Marilyn Monroe was more than just 'Blonde'
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BRITTANY LUSE, HOST:
You're listening to IT'S BEEN A MINUTE from NPR. I'm Brittany Luse. The 95th Academy Awards are happening this weekend, and Ana de Armas has gotten some serious Oscar buzz for best actress. The role? Yet another portrayal of the iconic Marilyn Monroe in "Blonde."
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ANA DE ARMAS: (As Norma Jeane) I can't face doing another scene with Marilyn Monroe.
LUSE: The movie is billed as a psychological drama that explores some of the relationships, struggles and addictions the famed actress experienced - and a few she didn't. I came away from the film seeing Marilyn as very traumatized and also split in two, where Norma Jeane is this broken person trapped inside the very fake persona of Marilyn Monroe. And while de Armas was recognized by the Academy, the film itself has divided audiences, and it's earned the disapproval of one critic who feels the director, Andrew Dominik, has taken artistic liberties that reduce and flatten the personhood of Marilyn Monroe.
ANGELICA JADE BASTIEN: You can tell through his interviews, through the film itself, this man does not like Marilyn Monroe. He doesn't like her art. He doesn't respect her.
LUSE: Critic Angelica Jade Bastien is a Marilyn expert, a Monroe master. And she's here to help us separate fact from fiction.
BASTIEN: There's enough quotes of things she actually said. I don't know why people keep making stuff up.
LUSE: Anjelica wrote a piece for Vulture called "The Hollow Impersonation Of Marilyn Monroe" about Hollywood's multiple failings to portray the late icon. So today, we're dissecting the mythology and timeless intrigue of Marilyn.
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LUSE: Angelica Jade, thank you so much for coming on IT'S BEEN A MINUTE.
BASTIEN: I am so, so happy to be here.
LUSE: (Laughter) I'm excited to be here because I know we are going to get into it. What did you think of the movie?
LUSE: Starting with laughter. OK (laughter).
BASTIEN: Whew. Where do I begin? I have not hated a movie with every cell in my body, every ounce of my spirit, the way I hate "Blonde." I thought it was self-indulgent in terms of its cinematography. The performances were arch caricatures. And I thought Ana de Armas' performance, especially, was insulting, and it just didn't highlight any aspect of this character's humanity beyond trauma and victimhood. You watch 15 minutes of an actual Marilyn Monroe performance...
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MARILYN MONROE: (As The Girl) Oh, do you feel the breeze from the subway? Isn't it delicious?
BASTIEN: ...And you put it next to what Ana de Armas is doing...
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DE ARMAS: (As Norma Jeane) Oh, you feel the breeze from the subway? Isn't it delicious?
BASTIEN: ...It's such a shallow rendition of a human being. I don't think she understands her voice right. I don't think she understands her physicality. And for people who are saying they studied Marilyn so much, I'm not seeing it.
LUSE: So that's the thing. This film is being treated like a biopic, but it's based off of a novel, as in a work of fiction. Not only that, this is the second such film that has been based off of this novel, "Blonde," by Joyce Carol Oates. The "Blonde" TV movie was treated also as a biopic.
LUSE: The story in the film focuses on things that never happened to Marilyn or things that maybe didn't happen in that exact way. Like, a forced abortion is something that happens in the film.
LUSE: Yes, twice. And that's not something that happened to her in life. She did say in her lifetime that, you know, she had been sexually abused but not exactly in the way that's being shown in the film. Like, it's just - there are these really - I guess, really tragic and traumatizing things that happen to Marilyn, the character, within the film of "Blonde" that just don't have any connection or grounding in real life. It just seems weird.
BASTIEN: Oh, does it seem weird, or does it seem in line with how little agency we give beautiful women 'cause they can only be beautiful? And so if beauty is corrupted, which people think Marilyn's beauty was corrupted by what Hollywood represents and all its evils, then all it can be is broken time and time again in these stories. And I think people like to break down women. When you read about Marilyn through the lens of friends she had, it's really fascinating to hear how dynamic and how many sides she has because we all have multiple sides and complications as human beings - or at least I hope so, unless you're boring as hell.
