Why ‘Blonde’ is a cultural artefact of the #MeToo era
Plus, a rundown of the books, films, music and more by Tortoise Media, the slow news agency
Sunday 25 September 2022 By Matt d’Ancona
Welcome to the latest Creative Sensemaker from Tortoise Media.
In his otherwise deranged 1973 biography of Marilyn Monroe, Norman Mailer writes astutely that ‘she was the last of the myths to thrive in the long evening of the American dream’. Few human beings in history have achieved such fame, and even fewer have derived so little pleasure from it.
Born Norma Jean Mortenson in Los Angeles on 1 June 1926, she was only 36 when she died, in the same city, on 4 August 1962. By then, she was the sexual plaything of the Kennedy brothers, sacked from George Cukor’s Something’s Gotta Give, destroyed by drugs, paranoia and isolation. Yet her position in modern iconography was already secure.
With Monroe so deeply lodged in the collective psyche, how should the filmmaker approach her story? In his colossal new movie, Blonde (selected cinemas, 23 September; Netflix, 28 September), director Andrew Dominik addresses the task with an adroit creative decision, though one for which he has already been criticised.
First, the film – starring Ana de Armas, in an Oscar®-worthy performance – is not in any sense a straightforward biopic, auditing the ups and downs of a life, the joys and the miseries of a Hollywood goddess. Instead, Dominik adopts an unambiguous directorial strategy: to tell Monroe’s story as an unloved child, horribly manipulated by men – and to pursue it with ferocious clarity.
Second, Blonde is a movie adaptation of Joyce Carole Oates’ acclaimed novel of the same name, rather than a forensic investigation based on historical sources, interviews and archive searches. The book’s brutal centrepiece is the aspiring actress’s rape by ‘Mr Z’ (a thinly-disguised version of studio mogul, Darryl Zanuck), which amounts, grotesquely, to her most significant audition. Oates tells the story as a monstrous fairytale in which Norma Jean reinvents herself, just as her native city has reinvented itself: “My new life! My new life has begun! Today it began!… It’s only now beginning, I am twenty-one years old & I am MARILYN MONROE.”
Dominik’s movie pursues this theme without apology or qualification: Monroe is depicted as the horribly exploited victim of a patriarchal studio system; beaten by DiMaggio (Bobby Cannavale), patronised and then ditched by her third husband Arthur Miller (Adrien Brody); and finally delivered to JFK’s hotel room by Secret Service agents like a sexual package.
At the heart of this predatory maelstrom, de Armas is the heart and soul of the movie, prodigiously believable as a damaged woman whose personality has bifurcated completely between reality and myth. ‘She’s pretty, I guess,’ she says, looking at a magazine cover of herself. ‘But it isn’t me.’ At times, she foreswears her screen persona: ‘F**k Marilyn,’ she says, answering the phone. ‘She’s not here!’
It will be objected that Blonde, in its relentless depiction of trauma and sadness, finds little space for Monroe’s agency, skill as an actress and bids for self-empowerment. And it is true – and often recounted in the proliferating accounts of her life – that she formed her own production company; walked away from her contract with 20th Century Fox in 1954; was hostile to the anti-communist witch hunts of the House Un-American Activities Committee; formed an unexpected bond with none other than Edith Sitwell; and worked with the greatest directors of her era.
But the role of art is not to act as therapy, or to satisfy an imposed notion of taste (‘I’m not concerned with being tasteful,’ he says in an interview with Christina Newland in the current issue of Sight & Sound). Instead, he presents a highly stylised, hyper-real version of Monroe’s life as a study in suffering.
The movie refuses to let the viewer off the hook or to avert its gaze by relieving the tension with scenes of bliss, or with emotional punctuation marks that soften the impact. The sheer intensity, talent and commitment of de Armas make this possible. As such, Blonde is one of the most important cultural artefacts to date of the #MeToo era, full of disturbing contemporary resonance, unflinching in its confrontation with what men of power are capable of doing to women. It is not an exploitative film at all, but a radical work of art.
Here are this week’s recommendations:
Inside Man (BBC One, 26 September)
Steven Moffat’s captivating new drama stars Stanley Tucci as Jefferson Grieff, a criminologist on death row in the US for murdering his wife, and David Tennant as Harry Watling, a warm-hearted and informal Anglican vicar who seems entirely unlikely to land in trouble of any sort. This, of course, is not how things pan out – and Harry, trying to protect a young verger, inadvertently finds himself embroiled in disaster. Lydia West excels as Beth Davenport, a hotshot journalist who seeks Grieff’s help in tracing Janice Fife (Dolly Wells), a missing maths teacher.
‘Everyone is a murderer,’ the criminologist tells her. ‘You just have to meet the right person.’ But is this a murder case – and how, precisely, will Grieff and the vicar’s respective stories become entwined? One of the best television dramas of the year.
The Franchise Affair, To Love And Be Wise, The Daughter Of Time by Josephine Tey
In 1990, the British Crime Writers’ Association voted Josephine Tey’s The Daughter Of Time (1951) the greatest crime novel of all time. It is remarkable then that the author is not better known.
Hats off to Penguin, therefore, for republishing these three titles, with new introductions by (respectively), Tana French, Alexander McCall Smith and Kate Mosse. All three feature Inspector Alan Grant of Scotland Yard, and The Daughter Of Time is indeed the pick of the bunch, involving detective work across the centuries as Grant, recuperating in hospital, investigates Richard III’s dastardly historical reputation.
The Franchise Affair transposes a famous 18th-century abduction scandal to the 1940s, while To Love And Be Wise, is a classic detective story, set in the apparently sleepy village of Salcott St Mary – with one of the best twists you will ever read in a crime novel.
Autofiction by Suede
In May, Brett Anderson told the NME that Autofiction ‘is our punk record’ – and he wasn’t kidding. It is really quite something for a band that formed in 1989, whose frontman turns 55 on 29 September, to produce an album that fizzes so fabulously with true punk energy, neurosis and menace. From its storming opener ‘She Still Leads Me On’, Suede’s ninth album has all the passion, courage and serrated edges of a debut record. Which makes one think: how many other British groups have maintained the power to intrigue for more than three decades?
That’s all for now. Enjoy the weekend and take care of yourselves.
Editor and Partner