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Before Blonde, revisiting Marilyn Monroe’s tragic life and mysterious death

Marilyn Monroe's life is dramatised with massive creative liberties in director Andrew Dominik's Blonde, starring Ana de Armas.

Marilyn Monroe, Marilyn Monroe films, Marilyn Monroe John F KennedyMarilyn Monroe was more than a sex symbol: she was also a singer, actor and even a poet. (Keystone/picture alliance)

Director Andrew Dominik’s long-in-the-making Marilyn Monroe ‘biopic’, Blonde, will be released on Netflix this week, following a rapturous premiere at the Venice Film Festival. Starring Ana de Armas as the cultural icon, the film has generated controversy for its depiction of Marilyn and its NC-17 rating — a rarity among films in general, and a first for a streaming release.

Blonde’s restrictive rating in the US — an NC-17 is a step above even the dreaded R rating — isn’t because of any sexually explicit scenes. Dominik claimed in an interview with Screen Daily that an average episode of HBO’s Euphoria is probably ‘far more graphic’. The rating is probably due to the film’s mature themes, and the many scenes of physical and sexual abuse that Marilyn is subjected to.

Blonde eschews traditional movie biopic formula in favour of a more esoteric approach. Dominik leans on tone over plot, as he creates a fragmented portrait of Marilyn’s life — the ultimate Hollywood tragedy.

Born Norma Jean Mortenson in 1926, Marilyn never knew who her father was. Her mother, Gladys, was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia, and later committed to a hospital. Marilyn spent the next few years in an orphanage and under the guardianship of her mother’s acquaintances. She was reportedly abused during this time.

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She married her first husband, factory worker James Dougherty, in 1942, when she was 16. This was before she started her modelling career, which would open doors for her in Hollywood. She first dabbled in modelling while her husband was deployed during World War II. This led to her being noticed by Hollywood studios, eventually getting a six-month contract from 20th Century Fox. She divorced Dougherty in 1946 after he expressed displeasure with her line of work.

As her career progressed, so did interest in her personal life. Marilyn was linked with several men in the early 50s, before becoming romantically involved with ex-baseball star Joe DiMaggio. She married him in 1954. DiMaggio was never in favour of her being projected as a sex symbol, and he reached a breaking point when the publicity for the film The Seven Year Itch was designed around the now-iconic shot of her standing over a subway grill in New York City. The jealous and reportedly abusive DiMaggio was infuriated by this, and their marriage ended nine months after it began.

Crippled by stage fright, low self-esteem and a lack of agency, Marilyn became reliant on barbiturates and alcohol in the 50s, but her addiction became more severe as the decade progressed and her stature in the industry became more formidable.

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Determined to shed her screen image as a dumb blonde, she strived to be taken more seriously as an actor. She moved to New York for classes, and it was during this time that she began a serious relationship with playwright Arthur Miller. They were married in 1956, as Marilyn’s star rose to greater heights. She fought for higher salaries, and won. But she also became increasingly difficult to work with on set, or at least that’s what the people who collaborated with her said. She’d demand dozens of re-takes, forget her lines, and show up late. Her addiction was getting worse. She reportedly suffered a miscarriage in 1957, and was also hospitalised due to a barbiturate overdose during this time. Again, most details around Marilyn’s personal life are rooted in speculation.

It was said that her makeup would have to be applied while she was asleep, or under the influence of drugs. Her relationship crumbled, and she divorced Miller in 1961. It was a year later that she sang Happy Birthday for then president John F. Kennedy. The event, which happened merely three months before her death, produced the only known photo of the two of them together, although rumours of their entanglement have never ceased. In fact, she was rumoured to have also had an illicit affair with the president’s brother, Bobby Kennedy. “It was pretty clear that Marilyn had had sexual relations with both Bobby and Jack,” James Spada, one of her biographers, told People in 2012.

Three months later, she was dead. Her housekeeper summoned her psychiatrist after sensing something was amiss, and Marilyn’s body was discovered late at night, in bed. She died of an overdose. Her death made headlines all over the world. “Marilyn Monroe, a troubled beauty who failed to find happiness as Hollywood’s brightest star, was discovered dead in her Brentwood home of an apparent overdose of sleeping pills Sunday,” the lede of the Los Angeles Times’ obituary read. “One of the problems with this whole case is that there are so many conflicting stories,” said Spada about her death. Michael Selsman, who worked for Marilyn’s publicist, told People, “No one knows the truth. No one will ever know the truth.”

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Marilyn remains one of the most enigmatic figures in the history of movies. Her life and times have been chronicled in hundreds of books and several films. Before De Armas, she has been portrayed on screen by Ashley Judd, Mira Sorvino, Michelle Williams and more.

First published on: 27-09-2022 at 12:33 IST
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