One of my favorite essays about Marilyn was written by Truman Capote, who was a very close friend of hers. And it begins with Truman and Marilyn at a funeral. And she's, like, coming in late, and they have a fun back-and-forth. And Marilyn made fun of Queen Elizabeth with a rather derogatory word. Watching "Blonde," you cannot imagine that vision of Marilyn being salty. You can't see any sense of humor in her. She has no levity in that movie. She's as heavy as an anchor.
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DE ARMAS: (As Norma Jeane) Mother, it's me. It's me, Norma Jeane.
LUSE: So I want to talk about that. In biopics, or in this case, biopic-like films like "Blonde" or "My Week With Marilyn" or "Norma Jeane And Marilyn" or what have you...
BASTIEN: Oh, that one's bad.
LUSE: (Laughter) You know, I feel like - and you say in your piece - Marilyn Monroe has never been played well by any actress, even though some of the actresses who've played her are really talented.
BASTIEN: They are really talented. Yeah, definitely.
LUSE: Why is Marilyn so hard to play and get right?
BASTIEN: Oh, I can get into acting. There's multiple reasons for this. One, I think because the fictions about Marilyn are so entrenched and end up being, like, the force behind all of these films, these women aren't really given roles that are interesting. It's not an interesting rendition of a character. We see this fiction really take hold that Norma Jeane was a little girl within the blonde bombshell of Marilyn Monroe, who was all fiction. But I also think it's an acting thing because acting goes through different movements throughout film history. And I think a lot of modern actors kind of look down on actors from classic Hollywood as just being personas but not actually doing actual work with craft. And so there's a sense that there's some condescending nature to a lot of these roles, like, oh, well, she wasn't acting, she was just being herself and she was just being beautiful.
All I think is Marilyn Monroe understood her angles. Marilyn Monroe understood how to interact with the camera. So a lot of actresses, I think, kind of look down on Marilyn as a human being and as a character they may play because they don't respect her as an artist. They don't think of her as an artist in the first place. They think of her as a tragedy and a cautionary tale. And human beings are more complicated than their endings, a lot of times.
LUSE: Why is it that Hollywood decides to reward playing Marilyn when it didn't really reward her in her lifetime?
BASTIEN: Because Hollywood loves to cannibalize its own past while misunderstanding it very intensely. I mean, point-blank, period, that is how that industry works. And if they can, like, take a dead body and animate it long enough to get some money, to get some acclaim, to make it seem like Hollywood has progressed, part of the reason we keep going back to Marilyn in these movies is, like, see? See how bad actresses used to have it? Y'all should be lucky. Y'all aren't getting cast and couched and whatever, whatever. And it's like, no, all of this stuff that harmed Marilyn is still going on. What are you guys talking about? Hollywood is always misremembering its own past in a way that's, I think, really indicative of American culture as a whole, because America, as a country, is built on forgetfulness of its own sins. It's not surprising.
LUSE: Pulling out from on-screen depictions of Marilyn Monroe, she's a cultural icon in the grandest sense. And interest in her story has endured for decades. What are the tropes or stereotypes that comprise the Marilyn mythological canon?
BASTIEN: Oh, the Marilyn mythological canon. There's a really big obsession with tying the gynecological - namely, her inability to have a child. She had miscarriages in her life. And that, alongside the fact that her mother dealt with mental illness, is the reason why this woman is mad. Because even though she's a goddess and beloved by many, she can't fulfill an essential aspect of womanhood in the minds of these writers, which is having a child. It's honestly a little galling. There's also an obsession with madness because this culture loves to watch white women unravel really dramatically. There's little interest in her as an artist, but there's a lot of interest in her screwing people, the whole Kennedy connection - which I've always felt is, like, way overstated - and often writing about her through the lens of the men who were in her life, as if that was the most interesting aspect of her.
LUSE: It's interesting you brought up the Kennedy connection. That leads to my next question. Part of what contributes to this Marilyn mythology is how deeply she is tied to giant institutions of Americana, such as Hollywood, obviously. In bringing up the Kennedys, you brought up another. But could you lay out some of those touch points, these institutions, American institutions, that Marilyn's so connected to that really make her, for some, an image of Americana?
