Women In Trouble: Blonde, David Lynch, and the Many Faces of Marilyn Monroe
"It's nice to be included in people's fantasies, but you also like to be accepted for your own sake."
After a world premiere at the Venice International Film Festival, Netflix released Andrew Dominik’s Blonde, an adaptation of Joyce Carol Oates’ 2000 novel of the same name. The film recounts the life of Norma Jeane Mortenson (Ana de Armas), better known by her professional name, Marilyn Monroe. The film follows Monroe from her early childhood and fraught relationship with her mother (Julianne Nicholson), through her infamous relationships with the so-called ‘Ex-Athlete,’ Joe DiMaggio (Bobby Cannavale), ‘Playwright,’ Arthur Miller (Adrien Brody), and ‘President,’ John F. Kennedy (Caspar Phillipson), ultimately ending with Monroe’s untimely death in 1962.
The film proved controversial; Dominik himself described the film as a fictional account of the actress's life, but many felt the film’s focus on dramatizing Monroe’s abuse only served to further exploit her legacy. “Given all the indignities and horrors that Marilyn Monroe endured during her 36 years,” writes Manohla Dargis for the New York Times, “...it is a relief that she didn’t have to suffer through the vulgarities of Blonde.” And there is surely no shortage of vulgarities during the film’s nearly three-hour runtime.
One scene in the film graphically depicts a group of producers sexually assaulting Monroe promising to advance her career. Another sees Monroe forced to undergo multiple abortions while the personified fetuses in her womb cry out to her, an editing decision many considered detestable. She is shown beaten by her husband and by President Kennedy, right after he forces her to fellate him, in a scene based upon events that are highly speculative at best.
Nevertheless, the film received praise for its unconventional storytelling, drifting away from the traditional, conservative markings of biopics. In particular, many have compared Blonde to the films of acclaimed surrealist director David Lynch. Damon Wise, writing for Deadline, even warned of Blonde that “anyone expecting an idiot’s guide to Marilyn Monroe will be surprised or even appalled to see the late star’s life presented as a horror movie in the surreal, nightmarish style of David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive.”
Dominik himself is an outspoken fan of Lynch. In 2012, when listing his ten favorite films to the magazine Sight & Sound, he included two of Lynch’s films, Blue Velvet and Mulholland Drive. When asked about Lynch’s influence at the Venice premiere, Dominik explained that Blonde “fits into a long tradition of female anxiety films, and David Lynch makes ‘women in trouble’ movies.” Applying David Lynch’s “woman in trouble” formula to Blonde makes perfect sense, and he would be the first to tell you that, in many ways, Marilyn Monroe herself has been the blueprint for these ‘women in trouble’ throughout his career.
David Lynch is perhaps best known for his collaboration with screenwriter Mark Frost on their hit television show Twin Peaks, which premiered in 1990. They first paired to adapt Anthony Summers’ book titled Goddess: The Secret Lives of Marilyn Monroe, for which Lynch and Frost had co-written a screenplay that focused on the end of Monroe’s life, blaming her death on Robert F. Kennedy. The project was eventually dropped, in part due to fear of legal repercussions from the Kennedy family, but Lynch has since spoken openly about how the actress’s life would inspire his later work, starting with his next and most famous collaboration with Frost.
Twin Peaks is a supernatural mystery series in which members of a Pacific Northwest town investigate the mysterious death of homecoming queen Laura Palmer. Both Monroe and Laura are young blonde women adored by their respective communities, yet harbor terrible secrets and consequently suffer terrible abuse. Monroe was sexually abused as a child and an adult by powerful men in Hollywood, and also suffered from a drug addiction that would ultimately take her life. In Twin Peaks, Laura is similarly abused and forced into prostitution by the powerful men in town, which causes her to develop a cocaine addiction. Laura is also tormented at home by both her father and a spirit known as BOB which has possessed him. Eventually (major spoilers ahead for television’s greatest mystery) BOB–or possibly her father himself–kills Laura.
The influence of Monroe’s aesthetic and lifestyle is seen in Lynch’s other works. Three of his latest films, Lost Highway, Mulholland Drive, and Inland Empire are known by fans as his ‘L.A. Trilogy’ because they all deal with actresses working in Hollywood and the abuses they face. The films deal with the theme of the corruption that lurks below the shining veneer of Hollywood, exploiting youth and beauty for consumption. As an added touch, each film's female protagonist sports blonde hair. Lynch himself told Vanity Fair in 2017, “You could say that Laura Palmer is Marilyn Monroe and that Mulholland Drive is about Marilyn Monroe, too… Everything is about Marilyn Monroe.” He also told Vice in 2018 that “It's hard to say exactly what it is about Marilyn Monroe, but the woman-in-trouble thing is part of it.”
