Monday, June 17, 2024

America is obsessed with Marilyn Monroe. ‘Blonde’ is about Norma Jeane.

For a moment there this spring, she was inescapable.

In late April, Marilyn Monroe’s life and death were the subject of the Netflix documentary “The Mystery of Marilyn Monroe: The Unheard Tapes,” which explored a handful of conspiracy theories regarding her relationships with President John F. Kennedy and his brother Robert. The following week, Kim Kardashian made headlines around the world when she arrived at the Met Gala — so fashionably late as to be the very last guest on the scene — wearing the very dress Monroe wore to sing “Happy Birthday” to Kennedy in 1962. The week after that, the famed Andy Warhol portrait of Monroe sold for a record-shattering $195 million at a Christie’s auction.

With the addition of “Blonde,” the new Andrew Dominik film (based on the novel of the same name by Joyce Carol Oates) that arrives Wednesday on Netflix, it would now be hard to refute: We’re in a Year of Marilyn. With her cotton candy puff of golden-white hair unmistakable on the streamer’s home screens and her enigmatic, sleepy gaze peeking out from our entertainment news pages, fascination with her is peaking once again.

Monroe “represents a lot of things to a lot of people,” says Lucy Bolton, who teaches language, literature and film at Queen Mary University of London and guest-edited the 2015 “#Marilyneveryday: The Persistence of Marilyn Monroe as a Cultural Icon” issue of the journal Film, Fashion and Consumption. Her image has “come to stand for the very essence of glamour and beauty,” Bolton says, while her life story “stands for the classic hard-luck, rags-to-riches” tale of making it big in Hollywood.

Indeed, the sale of Monroe’s portrait and the controversial use of her gown at the Met Gala celebrated the former aspect of Monroe’s fame — which suddenly feels in step once again, with the ultrafeminine aesthetic that’s lately become trendy among some younger Americans. But none of this year’s moments of Marilyn fixation have engaged quite as directly with the latter as “Blonde,” which focuses on Norma Jeane Baker, the woman who became Marilyn Monroe.

A few forces have converged this year to create a period of renewed fascination with Monroe — or perhaps more accurately, with Monroe iconography. For starters, 2022 marks the 60th anniversary of Monroe’s death at the age of 36. In August, a memorial service was held in her honor in Los Angeles, timed to the day of her death; tributes and remembrances cropped up all over the internet. Her death in its own right, Bolton notes — its apparently accidental nature coupled with its untimeliness — accounts for a lot of her enduring mystique. “She’s got a victim narrative,” Bolton says, “which, like Judy Garland or Princess Diana, has its own aura of tragedy. And people are attracted to that.”

And while certain aspects of her iconic image have come and gone — her pointy bras and her Middy haircut among them — several routinely come back into style, and have once again this year. “I have noticed once again that clothing is coming around to the ’60s,” says Donelle Dadigan, president and founder of the Hollywood Museum in California (where interest in the Monroe items spikes yearly in June around her birthday). Indeed, while many of today’s most fashionable looks are 1990s- and 2000s-inspired, late-’50s and early-’60s Monroe-era staples such as winged eyelinermidi skirts and colorful matching two-piece outfits are going strong. (Of course, much of Monroe’s signature look has never gone out of style. “We can pick up pretty much any magazine — particularly a fashion magazine like Elle, Vogue or Harper’s [Bazaar],” Bolton says, “and there is nearly always, somewhere in that magazine, a picture of Marilyn.”)

Additionally, Bolton notes, Monroe today “stands for a sort of irresistible, undeniable femininity and beauty” — and in 2022, after several years of dormancy thanks to Americans’ modest, androgynous post-#MeToo styles and the sweatpants era of the coronavirus pandemic, undeniable femininity is back. Vogue recently heralded “Barbiecore” as the hottest trend of summertime, and a TikTok genre known as “BimboTok” was the subject of many a concerned-but-fascinated trend story in 2022. On it are several content creators who are cheekily reclaiming the idea that being overtly hot on purpose is fine — and doesn’t need further justification.

Which is not to say that was true of Marilyn Monroe; in fact, as Bolton and Dadigan both point out, Monroe herself was ambitious about her acting career and actively pursued non-“bombshell” roles. But the genre does seem to take cues from Monroe’s bubbly public persona — and her apparent enjoyment of being a beautiful, hyperfeminine woman.

Chrissy Chlapecka, 22, is one of the most prominent TikTokers associated with BimboTok, and she names Monroe among her lifelong inspirations. Growing up in the 2000s, though, Chlapecka saw what became of women who dared to enjoy womanhood in the public eye. “The way [Marilyn] was talked about back in the early 2000s … the media would take any woman and spit on them. Like Britney Spears, like Janet Jackson,” she says. So it was confusing, growing up and feeling a connection to a figure such as Monroe. Her teachers and even a few family members, she says, were “weird” about it.

“Everybody knew she was iconic. But it was a little taboo in a way, you know?” Chlapecka remembers. “And I was like, ‘Why?’ ”

Blonde,” however clumsily, attempts to answer that question, as it’s the rare Monroe tribute that looks closely at the mortal person behind the immortal image. It is also, to be clear, based on a work of fiction: Oates’s book, published in 2000, sits firmly in the genre of biographical fiction as it imagines the life of the woman formerly known as Norma Jeane.

Still, “Blonde” the movie covers many of the major known tragedies and trials of Monroe’s real life, such as her mother’s mental illness as well as her own, her failed marriages, her substance-abuse issues and her unrealized desire to become a parent. In its storytelling, it deftly separates Norma Jeane from Marilyn, the former repeatedly abused and antagonized, the latter celebrated and adored to an oppressive degree. (It skips over a few famous beats, too, such as Monroe’s early marriage in her teenage years to a police officer — as well as the fact that she had half-siblings, one of whom she reconnected with later in life. In 1994, her half sister Berniece Baker Miracle wrote “My Sister Marilyn,” and it remains one of the few definitive behind-the-scenes nonfiction books about the actress’s life.)

“Blonde,” you could say, applies the very 2020s practice of reexamining female fame in hindsight (see: “Framing Britney Spears,” “Malfunction: The Dressing Down of Janet Jackson,” “Slow Burn: The Clinton Impeachment” and “Gaslit”) to one of the most famous women of all time, full stop. And of course, it comes to the now-familiar conclusion that there was much more to the story than was apparent at the time.

Bolton, speaking in August, was hopeful that “Blonde” would “present an experience of Monroe’s life that is not too melodramatic or sensationalist for the sake of it — because it doesn’t need to be.” Certainly, some critics have cringed or recoiled from the close-up brutality of its depictions of sexual assault, physical violence and abortion. But Dominik’s film certainly meets Bolton’s other expectation: “Respect and fidelity to the complexity of the person.”

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