'Blonde' director went looking for the meaning of Marilyn Monroe The Netflix adaptation reimagines the inner life of one of Hollywood's most enduring icons.

'Blonde' director says the unhappiness of Marilyn Monroe should come as no surprise

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JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

A new film called "Blonde" premieres on Netflix this week. Based on the bestselling novel by Joyce Carol Oates, "Blonde" reimagines the inner life of one of Hollywood's most enduring icons - Marilyn Monroe. Tom Vitale has the story.

TOM VITALE, BYLINE: "Blonde" tells the story of Norma Jeane Baker from her childhood with an absent father and unstable mother through her rise to stardom as Marilyn Monroe and her eventual suicide at the age of 36. At every turn in this two-hour-and-46-minute film, the blonde actress is mistreated, exploited and abused. Australian director Andrew Dominik says he wrote the screenplay adapting Joyce Carol Oates' novel 14 years ago.

ANDREW DOMINIK: I wrote it in 2008, and it was just impossible to get it made. A lot of it was because how it portrayed, you know, the men in the story. I think people felt that there was no market for sort of feminine rage and trauma and all that sort of stuff. But then #MeToo happened, you know, and obviously that was something that people actually were interested in.

VITALE: The film tells Monroe's story from her own perspective, so the audience understands her, but none of the people in the story do. In this scene, Monroe, played by Ana de Armas, is trying to explain her identity crisis to her oblivious agent as he reads a review of her performance in the 1952 film "Don't Bother To Knock."

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "BLONDE")

DAN BUTLER: (As I.E. Shinn) Her portrayal of a mentally unbalanced young babysitter is so chillingly convincing...

ANA DE ARMAS: (As Marilyn Monroe) Mr. Shinn, at the premiere, I shut my eyes a lot. I couldn't believe that girl was me. But everyone in the audience would think it was me.

BUTLER: (As I.E. Shinn) Are you on painkillers? Is it your period?

JOYCE CAROL OATES: I saw a photograph of Norma Jeane Baker taken when she was about 15 years old. And she was a brunette, very pretty with little artificial flowers in her hair. And I was just sort of stunned.

VITALE: Joyce Carol Oates, sitting on the patio of her Princeton home, said she had no particular interest in Marilyn Monroe at the time. But the 84-year-old author said that photo struck a chord in her heart.

OATES: I was sort of drawn to write the story of a very ordinary-seeming American girl from a very lower economic background who rises and becomes enormously successful and famous and then is destroyed in the process.

VITALE: The result was a 738-page novel which describes actual events in Monroe's life but then imagines how she experienced them. Andrew Dominik says the novel provided a richer source than any biography or documentary.

DOMINIK: A documentary can sort of - you know, can tell you what happened. But I think that what the film and the novel are really dealing with are, what is the meaning of Marilyn Monroe? You know, why is that woman on the subway grating the sort of American equivalent of Venus in the shell rising out of the sea? And what does she inspire in us that she continues to have this kind of resonance?

VITALE: Dominik says our cultural obsession with Marilyn Monroe stems from a rescue fantasy. We know she's doomed, but we can't save her. Joyce Carol Oates felt it. She has written 23 novels since "Blonde" was published in 2000, including "Babysitter," out last month. But Oates says her Monroe's story was the most wrenching.

OATES: Yes, "Blonde" was very, very difficult emotionally for me. And even though I knew that Marilyn would die at the end of my novel, I didn't realize how when I got to that point, I would be so identified with her. There was no way out except what happened to Marilyn. I couldn't make up an ending where she's happily married or she runs away from Hollywood. And, I mean, I couldn't make that up.

VITALE: The film version of "Blonde" underscores the conflict between Monroe's public and private selves. In this scene, Norma Jeane is sobbing at the mirror before a public appearance, pleading with her makeup artist to bring out her Marilyn face.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "BLONDE")

DE ARMAS: (As Marilyn Monroe, crying) Please come. Please come. Don't abandon me.

TOBY HUSS: (As Whitey) She's coming.

DE ARMAS: (As Marilyn Monroe) Please come.

HUSS: (As Whitey) She's coming.

DE ARMAS: (As Marilyn Monroe) Don't abandon me.

HUSS: (As Whitey) She's coming.

VITALE: "Blonde" is the first Netflix film ever with an NC-17 rating. In one scene, a studio head rapes the starlet. In another, she's beaten by her husband, Joe DiMaggio. Towards the end of the film, President Kennedy treats her like a disposable sex toy. Andrew Dominik says people shouldn't be surprised that his film portrays Monroe's life as relentlessly unhappy.

DOMINIK: It's also a story of a person who sort of had everything that our culture is always screaming at us is desirable. You know, like, she was famous. She was beautiful. She had a glamorous job. She dated all the cool guys of the day. And she killed herself. OK. You know, what do we all want? And should we want that thing?

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "BLONDE")

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (As characters, chanting) Marilyn, Marilyn, Marilyn, Marilyn, Marilyn.

DE ARMAS: (As Marilyn Monroe, laughter).

VITALE: For NPR News, I'm Tom Vitale in New York.

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