BASTIEN: I think one reason Marilyn endures and is so fascinating to a lot of people is that she exists at the nexus of a lot of very important things - politics. Then there's also, obviously, Hollywood, but also mid-century American literature. She was friends with, like, Carson McCullers. And then there's also the aspect of, you know, people's obsession with psychiatry, people's obsession with method acting. She was at the Actor's Studio. She's, like, intersecting with all these major artists, people, movements in a way that's, like, super fascinating, to imagine her in these spaces, but also allows writers of an interesting vantage point into essentially American ideas, institutions, movements, people.
I think that's why a lot of these writers turn to Marilyn. I know that's why Joyce Carol Oates definitely did, because it allowed her to discuss and, you know, create a piece of literature enveloped in everything that was going on at that time in history. You can touch on so much through Marilyn. That's why Marilyn becomes a vessel rather than a person for people.
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LUSE: Coming up, Marilyn, the artist, and why Angelica Jade calls the late star the patron saint of high femme.
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LUSE: Which aspects of real-life Marilyn do you think are overdue for their proper treatment?
BASTIEN: For me, the aspect of Marilyn that's most overdue for proper treatment is her as an artist and her relationships with other women, because if you watch "Blonde" or any movie about her, you would never know she would be friends with a woman like Carson McCullers or was around as many queer people as she was.
LUSE: I mean, even you just saying, like, Marilyn Monroe with other women, like, when I Google image search my brain...
LUSE: You know what I mean? I don't really ever think of any stories of her in connection with other women. That's a really good point.
BASTIEN: Yeah, or like when she was rooming with actress Shelley Winters and - God, they - Shelley Winters has some fun stories about Marilyn. And you see, like, a silly side of Marilyn - the Marilyn who couldn't cook but would try and, like, would joke about it, the Marilyn who was maybe a little bit of a messy roommate or, you know, all these aspects that make someone human. Women often see details in Marilyn that other people miss, except for Truman Capote and every gay man around her. I think they kind of got her also in a different way than the men who wanted to have sex with her.
LUSE: There are so many aspects of her story that match up with someone like a Marlon Brando, you know what I mean? And it reminds me of this great line that you had in your piece that really spoke to that. The trouble with being a woman and making your art look so natural is that the world believes you unaware of your own magic. You're less skilled artist than unaware naif merely happening upon great talent. Talk to me about that line.
BASTIEN: There are some times when you write something, you're like, yeah, baby, this is it.
BASTIEN: The reason why I wrote that bit of my essay was because it just became really glaring to me with "Blonde" what was functioning in all these works underneath the surface. And again, it kind of goes back to the inability to see her as a human being. If you're not seeing someone as a human being, how can you see them as an artist in control of their own talent? Marilyn has this quote that I'm going to read from this really great book called "Marilyn In Manhattan: Her Year of Joy" by Elizabeth Winder. And the quote goes like this. "Recently, somebody asked me, what are you trying to do in New York? What do you honestly want to be? I told them, I want to be an artist."
That is essential to understanding Marilyn. She cared deeply about art and filmmaking and photography, and she wanted to fully inhabit her talent and fully be seen as an intellectual and an artist. And that's the one thing people withheld from her in life and continue to withhold from her in death.
LUSE: Is there any way that her roles do mirror how she was in real life, any of them?
BASTIEN: I am always very hesitant to tie an actor too much to the roles that they chose. I will say that various roles definitely demonstrate a sort of care and a sincerity and a sweetness and an empathy that she had that I don't think is really shown in movies about her. I think people, like, kind of forget how poor she grew up. She was really connected to her working-class roots throughout her life. She kind of moved with a grace and a regalness (ph) that is not bound to the upper class, but is bound to being a very earthy, working-class person, which you can really see in an early film of hers called "Clash By Night."
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MONROE: (As Peggy) Joe wants me to marry him.
BARBARA STANWYCK: (As Mae Doyle) I gathered that.
MONROE: (As Peggy) But I hate people bossing me. You marry a fella, the first thing he does is boss you.
LUSE: You told our producer Corey Antonio that you think of Marilyn as the patron saint of high femme. I see that in, like, the most obvious sense, like, in the way she looks in photos or things like that, but also, like, how other high femmes dress up as her on Halloween or, like, even just the fact that other people I think that could also be thought of as patron saints of high femme like Mariah Carey.
