Trend: Biopics transform truth into fantasy
“Blonde” illuminates the biopic genre’s tendency to glamorize and sexualize suffering.
Andrew Dominik’s biopic on Marilyn Monroe, “Blonde,” quickly soared to the top of Netflix’s movie chart after premiering on Sept. 8. The film makes one fact clear: 60 years after her death, Marilyn Monroe’s image is still desirable and profitable. Pop artist Andy Warhol’s portrait of the iconic American actress sold for $195 million just this year. At the 2022 Met Gala, Kim Kardashian donned a glimmering dress worn by Monroe when she serenaded President John F. Kennedy in 1962; the dress sold in 2016 for almost five million dollars.
“Blonde” is based on a 2000 novel by Joyce Carol Oates with the same name, which tells the story of Monroe’s life and includes both historical fact and fiction. The nearly three-hour film depicts the tragedies of Monroe’s life: her difficult childhood with an abusive mother, her rise to fame amid misogynistic, exploitative studio systems and her toxic relationships with men. There are several violent rape scenes throughout the movie — leading the Motion Picture Association to give “Blonde” a rare NC-17 rating— reserved for films deemed suitable only for those over 18. “Blonde” is the only film on Netflix with this infamous rating.
In actuality, Monroe endured an often painful life, ultimately committing suicide in 1962. Despite this, many have criticized the film for exploiting this pain, portraying it as part of her fantasy or sexual allure, rather than attempting to humanize her. In one review for The New York Times, Manohla Dargis wrote that, “Given all the indignities and horrors that Marilyn Monroe endured during her 36 years … it is a relief that [Marilyn] didn't have to suffer through the vulgarities of Blonde, the latest necrophiliac entertainment to exploit her.”
“Blonde” is hardly the first biopic to cause controversy. In the past few years, a slew of biopics have been released, taking the media — and box office — by storm, including “Bohemian Rhapsody,” “Elvis,” “Rocketman” and “Spencer.” In a review for the New Yorker, Richard Brody describes Baz Lurhmann’s 2022 “Elvis” as a “a cold, arm’s-length, de-psychologized, intimacy-deprived view of Presley.”
A few years prior, critics disliked Bryan Singer’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” depiction of Freddie Mercury’s sexuality. In a review for Vox, Aja Romano reflected that, “the movie reduces queer identity to a series of promiscuous sexual encounters, which it consistently frames as sordid, shameful, illicit and corrupting.”
Despite — or perhaps because of — these controversies, recent biopics have performed incredibly well at the box office, with “Bohemian Rhapsody” grossing over $900 million and “Rocketman” following behind with almost $200 million. Time and time again, these biopics affirm that the public is invested in the lives of these icons, and it pays. In the search for profit, however, these films often create upsetting portrayals of beloved icons. The genre, by definition, is “a movie dramatizing the life of a particular person.” In doing so, the biopic creates a troubling discrepancy between fact and fiction.
Dominik, the director of “Blonde,” unabashedly admits to exploring the more grandeur myth of Monroe. In an interview, Dominik described the symbolic legacy of Marilyn Monroe: “I think the film is about the meaning of Marilyn Monroe ... she was the Aphrodite of the 20th century ... and she killed herself. So what does that mean?”
It’s important to ask: is “Blonde,” or any biopic, interested in accurately portraying a truthful representation of a real human, or capitalizing on a legend? Dominik seemed to feel most compelled not by an actual, relatable individual, but by a greater “meaning” of Monroe — her “symbolic” potency, likened by Dominik to a “goddess.” In her article, Dargis wrote, “Dominik ends up reducing Marilyn to the very image — ... the commodity — that he also seems to be trying to critique.”
Tragically, Monroe does not — and never did — have autonomy over her own image. Nor, for that matter, did Freddie Mercury, Princess Diana or Elvis. These types of celebrated icons — who were so deeply exploited by the press and idolized by the public — blur into a territory of cultural understanding which approaches myth. By nature, biopics are intensely aware of this fact. If anything, they exploit it.
Dominik even admitted his indifference towards truth in favor of aesthetics, explaining in an interview with Christina Newland “I’m not interested in reality, I’m interested in the images.”
Even during her lifetime, Monroe considered the complicated relationship between truth and fiction intrinsic to stardom. Before she died, Monroe reflected in an interview: “How do you go about writing a life story? Because the true things rarely get into circulation. It’s usually the false things … It’s hard to know where to start, you know, if you don’t start with the truth.”
In some sense, many biopics do start with the truth. But biopics transform this truth into fantasy. Particularly in “Blonde,” even suffering is made into fantasy. Her pain is both glamorized and sexualized; Monroe sobs, but the camera focuses on her body. In “Rocketman,” Elton John descends down a self-destructive path of drug abuse — but is of course depicted in glitzy party scenes, drowned in an expensive fur.
Biopics attempt to tackle the challenge of writing a life story, as Monroe said. However, these films too often fail to truly humanize their subject. In the creative process, the truth is lost. They instead lean into mythology and exacerbate harmful and unrealistic conceptions about real people. The suffering that consumed these lives is glossed over with the allure of fame and beauty.