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Blonde. Ana de Armas as Marilyn Monroe. Cr. Netflix © 2022
Marilyn for the #MeToo era

Marilyn for the #MeToo era

Blonde. Ana de Armas as Marilyn Monroe. Cr. Netflix © 2022

Ana de Armas gives an astonishing performance in Blonde: a harrowing account of Monroe’s life that is full of contemporary resonance

In his otherwise deranged 1973 biography of Marilyn Monroe, Norman Mailer writes astutely that “she was the last of the myths to thrive in the long evening of the American dream.” Few human beings in history have achieved such fame, and even fewer have derived so little pleasure from it.

Born Norma Jeane Mortenson in Los Angeles on 1 June 1926, she was only 36 when she died, in the same city, on 4 August 1962. By then, she was the sexual plaything of the Kennedy brothers, sacked from George Cukor’s Something’s Gotta Give, destroyed by drugs, paranoia and isolation. Yet her position in modern iconography was already secure.

Gene Kornman’s portrait for Twentieth Century Fox, 1953

Though Monroe is correctly categorised as a screen superstar, it is through the still image, rather than movie performances, that she has lodged herself most deeply in the collective psyche. Three in particular: Gene Kornman’s 1953 photographs of the actress in the shimmering golden gown from Gentlemen Prefer Blondes; the image of Monroe from Billy Wilder’s The Seven Year Itch (1955), standing on the south-west corner of Lexington Avenue and 52nd Street over the subway grate, as her white halter dress is blown over her hips by the train (her second husband, the baseball legend Joe DiMaggio, looked on in rage as hundreds of New Yorkers gathered and gawped); and Andy Warhol’s “Marilyn Diptych” (1962), a silkscreen painting of 50 photographs from Niagara (1953) that sealed her fate as a subject to be copied and copied and copied – forever.

How is the filmmaker or writer to approach a thousand-foot wall of such images and entrenched legend? In his colossal new movie, Blonde (selected cinemas, 23 September; Netflix, 28 September), director Andrew Dominik addresses the task with an adroit creative decision, though one for which he has already been criticised.

Tom Ewell and Marilyn Monroe in The Seven Year Itch (1955)

First, the film – starring Ana de Armas, in an Oscar-worthy performance – is not in any sense a straightforward biopic, auditing the ups and downs of a life, the joys and the miseries of a Hollywood goddess (for a more traditional introduction to Monroe, try Goddess: The Secret Lives of Marilyn Monroe by Anthony Summers; Norma Jean: The Life of Marilyn Monroe by Fred Lawrence Guiles; or Liz Garbus’s excellent 2012 documentary, Love, Marilyn).

Instead, Dominik, best known for The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007), adopts an unambiguous directorial strategy: to tell Monroe’s story as an unloved child, horribly manipulated by men – and to pursue it with ferocious clarity.

Second, Blonde is a movie adaptation of a literary fiction – Joyce Carol Oates’ acclaimed novel of the same name, published in 2000 – rather than a forensic investigation based on historical sources, interviews and archive searches. The book’s brutal centrepiece is the aspiring actress’s rape by “Mr Z” (a thinly-disguised version of studio mogul, Darryl Zanuck) which amounts, grotesquely, to her most significant audition. Oates tells the story as a monstrous fairytale in which Norma Jeane reinvents herself, just as her native city has reinvented itself: “My new life! My new life has begun! Today it began!… It’s only now beginning, I am twenty-one years old & I am MARILYN MONROE.”

Ana de Armas as Marilyn Monroe

Dominik’s movie pursues this theme without apology or qualification: Monroe is depicted as the horribly exploited victim of a patriarchal studio system; beaten by DiMaggio (Bobby Cannavale), patronised and then ditched by her third husband Arthur Miller (Adrien Brody); and finally delivered to JFK’s hotel room by Secret Service agents like a sexual package. “Is that what this is?” she asks. “Room service?”

Marilyn Monroe waves from Arthur Miller’s convertible on the day after their wedding, 1956

At the core of this predatory maelstrom, de Armas is the heart and soul of the movie, prodigiously believable as a damaged woman whose personality has bifurcated completely between reality and myth. “She’s pretty, I guess,” she says, looking at a magazine cover of herself. “But it isn’t me.” At times, she foreswears her screen persona: “Fuck Marilyn,” she says, answering the phone.“She’s not here!”

As she puts it to a baffled DiMaggio: “Some of them love Marilyn. Some of them hate Marilyn. What’s that got to do with me?” Yet one of the most poignant sequences in the movie shows her at a low ebb, with her longtime makeup artist Whitey Snyder (Toby Huss), desperately trying to summon her alter ego. “She’s coming, she’s almost here!” he says as they look into the mirror together.

