Elizabeth II was six weeks older than Marilyn Monroe. It’s a disconcerting fact which seems to go against our instinctive understanding of culture and history. We associate Elizabeth with old money, castles, crowns and colonial regimes. Marilyn, a symbol of the new age: mass media, Hollywood Hills, turbocharged celebrity. The latter is forever young and red-lipped, suspended in the ‘60s at her most glamorous, like an insect trapped in amber.
Yet both women were born less than two months apart in 1926. By the time they were 25, they were already icons. In 1952, Elizabeth became the Queen and Marilyn graced the cover of Life Magazine, shot in the corner of her small studio apartment, a white evening gown slipped from her shoulders, eyes half closed and mouth half open. Four years later, at a premiere in London’s Leicester Square, the two women came face to face. Back then, it would have been hard to say which 30 year old was more recognisable, or whose image was most widely reproduced. If the stately Lizzie had stamps, coins and notes, sexy Norma Jeane had every magazine and big screen under the sun.
On the 8th September this year, the Queen of the United Kingdom and the queen of Hollywood had another strange collision. As news of the death of Elizabeth II shook the global media, Andrew Dominik’s long-anticipated and much-discussed Marilyn Monroe movie, Blonde, had its world premiere at the 79th Venice International Film Festival. Two icons both vying for column inches; one had been dead for a few hours, the other for 60 years.
Death has a curious effect on icons. In one sense, it ends the story. But in another, perhaps more profound, way it shifts the narrative to another realm. Death opens up their lives to memory, rumour, conspiracy and fantasy.
Accusations of “falseness” have dogged Dominik’s Blonde since the film was first announced. But it is in fact a fiction, layered on top of another fiction – a three-hour adaptation of the 2000 novel of the same title by Joyce Carol Oates. This fact seems to have perturbed some people, with various tweets offering “friendly reminders” that the film is based on a fictionalised account, and others offering less friendly accusations that Blonde is “ACTUAL FULL OUT LIES.” In particular, the casting of Ana de Armas for the role of Monroe prompted immediate backlash, with her Cuban heritage and accent laughably used to suggest that her portrayal wouldn’t be “authentic.” One angry tweeter suggested de Armas “is portraying a lie.”
There’s a deep irony to these feelings of outrage. Certainly, it is ironic that the first movie ever made by Netflix to be rated NC-17 (meaning no one under the age of 17 is allowed to see the film in a theatre) initially provoked people – not for its graphicness, but for its status as fiction. In early press for the film, Dominik promised that Blonde would “offend everyone.” But surely the director was imagining the audience’s response to depictions of sexual abuse, a bleak blow-job scene with JFK (played by Caspar Phillipson), and what can only be described as a vaginal POV shot of an abortion, rather than its source material and the lead actress’ Cuban upbringing?
Is it a sign of the times, six decades on from Monroe’s death, that sexual content on screen provokes less controversy than creative license? In the days since the film’s Venice premiere, some people have claimed to be “disgusted” by early reviews of Blonde (most of which, it has to be said, have declared the film average at best and, at worst, “intensely irritating”), asking in sickened tones how critics can “appreciate a ‘biography’ where almost everything is fiction?” It seems cinema isn’t immune from being condemned with the most damning insult to influencers and Love Island contestants alike: being fake.
Here’s another irony, then. In this age of scripted reality, deepfakes and social media influence, authenticity has arguably never been at such a premium. But when it comes to storytelling, it seems we have slipped into thinking of documentary, biography and biopic as hallowed narrative forms – true accounts, rather than edited interpretations, partial renderings.
In the contemporary quest for authenticity, we may in fact be losing the ability to appreciate the blurred line between fact and fiction. This is doubly peculiar in the case of Monroe, whose allure largely relies on an unstable boundary between appearance and reality, life and art. “Marilyn Monroe” was, after all, a construct and a constant performance (“Marilyn’s like a veil I wear over Norma Jeane,” Monroe supposedly declared). Indeed, if authenticity was what de Armas’ critics were after, perhaps they should have listened to Monroe herself, who said “it takes a smart brunette to play a dumb blonde” (if, of course, copious “inspirational” Monroe internet quotations are to be believed any more than dialogue in novels).
Perhaps the outrage stems, in part, from the sense that Monroe’s life has been endlessly raked over; that a parade of people have profited from digging up her corpse, prodding at her womb, poking at her brain, cutting off chunks of her hair. Kim Kardashian was, of course, widely denounced for her recent play-pretend turn in Monroe’s dress, another performance deemed by many to be grossly offensive to Monroe’s memory. But when it comes to profiting off corpses, contemporary culture’s not just got its claws on Norma Jeane’s. Indeed, we seem to be witnessing an acceleration of interest in beautiful young things; hot dead girls.
While Monroe and Elizabeth II are age-mates, there is another icon from the extended royal household the Monroe myth tips more closely to. Which other woman’s life story is so steeped in memory, rumour, conspiracy and fantasy than Diana Spencer’s, the “People’s Princess”? Like Marilyn, Diana has been endlessly picked over. Her life story has continually been open for interpretation. From Naomi Watts’ turn in 2013’s Diana, all the way through to Kristen Stewart’s recent portrayal in Spencer, and Elizabeth Debicki’s revenge dress-up in the upcoming series of The Crown, it seems the appetite for uncanny resurrections can never be sated.
A similar story can be told for yet another dead famous woman: Amy Winehouse. There was 2015’s Amy, Asif Kapadia’s Oscar-winning documentary; 2018’s Amy Winehouse: Back to Black, Jeremy Marre’s in-depth look at the making of the titular album; and 2021’s Reclaiming Amy, in which her friends and family reflected on her legacy. And soon: a major new Hollywood biopic. Titled Back to Black, the upcoming movie will see Sam Taylor-Johnson turning her directorial hand to the life of Camden’s queen.
Marilyn, Diana, Amy. All three have transcended the bounds of traditional historical accounts, becoming cult figures and contemporary icons. An important thing to note about icons, though, is that they are pure image – hollow symbols, ready to be filled with projections. These women continue to exist in the realm of fantasy and myth. They belong in a hall of mirrors, their very familiarity only reinforcing a deep unknowability and mystique. For this reason, fictional accounts of their lives can never be false. Their personas were fictions from the start.
Instead of decrying all fictional adaptations as fake, we should be interrogating what kind of fictions we’re being exposed to. The real issue with Blonde is actually that it is boring. Despite using a parade of cinematic techniques to try and distract from its essential hollowness, rather than being controversial it is bleak and depressingly conventional in its misogyny. It is a cliché to define a woman purely by death and tragedy, but this is what Dominik does with his Marilyn doll. She’s a flat and weepy caricature, helplessly buffeted by trauma, daddy issues and the winds of fate.
Essentially, the problem with Blonde is not that, as a fictional adaptation of an iconic life, it is “full out lies”, but that there is no life to be found in it at all. While screen time is given to the abuse and tragedy inflicted upon Monroe, the film doesn’t portray her as a three-dimensional character, or one who has much agency in her own story.
Surely, rather than this dreary and depressing portrayal of the Marilyn myth, a more interesting take would be imagining Marilyn living until she was 96? Instead of ditching fiction altogether, why not use it to envision her life had she, like Elizabeth, continued to exist in the public eye for six more decades, working, ageing and – perhaps most controversially of all – exerting control over her own narrative?