LUSE: I mean, Mariah Carey owns Marilyn's piano, and there's, like, a whole chapter about that in Mariah Carey's autobiography. Then you think about the fact that, like, from Madonna to Lady Gaga to Pamela Anderson, they really clearly reference Marilyn's iconography to create their personas. And it works. I wonder, what parts of Marilyn and her iconography still resonate in contemporary times?
BASTIEN: No Hollywood blonde has ever lived up to what Marilyn has done. Every Hollywood blonde has to walk in her footsteps. Like, she - if you are, like, a platinum blonde, you got to reckon with her, honey. But I think the iconography that really resonates continuously with Marilyn is a sense that she understands that gender is a performance, but it's a performance you can have fun in. So it's not a performance that is, like, a mask necessarily, but it's an extension of persona. And that, like, sort of tension is really, I think, interesting. Marilyn also kind of communicates in a sense a beautiful woman who refuses to be defined wholly by her beauty, who can make a joke of her beauty but won't be made into a punchline herself.
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UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: You feel you have grown?
MONROE: Well, I hardly know how to answer that since they misinterpret that meaning in inches or something.
UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: I'm not talking about...
BASTIEN: And then it's also - the girl knew how to move. There's so many beautiful actresses that you can watch who don't understand how their body exists in a space. She understood her body. She understood how to angle it. She understood how to angle her face. She understood how to make her eyes look sleepy and sexy, but also bright and alive. And I think Marilyn was really aware of this, all these sort of tensions around beauty that she had to deal with. In a poem, she wrote, actress must have no mouth. And I'm like, she understood what was happening to her. But also there was joy in her life. No one is wholly defined by trauma - at least I hope not. That would be a very miserable existence.
LUSE: In a just world, how would we canonize Marilyn Monroe?
BASTIEN: That's a really good question. I think what needs to be put at the forefront in order to canonize her properly is to understand people have multiple sides and complications and faces and personas they inhabit that all equal up to one person. I think that's important to canonize, as well as her beauty, not just on a surface level, but an internal light and beauty that she had that to me is stunning. There's a sort of joy that she, like, radiates, and then it encourages you to feel that joy as an audience member.
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TAYLOR HOLMES: (As Mr. Esmond Sr.) You don't want to marry my son for his money.
MONROE: (As Lorelei Lee) It's true.
HOLMES: (As Mr. Esmond Sr.) Then what do you want to marry him for?
MONROE: (As Lorelei Lee) I want to marry him for your money.
BASTIEN: I always believe in the pleasure principle, and I think Marilyn understands that pleasure is central to filmmaking. And she inhabited that. She played that up. She gave us a fun time. She could move us.
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MONROE: (As Sugar Kane Kowalczyk) And when I woke up, I wanted to swim right back to you.
BASTIEN: She's not a high femme that feels untouchable and unapproachable. She's a high femme that reminds you of your own humanity and fleshiness in a really intriguing way. Where is that Marilyn?
LUSE: Well, I mean, your guess is as good as mine. Angelica Jade, thank you so much for coming on and talking with me about the legacy of Marilyn. You told me a bunch of stuff I didn't know, and I love old Hollywood, but you - you know what's going on. You are in the know.
BASTIEN: It was a pleasure to be here. Thank you so much for having me on.
LUSE: That was Angelica Jade Bastien, critic at New York magazine, where she wrote "The Hollow Impersonation Of Marilyn Monroe" (ph) for Vulture. This episode was produced by Corey Antonio Rose and edited by Jessica Placzek. Engineering support came from...
CARLEIGH STRANGE, BYLINE: Carleigh Strange.
ALEX DREWENSKUS, BYLINE: Alex Drewenskus.
LUSE: We have fact-checking help from...
JULIA WOHL, BYLINE: Julia Wohl.
GRETA PITTENGER, BYLINE: Greta Pittenger.
LUSE: Our executive producer is...
VERALYN WILLIAMS, BYLINE: Veralyn Williams.
LUSE: Our VP of programming is...
YOLANDA SANGWENI, BYLINE: Yolanda Sangweni.
LUSE: Our senior VP of programming is...
ANYA GRUNDMANN, BYLINE: Anya Grundmann.
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I'm Brittany Luse. And we'll be back Friday with another episode of IT'S BEEN A MINUTE from NPR.
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