Thanks to the exquisite cinematography of Chayse Irvin, light and dark mirror this psychological duality. Flashlights are to be feared, like the forest fire flames that threaten her mother’s home when she is young; they reveal the gargoyle faces of sneering, lustful men waiting for her everywhere, demanding their share of the spectacle. 

Ana de Armas recreates a scene from Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953) on the set of Blonde

It will be objected that Blonde, in its relentless depiction of trauma and sadness, finds little space for Monroe’s agency, skill as an actress and bids for self-empowerment. And it is true – and often recalled in the proliferating accounts of her life – that she formed her own production company; walked away from her contract with 20th Century Fox in 1954; was hostile to the anti-communist witch hunts of the House Un-American Activities Committee; formed an unexpected bond with none other than Edith Sitwell; and worked with the greatest directors of her era (Fritz Lang; Howard Hawks; John Huston; Otto Preminger; Cukor; and Wilder). 

She is often hailed as a comedienne of greatness – but watch her performance as the cannery worker Peggy in Lang’s noir gem Clash by Night (1952) for evidence that she had serious acting ability independent of her glamour or pouting wit. (For a fine in-depth study of her broader cultural significance, check out The Many Lives of Marilyn Monroe by Sarah Churchwell.)

Keith Andes and Marilyn Monroe directed by Fritz Lang in Clash by Night (1952)

But Dominik’s implicit answer to all this is: so what? The role of art is not to act as therapy, or to meet some arbitrary standard of thoroughness or evenhandedness, or to satisfy an imposed notion of taste (“I’m not concerned with being tasteful,” he says in an interview with Christina Newland in the current issue of Sight & Sound).

Instead, he presents a highly stylised, hyper-real version of Monroe’s life as a study in suffering. In one scene, Miller and an audience watch as she is about to deliver a stage reading as one of his characters. Cut to the playwright weeping and the sound of rapturous applause. We do not see Monroe’s performance. But that is the point

Taught not to value herself or esteem her abilities, she derived no pleasure from her accomplishments (though many millions did, and do to this day). And, as Miller admits in his memoirs, remembering a moment in a bookshop where they chatted about Whitman, Frost and Cummings: “I could not place her in any world I knew; like a cork bobbing on the ocean, she could have begun her voyage on the other side of the world or a hundred yards down the beach.” In every sense, she lacked rootedness and a belief in home.

Ana de Armas with director Andrew Dominik on set

Blonde is indeed gruelling to watch, and unsparing in its depiction of the physical and psychological price paid by Monroe. But – again – this is deliberate. The abuse was real and constant. Orson Welles recounted to Peter Bogdanovich a meeting with her at a Hollywood party in 1946 or 1947, “while she was still a lowly starlet, and seeing someone casually pull down the top of her dress in front of people and fondle her.” By the end of her life, it was the President of the United States who forced her to fellate him. Nothing had really changed. And, as a result, as Miller once remarked: “Marilyn lived at the edge of a grave all her life.”

The movie refuses to let the viewer off the hook or to avert its gaze by relieving the tension with scenes of bliss, or with emotional punctuation marks that soften the impact. The sheer intensity, talent and commitment of de Armas make this possible. The subtlety of her performance is such that we are able to see the distinction between victimhood and passivity: Monroe always wanted a better life as a mother, playing Chekhov on stage, but could never plot her way through the Hollywood jungle to such a destination.

As such, Blonde is one of the most important cultural artefacts to date of the #MeToo era, full of disturbing contemporary resonance, unflinching in its confrontation with what men of power are capable of doing to women. It is not an exploitative film at all, but a radical work of art.

In his book on fame in the 20th Century, the late Clive James wrote that Monroe’s death marked the end of a certain kind of global acclaim: “Television couldn’t give you Marilyn Monroe”. And now, in an age of countless celebrities, so culturally dominant a figure is more or less unimaginable. 

Instead, fame has splintered into a billion fragments on Instagram and TikTok: contemporary politics preaches empowerment, but digital technology is still, for all its claims to the contrary, an engine of round-the-clock objectification. The cruellest irony is that Marilyn Monroe didn’t really want to be Marilyn Monroe. Now, 60 years after her death, almost everyone does.

Here are this week’s recommendations.


