Marilyn Monroe, Is She Fact or Fiction?

The 2022 film Blonde brought back Marilyn Monroe into the conversation. But there is complexity in Marilyn’s artistry that we would not be able to perceive when we see her life only through this fictionalization of her pain.

Marilyn Monroe in The Misfits via Wikimedia Commons

And I want to say to the people, if I am a star, the people made me a star. No studio, no person, but the people did.

– Marilyn Monroe, interviewed by Richard Meryman, August 17, 1962.

If you show someone a picture of Marilyn Monroe in The Seven Year Itch (the one where her white dress is blown up by the wind, and she tries to hold it down), there is a great chance the person would still recognize her, whether or not they are into movies. The massive impact Marilyn left in the world led Laura Mulvey, a scholar best known for introducing the term ‘male gaze’ into the film criticism scene, to believe that the platinum blonde woman might be the only other actor besides Charlie Chaplin anyone would recognize based on the face features alone.

 

The Blonde Marilyn

Since Blonde came out last September on Netflix, I’ve been reading critics’ reviews of the film. Marketed as a movie about Marilyn Monroe, it is directed by Andrew Dominik, and adapted from a novel of the same name by Joyce Carol Oates. Suffice it to say, the movie wasn’t received well by critics.

Leonardo Goi at MUBI’s Notebook effectively summarized how critics view Blonde as a distasteful homage to who Marilyn Monroe was as an actor. One critic at Vulture, Angelica Jade Bastién, thought that the film “wedded to her trauma while forsaking the complex artistry and politics that glittered through her life.” And it has been thought-evoking seeing how people choose to respond to this movie. A user called Mac left a comment on MUBI’s column, fuming in a rather long paragraph about how Blonde is adapted from a work of fiction. “I don’t know why this is controversial or the occasion for critics to demand social justice for Monroe. But that’s where we are as a culture,” Mac argued. Endro Priherdityo at CNN Indonesia also echoed the same point, though much less assailing, that Blonde is better seen as a fiction that wants to highlight the violence in the film industry, not a biography of Marilyn Monroe.

I think it’s worth finding out what it means to see a fictional story when the said story tries to portray a real person. But who was Marilyn Monroe as her own person?

 

The Magnet That Sent Compasses Haywire

I am, as many people in the world are, very aware of the kind of niche Marilyn dominated during her career in Hollywood. Marilyn, born with the name Norma Jeane Mortenson, was the ‘blonde bombshell’, the ‘dumb blonde’, the ‘showgirl’, the ‘sex pot’. She got these names from always portraying, more or less, a similar character: the object of the men’s desire. 

Genuinely, this was the 1950s, women in Hollywood movies could only be so much. It was either conforming to that ideal or failing to be part of the industry. However, unlike Audrey Hepburn, for example, whose characters would appear more conventional and be loved for her princess-like charm, roles that went toward Marilyn were women who are very aware of her own sexual charm, yet innocent in manners. Marilyn was not framed as a femme fatale, where her beauty would make her threatening. Her persona was particularly designed for comedic roles, where men would gravitate toward her for beauty wrapped in earnest naivety. From her earliest role as Angela Phinlay in The Asphalt Jungle to the most remembered Lorelei Lee in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, Marilyn embodied this male fantasy of a highly sexual yet guileless woman, and people adored her for that.

In Fragments, a book of Marilyn’s personal poems, notes, and letters edited by Stanley Buchtal and Bernard Comment, there is a sentence that particularly stands out to me. Buchtal and Comment wrote in the introduction, “[Marilyn] was an elusive star with a magnetic force that sent compasses haywire whenever she got close.” 

The sentence floated back in my mind while watching a scene in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. Marilyn played Lorelei Lee, a charming showgirl engaged to a devoted millionaire named Gus Eisman. The scene shows Gus receiving a kiss from Lorelei, and he is just smitten. It becomes a running gag, whenever she gives him a peck on the cheek, no matter if she has done something unfavorable for him, he would always sway like he is about to faint. The film opens beautifully with a number performed by Lorelei and her friend Dorothy, played by Jane Russell, then it goes on to show who they are as characters. Lorelei turns out to be concerned with one thing in her life: to settle down with a rich man. In an iconic number “Diamonds are a Girl’s Best Friend”, Lorelei performs in a shocking-pink gown, singing her belief that love is a fickle thing compared to the rock-solid diamond. It’s not lost on me how the film tries to capture Lorelei as simplistic and lesser than the ‘smart brunette’ Dorothy. But this particular number doesn’t fail to remain in today’s pop culture, revived in a lot of media including, to name one of my favorites, the 2020 film Birds of Prey.

But, of course, this actor who started her career as a pinup model must then also face the fact that people started to see her as the characters that she played. It was the burden of being in a studio system. Once you are bound by a contract, there was not much else to do except what the studio wanted you to do. Signed under 20th Century Fox Studio, Marilyn was assigned to play the ‘dumb blonde’. But this does not mean she wanted to stay in this persona forever.