But, where Lynch succeeds in loosely using Marilyn’s imagery to represent the treatment of women by the film industry, Dominik and Blonde fail. While the film does criticize the men objectifying and abusing Monroe, it fundamentally views her the same way: a spectacle for our entertainment. While Lynch shows us the contrast between how his female characters are treated and who they really are, Blonde is not so careful. Hollywood certainly typecasted Monroe as a so-called ‘dumb blonde’, and her public persona reflected this curated image. Still, it is well known that the real Marilyn Monroe was an intelligent and capable professional. Sarah Churchwell, author of The Many Lives of Marilyn Monroe, said in 2012, “The biggest myth is that she was dumb… She was far from dumb, although she was not formally educated, ...she was very smart indeed—and very tough. She had to be both to beat the Hollywood studio system in the 1950s.”
Yet, Dominik takes Monroe’s ‘dumb blonde’ screen persona and makes it the essence of her character. Catherine Bray, writing for Empire, described the film’s version of Monroe as “a little girl lost, who repeatedly calls her lovers 'Daddy' and reacts to almost every new setback with the same tremulously teary ingénue's pout.” No mention is made of Monroe’s own business endeavors, such as the production company she founded or her role in the collapse of the Hollywood studio system. Additionally, Monroe is not shown with a single female friend. When the film does allude to Monroe’s intelligence, specifically her interest in Russian writers such as Dostoyevsky or Chekov, it is only done to show how little she was taken seriously on these topics or to show how these interests make her attractive to men. De Armas’ portrayal of Monroe is virtually none other than that of a victim, as it is the only way Dominik sees her.
Compare this to Lynch’s Laura Palmer, his first Monroe-inspired character, who was perhaps inspired directly by his original plan for Marilyn in Goddess. Yes, Laura is shown to be a victim. Especially in Twin Peaks’ prequel film, Fire Walk With Me, we see her suffer at the hands of her father, her French-Canadian pimp, and ultimately by forces beyond this earth. But this is not all we see of her. We see her relationship with her best friend, Donna Hayward, struggling to stay close while still trying to keep her away from the same fate of suffering. At one point Donna asks her if she were falling through space, would she “slow down after a while, or go faster and faster?” “Faster and faster,” Laura responds. “For a long time you wouldn’t feel anything. Then you’d burst into fire forever. And the angels wouldn’t help you because they’ve all gone away.”
Most interestingly throughout the show, Laura appears cognizant of her impending death. She constantly warns people that she feels she will soon be gone and tries desperately to stop her friends from getting dragged down with her. It is this depth with which Lynch presents Laura that makes her eventual suffering all the more unbearable. But, it is not the brutality committed against Laura alone that leaves us in anguish (as Dominik may believe), but this knowledge that Laura is beyond saving. Perhaps Marilyn felt the same, trapped to an inescapable destiny by the men around her—you wouldn’t know from watching Blonde.
Although, perhaps not all the blame can be placed on Dominik. After all, Marilyn Monroe was a real person, and Lynch’s protagonists are not. How might we have reacted to Lynch’s unrealized version of Monroe’s story—would we have called it just as exploitative as Dominik’s? There is also something to be said about the cyclical nature of this Lynch-Blonde relationship. The real Marilyn Monroe inspires David Lynch, whose characters in turn inspire Dominik’s fictional Monroe. What does that make the Monroe of Blonde? Has she become completely disconnected from the reality of Norma Jeane Mortenson? A caricature of herself? Or, has she become the ultimate archetype of Marilyn Monroe, the ultimate “woman in trouble?”
Maybe she is both, somewhere in the middle... After all, the source material of her life comes from two books based themselves in rumor and tabloid conspiracy. But now, through the many filters of the Hollywood gaze, an ever-selective account of her life begins to emerge, one of scandal, salaciousness, and victimhood. Regardless of which director handles Monroe’s story with more ethical insight, the question remains: for the sake of Marilyn herself, does the tragedy need to keep being told?
Fire Walk With Me ends with a strangely beautiful ending. Laura has been killed and her body discovered, setting the events of the original show into motion, but the scene then changes; we see Laura seated in the ‘Red Room’, the surreal, abstract setting of the show’s otherworldly happenings. A light flashes and Laura looks up to see an angel floating above her, reaching out her hand—one of the angels she thought had “all gone away.”
Laura smiles, laughs, and begins to cry tears of joy. Finally, in death, her suffering has ended. Does Marilyn not deserve the same?
Benjamin Fishbein is a freshman in the College planning to major in History.