Inside Man (BBC One, 26 September)

From its opening scene on a train carriage, as a young thug bullies female passengers, and is then magnificently outfoxed by one of them, Steven Moffat’s latest drama captivates the viewer. We meet Stanley Tucci as Jefferson Grieff, a criminologist on death row in the US for murdering his wife, and David Tennant as Harry Watling, a warm-hearted and informal Anglican vicar who seems entirely unlikely to land in trouble of any sort.

This, of course, is not how things pan out – and Harry, trying to protect a young verger, inadvertently finds himself embroiled in disaster. Lydia West excels as Beth Davenport, a hotshot journalist who seeks Grieff’s help in tracing Janice Fife (Dolly Wells), a missing maths teacher. 

“Everyone is a murderer,” the criminologist tells her. “You just have to meet the right person”. But is this a murder case – and how, precisely, will Grieff and the vicar’s respective stories become entwined? To say more about this four-part mini-series would be a disservice to one of the best television dramas of the year.

Don’t Worry Darling (23 September)

After the terrific Booksmart (2019), hopes were high for Olivia Wilde’s second outing as a feature film director. In the end, Don’t Worry Darling is an entertaining B-movie for lovers of sci-fi and dystopian genre flicks, that somehow acquired an A-list cast and budget. 

Nestling in a remote desert setting, “Victory” is a community straight from the mind of Norman Rockwell, attached to a classified project whose purpose is kept secret by the men who drive across the prairie every morning in their brightly-coloured classic cars. Alice Chambers (Florence Pugh) has managed to find out only that the work involves “progressive materials” – whatever they might be – and her ambitious British husband Jack (Harry Styles) certainly isn’t going to tell her more. But when she sees a plane crash over the crest of a mountain, and is told that she dreamt the whole incident – well, her notionally utopian life begins to unravel fast.

Chris Pine puts on a good show as Frank, the founder and leader of the cult-like community – part L. Ron Hubbard, part Captain Kirk – and seems, at times, to be channelling the spirit of Philip Seymour Hoffman in The Master (2012). But the movie belongs fair and square to Pugh, who turns in a performance of genuine power and range: gaslit, traumatised but determined to uncover the truth.

I have a feeling that Don’t Worry Darling will be primarily remembered for all the off-camera gossip and intrigue by which it has been bedevilled. But, to be fair to Wilde, there are plenty of sophisticated touches in the movie – references to The Stepford Wives, A Clockwork Orange, One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, The Prisoner, the philosophy of Nietzsche and the choreography of Busby Berkeley – suggesting that we should keep watching her work.

And Harry Styles? Well, he sure can tap dance.

…and many thanks to Tortoise reporter Phoebe Davis for this recommendation of Dare to Hope (YouTube)

“To me, one of the best features of David Attenborough’s wildlife shows is that bit at the end – the behind-the-scenes of how the team captured the incredible footage. We have become so used to seeing the beauty of the natural world up close from the comfort of our home that it’s sometimes easy to forget that filming it is no easy process. 

It’s also why I was engrossed by Dare to Hope, a documentary directed by Tortoise alumnus Sam Hockley, which follows fine-art wildlife photographer Harry Skeggs on a shoot in South Georgia and Antarctica. In just 30 minutes, it’s an intimate insight into Skeggs’ creative process and the decisions he makes to get some of the incredible shots from the region he calls “paradise” (one of my favourite moments sees penguins grouped on a colossal iceberg that passes by the boat they travel on). 

That said, the human impact on the area – from the whaling industry to climate change – is all too clear. As Skeggs, who partners with the WWF, says: ‘There has never been a more relevant time to be a wildlife photographer when you are working with animals which are quite literally disappearing in front of your eyes’. There is a lot of joy and hope to be had in seeing wildlife thriving, despite humans’ worst efforts. Skeggs is visibly emotional when he says that there is a chance future generations will look back on the environment in this footage as historic, not present-day.”


Colditz: Prisoners of the Castle – Ben Macintyre (Viking)

For those of us who were children in the Seventies, “Colditz” was a cultural keyword, denoting – as Ben Macintyre puts it in this superb book – the distinctive valour of British “prisoners of war, with mustaches firmly set on stiff upper lips, defying the Nazis by tunnelling out of a grim gothic castle on a German hilltop, fighting the war by other means.” There was a television drama series (1972-74), starring David McCallum and Jack Hedley; an Escape from Colditz board-game; and – yes, really – Colditz kit for Action Man.

Macintyre’s genius has long been to excavate the nuance, subtlety and ambiguity beneath the myths he explores. In this case, he demonstrates that, for all the undoubted courage and ingenuity of the PoWs – Colditz was, after all, a maximum-security prison meant specifically for deutschfeindlich (German-unfriendly) Allied officers judged likely to try to escape – the daily life and culture of the Saxon fortress was very distant from the legends it has inspired.

