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‘Blonde,’ Biopics, & The Ethics Of Recreating Life In The Lens

The opinions expressed in this article are the writer’s own and do not reflect the views of Her Campus.
This article is written by a student writer from the Her Campus at Carleton chapter.

Trigger Warning: Contains mentions of sexual assault. Netflix’s upcoming psychological drama film Blonde is a “demanding movie,” according to Andrew Dominik, director and screenwriter of the film. “It’s an NC-17 movie about Marilyn Monroe, it’s kind of what you want, right? I want to go and see the NC-17 version of the Marilyn Monroe story,” the director told Screen Daily.

Based on Joyce Carol Oates’ homonymous novel, Blonde is joining Hollywood’s modus operandi of reviving the image of Marilyn Monroe on screen. Beyond that, it is joining a tradition even more entrenched within the film industry — the tradition of the biopic: a cinematic dramatization of a historical figure’s life and its most notable events.

On Thursday, Sept. 8, Blonde premiered at the 79th Venice International Film Festival to a divided audience. IndieWire’s Sophie Monks Kaufman gave the film a C+ rating. Screen Daily’s Fionnuala Halligan described the film as a “voyeuristic reinvention of a sad life blighted by misogyny, draped in technical know-how and empathetic performance.”

On the other hand, Variety’s Owen Gleiberman praised the film’s ability, “flaws and all, [to reveal] how the myth of Marilyn was built on top of who was inside.”

Demanding is a word that I would apply to many films that fit into the biopic oeuvre. Demanding is a suitable term for a genre that, essentially, demands that the public personae it seeks to arouse relive their tragedies for public consumption under the widespread label of entertainment.

The year 2021 alone saw the lives of Lucille Ball and Desy Arnaz, Jonathan Larson, Tammy Faye Baker, Princess Diana, and the Williams family chronicled on screen — and this is only a selection of the biopics released that year, all of which earned Academy Award nominations for both their lead and supporting performers.

Most recently, Baz Luhrmann’s Elvis earned a total of $281.6 million dollars (USD) globally since its opening on June 24, making it the second highest-grossing biopic at the worldwide box office after 2018’s Bohemian Rhapsody.

Evidently, the genre attracts the attention of critics and moviegoers. There is a reason for Hollywood’s fixation on the biopic, churning out several a year to the benefit of cultural prestige and box-office success.

In the preface of Joan Didion’s first collection of nonfiction essays, “Slouching Towards Bethlehem,” she wrote, “Writers are always selling somebody out.” I think, in some way, filmmakers are the same, profiting off the trials and triumphs of the characters they depict on screen, whether that profit be purely artistic, financial, or a combination of the two.

In the same way that Didion’s quotation is not a dismissal of the utility of writing and reporting, this is not a dismissal of the utility and, even, beauty of cinema; it is simply an observation that one may take as fact. And when it comes to biopics, the characters that filmmakers are profiting from in their depiction are real people. Again, this is not to say that these movies cannot be artfully and beautifully made, but to say that rather than quality, the issue with the biopic is the ethical dilemma inherent within their genre — that being their manner for blurring the line between fact and fiction.

It begs the question of the biopic’s appeal. Why is it that audiences are captivated by these films despite their constant and formulaic influx into the collective cultural conscience?

Humans have an almost schadenfreudian impulse to watch the tragedies of others’ lives unfold, especially when the lives being watched are those of the entertainment industry’s most illustrious celebrities, those often shrouded in a haze of mystery and enshrined in their glossy personae. What better for audiences accustomed to such viewing pleasure than a less than three-hour recapitulation of a prolific person, all packaged for the silver screen?

Monroe has been the subject of numerous film and television projects, including biopics like My Week with Marilyn, which earned actors Michelle Williams and Kenneth Branagh Oscar nominations in 2012, and documentaries like The Mystery of Marilyn Monroe: The Unheard Tapes.

A predilection towards portraying the turbulent reality of the starlet’s life is a commonality amongst works that make Monroe their focus. Some may argue that this is for good reason; Monroe, born Norma Jeane Mortenson, spent her early life in foster homes due to her mother’s experience with mental illness and the absence of her father, and later suffered depression, sexual abuse, and exploitation at the hands of an industry that was more interested in objectifying than understanding her.

However, when tragedy and trauma form the basis of media about Monroe, the content seems similarly more concerned with that than it is about understanding the person who experienced it. In her article “The Case Against the Trauma Plot,” Parul Sehgal wrote that the foregrounding of trauma in literature, as well as film and television, frequently “flattens, distorts, reduces character to symptom.”

Monroe certainly experienced trauma throughout her life. But beyond that, she was a fully-fledged human being caught between wrestling with the sex symbol label to which she was ascribed as a result of her idealized Hollywood persona and the person she felt herself to be, wrestling between performance and authenticity. Marilyn Monroe was the armour that Norma Jeane wore to present herself to onlookers, to cover her wounds and, in turn, avoid being wounded further by the public gaze. This was a woman who possessed a vastness of complexity and intelligence.

At a certain point, reconjuring her likeness thus making her onscreen presence relive horrific events that she endured in graphic detail, is rendered gratuitous.

This is of higher concern in the case of Blonde, which was adapted from a work of fiction. The novel by Oates contains a fictionalized rape scene in which Monroe is assaulted by a producer during a private meeting regarding a potential role. According to Screen Daily, the same scene is depicted in the film.

In 2021, I wrote a review of Pablo Larraín’s Spencer. I thoroughly enjoyed the film’s ability to subvert the style and structure associated with biopics and express the subjectivity of a woman who is as recognized for her mythology as she is for the circumstances of her death. Larraín and screenwriter Steven Knight were not concerned with either, instead acutely focused on trying to understand the emotional reality of Diana as she navigated her marriage and position as the Princess of Wales, under the scrutiny of both the royal family and the public.

Now, as I examine the ethical issues that biopics present, I am critical of the practice of recreating the likeness of highly publicized figures to portray real or imagined moments in their lives that usually revolve around distress. In doing so, are we not continuing the process that the media spearheaded of exploiting these people, even now that they have passed?

There is one difference between Spencer and Blonde: the former does not purport itself to be a biopic. In fact, it plainly denies this moniker. The words that open the film describe it as “a fable from a true tragedy.”

It will be interesting to see whether the cast and crew of Blonde dispel the biopic label during its press run because it really isn’t one. So far, any efforts to reject the term as an appropriate classification for the film have been unapparent.

However, relinquishing the biopic label does not entirely solve the ethical concerns inherent within these movies. The depiction of true tragedies for the purpose of audience consumption remains questionable. There is a need for greater reflection of how we represent real people on screen to progress beyond the adoption of lives as a means of entertainment, which inevitably robs those who have lived them of their personhood.

However, it’s unlikely that this tradition will stop, especially in light of the biopic’s popularity. The film industry will continue to make them just as audiences will continue to watch the pain of people like Monroe reproduced on screen from the comfort of reclining theatre seats or couch cushions (a customary practice in the advent of streaming), popcorn in hand.

Blonde will be released on Netflix on Sept. 28, shortly after it begins its limited theatrical run.

A lover of many things, notably cinema and pop culture, Jodie Applewaithe is a third-year Journalism and Film Studies combined honours student at Carleton University. With her feet on earth and her head in the clouds, she has big dreams for her future which she's working towards by telling a diverse array of stories.