Blonde: The 2001 TV version is better than Andrew Dominik’s

It contains a deeper source of humanity and empathy for his Marilyn because it was the only Marilyn biopic written and directed by women.

Ironically, Andrew Dominik, director of the latest Marilyn Monroe biopic Blonde, wonders if anyone still watches Marilyn Monroe movies. I’d say the many Monroe biopics out there, whether they directly retell the events of her life or how his own are loosely inspired by them, say otherwise. It’s even more frustrating to look at the on-screen landscape of Marilyn’s portrayals and realize that only two were directed by women; and only one was written and directed by a woman. It is the same film also based on the novel by Joyce Carol Oates who seems to have a better awareness of Marilyn and her films.

In 2001, CBS aired the two-part miniseries “Blonde,” directed by Joyce Chopra and written by Joyce Eliason, who follows a tormented upbringing with a mentally ill mother to eventually find fame, love, heartbreak, and tragedy. Because of the source material, CBS’s “Blonde” shares the same beats as Dominik’s film, while still conveying far more empathy and appreciation for Monroe, her career, and her life than you’ll find in the nearly three-hour opus on Netflix.

Just two minutes before Dominik’s feature film, Chopra’s “Blonde” takes a standard life-to-death storyline and gives audiences as much of Monroe’s life as they can absorb, including her youth and rise to stardom. If you don’t know anything about Marilyn Monroe, Chopra’s “Blonde” will give you everything. If you already know it all, it reveals her story with a glimpse of the question, “How did everyone let her down?” Chopra emphasizes that Monroe’s dance with death began young, beginning with her alcoholic, mentally ill mother being a told young Norma that her unknown father was an industry heavyweight (historically untrue). Norma Jean eventually enters a series of foster homes, increasing her sense of abandonment.

Dominik doesn’t include any of that in his film, jumping from Norma Jean’s mother’s mental break, to a brief stay with a neighbor who places her in foster care, and a time jump of several years. Without all of this, it’s unclear how Norma Jean became Marilyn Monroe in the first place. Gone are the years of modeling, small roles, and a complete physical transformation dictated by the studio that gave us Marilyn. Dominik seems to be saying that the girl was just lucky (a rape scene early in the film is also said to have been her entry into Hollywood).

Showcasing Marilyn’s early modeling days is essential, particularly the famous 1949 red velvet calendar pictures she took with photographer Tom Kelley. As Chopra’s feature notes, these images became controversial as Monroe rose to fame, with studio executives claiming she committed lewdness. But this Marilyn points out Hollywood’s hypocrisy and reminds those who criticize her decisions that war is far more indecent than a woman posing naked to make a few bucks. While that’s not exactly how the situation happened, it’s an opportunity for Marilyn to show her eloquence, strength, and awareness of Hollywood’s double standards. Dominik may not have wanted to focus on moments when Marilyn was trying to transform Hollywood (like starting her own production company), but in Chopra’s vision, Marilyn is chronically aware of the tightrope walk she’s walking, and it’s that insecurity that keeps her addicted and could have driven suicide.

Chopra claims that Marilyn’s problems aren’t solely related to men using and abusing her — though that’s certainly true and illustrated throughout the miniseries — but that a lack of female support has also done irreparable damage. That’s another reason why Dominik’s Sight and Sound interview, in which he describes “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes” as a story of “romanticized whore” (and somewhat exemplary of Marilyn’s life as a man’s girl), in reality and on the canvas sounds untrue. Historically, Marilyn has had several women in her life who were close to her, and as Chopra’s “Blonde” points out, those who left her were often forced to do so because of societal influences, men, or both.

In one scene, Norma stays with a foster mother named Elsie (Kirstie Alley), who sets up Norma’s first marriage; Norma cannot stay with Elsie because the older woman’s husband pays too much attention to Norma. As this version says, Marilyn’s status as a sex symbol made her a threat to women, and that’s just because men just couldn’t act normal around her. Marilyn becomes a figure of solitude, routinely facing competition she never actively seeks.

This also manifests itself in their marriages, of which Dominik only shows two. Chopra’s “Blonde” focuses on all three, including Marilyn’s first marriage to Bucky Glazer (a fictional name for her real husband, Jim Dougherty). At one point, Bucky forces Marilyn to put on excessive makeup and lingerie so he can take pictures of her to show his co-workers. Marilyn tells him he’s uncomfortable and that she doesn’t know who she is. Again, whether this scene is true or not, it draws the audience to remember some of Marilyn’s roles where all the studio wanted was for Marilyn to wear sexy clothes and makeup and nothing else. During the filming of The Prince and the Showgirl, Sir Laurence Olivier reportedly told Marilyn not to act but to “just be sexy.”

Chopra reiterates that Marilyn never wanted to be just sexy. Where Dominik’s Marilyn gets her first job by being assaulted, Eliason’s script says that Marilyn was always aware that her sexuality was what male executives saw first. Marilyn says “I know what that means” when she learns she’s been offered a role because of her gait. Eliason’s script states that despite all of her perceived love for men, Marilyn has always depended on them liking her in her life, as opposed to the opposite.

Blonde’s big draw on Netflix seems to be how it leverages its NC-17 rating and plays that off with two intense (and hurtful) abortion sequences, a rape, and an extended oral sex scene. TV was a lot tamer in 2001, but even then, Chopra’s “Blonde” emphasized the sexual exploitation Marilyn was experiencing without prolonging it. Each film features Marilyn’s first meeting with Mr. Z (a pseudonym for Fox studio executive Darryl F. Zanuck), which ends in an attack.

Chopra’s “Blonde” doesn’t show anything since the moment takes place behind closed doors, but it does include a scene of Marilyn in the bathroom after the attack. She talks to Mr. Z.’s secretary, who acts like this happens every day because it probably was what the movie claims it was. Again, the blame lies not only in male exploitation, but in this period in the complicity of women who, whether Marilyn or secretary, had to grin and put up with it.

But if anything, Chopra uses the attack to instill in her Marilyn a greater sense of agency and controlled hostility. When she goes to Mr. Z to request better roles, she reminds him of their first meeting. She laughs at this and taunts him, all the while reminding him that he didn’t break her like he hoped. In fact, Montgomery’s performance of Marilyn feels more dominant because the writing always supports and elevates Marilyn as a person. It wants to show them both as victims and a fighter. Marilyn herself is speaking to an unseen interviewer in this version, and while it’s a standard thing in biopics, it immediately puts the story in her hands. While other characters occasionally take the mic and in some cases offer conflicting perspectives, Marilyn is the dominant voice that audiences hear and uses this platform to openly attack a Hollywood industry that exploits her.

Marilyn always feels like a central character in 2001’s Blonde, full of depth, complexity and humanity. There is sympathy for her as a person, not as a victim or tragic figure. The TV movie reminds us that we failed Marilyn as a society more than Marilyn was a demon-fighting woman (although she certainly was). Compared to the new version of “Blonde” there is more respect and love for her.

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Lindsay Lowe

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