For a start, the relationships among the prisoners were far from egalitarian. There was what amounted to a branch of the Bullingdon Club, with its own private dinners. Birendanrath Mazumdar, a British Army medic and the only Indian prisoner, was appallingly treated. The French officers forced their Jewish comrades to take their meals separately. Colditz, in the author’s words, was “a miniature replica of pre-war society, only stranger”.

By the time of its liberation, Macintyre recounts, the prison had become a “freezing, stinking, starving vision of purgatory”. There had been 32 successful escapes or “home runs” – ensuring that the name “Colditz” would enter the lexicon of war memory for very specific reasons. Seventy-seven years on, this book is a remarkable portrait of the reality eclipsed by the legend.

The Franchise Affair , To Love and Be Wise, The Daughter of Time – Josephine Tey (Penguin)

In 1990, the British Crime Writers’ Association voted Josephine Tey’s The Daughter of Time (1951) the greatest crime novel of all time – and ranked her earlier book, The Franchise Affair (1948) as the eleventh best. It is remarkable – astonishing, in fact – that the author, whose real name was Elizabeth MacKintosh (1896-1952) is not better known.

Hats off to Penguin, therefore, for republishing these three titles, with new introductions by (respectively), Tana French, Alexander McCall Smith and Kate Mosse. All three feature Inspector Alan Grant of Scotland Yard, and The Daughter of Time is indeed the pick of the bunch, involving detective work across the centuries as Grant, recuperating in hospital, investigates Richard III’s dastardly historical reputation (as McCall Smith observes: “There are cold cases and then there are really cold cases”).

The Franchise Affair transposes a famous 18th-century abduction scandal to the Forties, and is a superb exploration of class and motive. To Love and Be Wise, meanwhile, is a classic detective story, set in the apparently sleepy village of Salcott St Mary – with one of the best twists you will ever read in a crime novel.

Hannah Arendt & Isaiah Berlin: Freedom, Politics and Humanity – Kei Hiruta (Princeton University Press)

Comparative biography can be a richly rewarding genre: one only has to think of Michael Lewis’s The Undoing Project: A Friendship That Changed Our Minds (2016) on the partnership between psychologists Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky, or Robert Dallek’s magisterial Nixon and Kissinger: Partners in Power (2007). To this list should now be added Kei Hiruta’s fine exploration of the relationship – or, more precisely, the conflict – between two of the greatest thinkers of the 20th Century.

The apparent similarities between Hannah Arendt (1906-1975) and Isaiah Berlin (1909-1997) – both Zionists; witnesses to (respectively) the Nazi horror and the violence of the Russian Revolution; implacable opponents of totalitarianism – led some to suppose that they would find common ground. In practice, the enmity between the two, especially on Berlin’s side, could scarcely have been more powerful.

The Oxford philosopher could not stand her “metaphysical” approach to intellectual problems. Arendt despised the history of ideas that formed a major part of Berlin’s academic inquiries; unlike Berlin, she regarded totalitarianism as a phenomenon of their century, rather than a historic pathology with deep roots. He was appalled by Eichmann in Jerusalem (1963) and what he regarded as the “inexpressible arrogance” of Arendt’s judgment of the behaviour of Jews during the Shoah.

Hiruta cites William James’s dictum that the “history of philosophy is to a great extent that of a certain clash of temperaments.” There is much to be said for this claim. Yet one puts down this story of intellectual hostility struck by what Berlin and Arendt had in common: namely, that they were, to glorious effect, citizen-philosophers whose “lives and works were hardly confined to academia”. At a moment in history when humanities faculties are exporting little more to the world than deranged social justice theory and lazy intellectual relativism, it is bracing to be reminded that it need not be so.


Autofiction – Suede

In May, Brett Anderson told the NME that Autofiction “is our punk record” – and he wasn’t kidding. It is really quite something for a band that formed in 1989, whose frontman turns 55 on 29 September, to produce an album that fizzes so fabulously with true punk energy, neurosis and menace. 

But then Suede were never predictable. Since their 2013 comeback with the excellent Bloodsports, they have continued to grow musically, never dialled it in, and always played with the focus and hunger of a band thirty years younger.

From its storming opener ‘She Still Leads Me On’, via the anthemic ‘It’s Always the Quiet Ones’ to the yearning of ‘What am I Without You?’, their ninth album has all the passion, courage and serrated edges of a debut record. Which makes one think: how many other British groups have maintained the power to intrigue for more than three decades?