 

The Misfit Off Hollywood

Off Marilyn went to join Lee Strasberg’s class and learned method acting, a style of performing which became popular at the time after the public saw Marlon Brando in A Streetcar Named Desire. Method acting requires an actor to identify with their characters’ psyche. Goodbye, then, to easily lovable yet one-note roles 20th Century Fox would assign her. This was a ticket for Marilyn to develop her craft and be seen as a ‘true’ actor.

But it was not until her marriage with the playwright Arthur Miller that she finally saw an opportunity to play a role outside the ‘blonde bombshell’. The Misfits is a 1961 film adapted from Miller’s own short story of the same name. Marilyn and Miller went outside Hollywood for this one, working with Seven Arts Productions to make it happen. 

The story tells of one Roslyn who just got divorced from her husband and goes on to meet three friendly yet troubled men: Gaylord, an aging cowboy, Guido, a truck driver who served in the war, and Perce, a young bull-rider. Right away, I initially thought this was no different than any of Marilyn’s roles: upon meeting Roslyn, the three men just can’t help but be attracted to her, and she still has to cater to them, in one way or another. But this time, it turns out, Roslyn has a chance to be angry. This time men are even punished for making unwanted advances toward her. This time Roslyn is not concerned with being married to a man, rich or not. And what I think is the greatest outcome from this script, Marilyn gets to play a character who forces others to interrogate their own humanity.

The Misfits bombed. The public was still not ready for Marilyn’s departure from comedic roles. Perhaps it had been strange to see a film where there was not a single gag or even a glimpse of fun featuring her. In an incisive video essay, Be Kind Rewind also explains the many ways the production went terribly. At one point, John Huston, the director, got into a huge debt for gambling around Reno, Nevada, where they were filming, and the production had to be paused for then Seven Arts Productions to re-figure out the financing. There is another thing that happens to be included in Blonde—Miller would pick up private conversations between him and Marilyn and insert them into the script.

The last one makes so much sense to me since I can see the image of Roslyn saying, “Maybe, you’re not supposed to believe people. Maybe it’s not even fair to them,” in parallel with her poem in Fragments, “What do I believe in/ What is truth/ I believe in myself/ even my most delicate intangible feelings/ in the end everything is intangible….” The film is not particularly subtle in referencing Marilyn, transplanting her history as Norma Jean and as Marilyn Monroe into Roslyn’s. Later Marilyn and Miller’s marriage would deteriorate during the production, and eventually, they separated. The Misfits became the last film Marilyn ever completed before her death in 1962.

 

The ‘Real’ Marilyn

After The Misfits, and shortly prior to her death, she did an interview with Richard Meryman, offering us her final insight into what she thought of herself and her career. There, she told Meryman, “Goethe said, ‘Talent is developed in privacy,’ you know? …There is a need for aloneness, which I don’t think most people realize for an actor. It’s almost having certain kinds of secrets for yourself that you’ll let the whole world in on only for a moment, when you’re acting. But everybody is always tugging at you. They’d all like sort of a chunk of you.”

To read her words, how she had acted in her films, and how her legacy lives on in today’s media, I think it is much more useful to me in understanding who she was as a person. Marilyn Monroe was neither fact nor fiction, or maybe she was both. We like to think that there is a side to ourselves we would show to the public, and there is another that is the ‘real’ one. But maybe there is no real self in people, they just exist as they are. “…We can only share the part that is within another’s knowing acceptable/ so one/ is for the most part alone…,” thus, Marilyn wrote. 

So, it baffles me when a film like Blonde wants to fictionalize a ‘real’ Marilyn, one that constantly endures pain and suffering in her line of work. One might think, is this the only way we can recognize how violent Hollywood is? By making and watching a fiction of a character entirely based on a real human being? Is violence so foreign to us that we need to watch another person suffer from it for almost three hours? And what do we gain from it?

I believe discouraging people from watching Blonde is useless, however. The film would still exist, and Marilyn would still not be here with us. I think I wrote this ultimately to remind people there is another way to gain meaning from someone else’s existence through their own words, their own works.

But as film critic A.O. Scott once pointed out, “For as long as anyone can remember, Hollywood has reverently burnished and energetically debunked its own mythology.” So, begrudgingly I admit, Mac’s comment was somewhat right, a release of one Hollywood motion picture will never be the occasion to ask for some sort of justice in seeing an individual. Sensationalization is the one thing that keeps the industry going. 

But perhaps Marilyn knew that all along. “I don’t think people will turn against me, at least not by themselves. I like people. The “public” scares me, but people I trust. Maybe they can be impressed by the press or when a studio starts sending out all kinds of stories. But I think when people go to see a movie, they judge for themselves. We human beings are strange creatures and still reserve the right to think for ourselves,” She deliberated to Meryman, as if to reject pessimism, and to assert her trust toward the people who made her who she is, a star, until today.