean in" and claim their rightful place at the executive table, Monroe had already warmed the seat.

Signed to Twentieth Century Fox, she had grown weary of "dumb blonde" roles and wanted more say in the scripts and roles she took on.  She set up Marilyn Monroe Productions in 1955, becoming the second woman in the US, after Mary Pickford, to start her own production company.

Marilyn Monroe on a film set.
Monroe was tired of being typecast and set up her own production companyImage: picture-alliance/dpa

Following much legal wrangling, Monroe and the movie company struck a deal that saw her successfully negotiating for back pay, a higher salary and a role in selecting scripts, directors and cinematographers — a rare victory for a female actor back then.

She called out #MeToo encounters

In "Wolves I Have Known," an article Monroe authored for the January 1953 issue of Motion Picture and Television Magazine, she denounced the sexual harassment rampant in Hollywood at the time.

Describing the men in the industry, the then-27-year-old wrote: "There are many types of wolves. Some are sinister, others are just good-time Charlies trying to get something for nothing and others make a game of it."

Meanwhile, she was unabashed about her curves and embraced her sexuality in a way once seen as the antithesis of feminism. Today she is seen as a pioneer of body positivity. 

Marilyn was woke

Her keen mind and informed views on politics and social justice were often also ignored. One of her most-mentioned acts of awareness was when she used her celebrity to enable jazz star Ella Fitzgerald to perform at a club that originally refused to hire her.

The Mocambo club's management apparently thought Fitzgerald lacked the glamor to perform at the Hollywood hot spot. Monroe urged club owner Charlie Morrison to book Fitzgerald, and in return promised to personally attend every show and sit in the front row.

Ella Fitzgerald and Marilyn Monroe in 1954.
Fitzgerald (left) described her supporter and friend Monroe as being "ahead of her time"Image: picture alliance /AP Photo/RHS

Monroe was an "eternal shape-shifter" whose "multiple transformations allow each generation, even each individual, to create a Marilyn to their own specifications," wrote one of Monroe's biographers, Lois Banner, a history and gender studies professor at the University of Southern California. 

Despite its fictional origins, "Blonde" dwells on the complex persona of a superstar who still resonates with the public 60 years after her death.

This is an updated version of an article that was originally published on August 4, 2022. 

Brenda Haas | Porträt
Brenda Haas Writer and editor for DW Culture