Ana de Armas is Marilyn Monroe in Blonde (2022)
Ana de Armas as Marilyn Monroe in Blonde (2022). Photo: Blonde/Plan B Entertainment
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Critics found Andrew Dominik’s Marilyn Monroe biopic to be exploitative of the late Hollywood star

Content Warning: This article deals with sexual assault, sexual violence, and suicide.

A biopic (short for biographical picture) is a movie that dramatizes the life of a historical or current public figure. In them, an actor (or sometimes multiple actors portraying different ages) fills the role of the main character — the fictionalized real human being.

It’s worth mentioning a biopic can, but often does not, involve the participation of a still-living subject to ensure accuracy. Family members and friends of deceased subjects have just as often shown their support as they have shunned biopic projects.

Biopics were popularized as a genre in the 1930s, after studios began making biographical films about public figures at the beginning of the 20th century. Studios were tempted by the opportunity to create a film about a real person whose story was already part of the cultural lexicon.

As the genre became more modern in the mid-1950s, biopics mainly took a “warts-and-all” approach; they showcased both the attractive and unattractive sides of their subject.

Knowing that, it would make sense for a biopic’s goal to be to recount the true story of its subject’s life. But that isn’t necessarily always the intention of the writer or director.

An article from Masterclass outlining the characteristics of biopics stated, “Filmmakers often take creative liberties with the narrative of the subject’s life … to heighten the drama and make for a more compelling film. In some cases, a biopic may use surface-level facts about a person as a framework for a narrative that is somewhat fictional.”

When it comes to making things up for the big screen, how far is too far?

Recently, Ana de Armas took on the role of Marilyn Monroe (born Norma Jeane Mortenson) in Blonde (2022). The nearly three-hour movie showed scenes of the darkest parts of Monroe’s life as she was exploited by the film industry and the men within it.

The movie faced criticism from critics and audiences alike. Reviewers asked why a film studio would decide to recreate Monroe’s lived trauma on-screen. An opinion piece from the Guardian offers one reason: “You can see the incentives for filmmakers. Make a biopic ‘commenting’ on a sexually exploited celebrity, like Monroe or Anderson, and you get to recreate the same sexualized images that drew crowds in the first place — only this time, it’s trendily feminist.”

Director Andrew Dominik created Blonde based on Joyce Carol Oates’s 2000 novel of the same name. Both have fiercely defended the work in interviews, and on Twitter. To the British Film Institute, Dominik explained the film as fulfilling his desire to tell a story “about how childhood drama shapes an adult’s perception of the world.”

And about the graphic scenes, Dominik said, “I’m not concerned with being tasteful,” while Oates recommends to anyone uncomfortable with viewing sexual exploitation on-screen “just [to] not see it.”

The focus on the subject’s suffering isn’t unique to Blonde. Author Dennis Bingham explained in his book on biopics, Whose Lives Are They Anyway?, that while biopics with men as subjects tend to be celebratory, those with women as subjects “are weighted down by myths of suffering, victimization, and failure.” Bingham said he “sees biographies of men and women as essentially different genres.”

Beyond (and including) the explicit scenes of the film, viewers are left wondering which aspects of it were true. One review explains how the movie “touches on a series of actual, factual events as a road map, from her movies to her marriages. But ultimately, it’s a fantasia of fame, which increasingly becomes a hellscape.”

Contrary to the earlier idea that the movie exists to recreate Monroe’s sexual exploitation for the camera, the above review suggests these graphic scenes might exist “to show the extent to which the Hollywood machinery commodified her”, giving them a more substantive purpose in the film.

While Blonde uses Monroe’s name, stars an actor who bears her resemblance, and closely follows the chronology of her life, the movie disclaims any similarity. A block of text following the credits said “the characters and events depicted in this program are fictitious. No depiction of actual persons or events is intended.” IMDb calls it “a fictionalized chronicle of the inner life of Marilyn Monroe,” while simultaneously classifying the film as a biography.

Such disclaimers originate from lawsuits for defamation against film studios in the early days of biopics.

By disclaiming the work as fiction, writers and directors are allowed those ‘creative liberties’ to add fictional scenes among the factual events of a biopic to make the film more entertaining for audiences. Disturbingly, in Blonde, many of the added or unfounded scenes are the more controversial ones, including some depicting sexual assault and attempted murder.

The problem with the added controversial scenes, as another of Blonde‘s critics thinks, is “many of the fictitious events in the movie will, in collective memory, turn into reality.” Monroe’s real life was difficult as it was, from her childhood to her death by suicide at 36, without added trauma for dramatic flair.

At the root of it, the intention — not authenticity — of a biopic is one of its most important elements. Dominik decided to re-tell the story of Marilyn Monroe as the victim, which fell short for many viewers who are tired of hearing the same story of exploitation and victimization of one of Hollywood’s biggest stars.

A talented writer and director, Dominik could have made a good movie, and he could have done so without using Marilyn Monroe’s name and story.