Bruckner: Symphony No. 4 – Sir Simon Rattle, London Symphony Orchestra

Content as classical music fans may be with, say, Herbert von Karajan’s revered recording of this great symphony, or, Daniel Barenboim’s, this new interpretation by Sir Simon Rattle is definitely worthy of your time. Bruckner’s most vivid and poetic work – the “Romantic symphony” – marked his breakthrough to public acclaim after its premiere in 1881 (for an excellent primer on the composer, try The Cambridge Companion to Bruckner, edited by John Williamson). 

It is explicitly framed as “programme music”, in the sense that it aspires to convey a narrative – in this case, a hunt by knights galloping forth from a medieval castle into the forests and the mists. The second movement, Bruckner’s homage to Wagner’s ‘Forest Murmurs’ from Siegfried, is especially strong. Though some have grumbled that the album is based on a live performance by the London Symphony Orchestra, rather than a studio recording, I found that this lends power and authenticity to Rattle’s creative enterprise.

Words & Music, May 1965 – Lou Reed

A genuine treasure, this. Issued by Light in the Attic Records, in collaboration with Reed’s widow, Laurie Anderson, the album features 11 demo tracks, recorded in an ordinary room with John Cale and only now recovered from a tape that remained sealed in an envelope for decades. This was the 23-year-old Reed on the brink of creative greatness – having undergone his apprenticeship with the poet Delmore Schwartz at Syracuse University but before he and the other members of the Velvet Underground met Andy Warhol in December 1965 at Cafe Bizarre on West 3rd Street. 

Reed and Cale play germinal versions of future all-time classics, like ‘Heroin’, ‘Pale Blue Eyes’ and ‘I’m Waiting for the Man’, sounding more like a Greenwich Village folk duo than the dark, aggressive and unashamedly sleazy phenomenon that the Velvets would soon become. There is even yodelling, for heaven’s sake. The affection between the two men is clear, as is their readiness to experiment musically. Yet, as ambitious as they doubtless are, they have not a clue that they are about to enter the realm of cultural legend.


Hallyu! The Korean Wave (Victoria & Albert Museum, 24 September)

Last year, 26 Korean words were added to the Oxford English Dictionary: among them was Hallyu, meaning “Korean wave” – a movement that has stormed gloriously around the world and is the subject of this dazzling exhibition.

From the rubble of the Korean War in the late Fifties arose the ethos of Ppalli ppalli – literally, “quick, quick” – which committed the South to so-called “compressed modernity”: a rush to build, invest, create and shine so that the rest of the planet had to take heed. Upon these foundations were built the 1988 Seoul Olympics and a host of cultural phenomena: the Korean cinema revolution that was rightly recognised in the award of the Best Picture Oscar to Bong Joon Ho’s Parasite (2019) – represented here by the recreation of the cramped bathroom set from the movie; a rich seam of drama, culminating in the global triumph of Squid Game (see Creative Sensemaker, 11 November 2021), with roots in the animated K-toons that scrolled vertically on a mobile phone; the integrated worlds of K-pop, in which bands and fanbases interact via apps, games, social media and K-fashion which is central to the curation of Hallyu! – and to fantastic effect.

From the first room in which Psy is shown performing ‘Gangnam Style’ on multiple screens, this is a stunning exhibition, full of fun, neon exuberance and unstoppable creativity. An absolute must-see, for which booking is strongly advised.

…and finally: thanks to Tortoise member, Paul Atherton, for his recommendation of Eureka Day (the Old Vic, until 31 October)

“The opening of the play encapsulates the problems of modern living perfectly. A group of parents and teachers in a Californian private day school, circa 2018, sit around in a “we must reach a unanimous decision” open meeting, spending hours discussing what subsections of society should be included in the dropdown menu of the application form on their website. Is “native indian, non-binary with adopted parents” too specific? Is adoption an identity or a process?

This is a school that embraces all, where pronouns are only ever used in the plural, everyone gets a voice and everything is inclusive – or so, at least, the school would like you to think. An outbreak of mumps soon shatters that illusion and suddenly “inclusivity” stops making sense.

During a live Facebook meeting, the pretence that the parents are all-caring and all-embracing breaks down, as it is discovered that half the children haven’t received the MMR vaccine. What follows is a war between pro- and anti-vaxxers in the online chat: probably one of the most humorous projected online conversations ever staged. 

Helen Hunt makes her West End debut with perfect pathos as the passive-aggressive anti-vaxx co-founder of the school; whilst her seemingly subservient partner, played by Mark McKinney, demonstrates true leadership. 

The power of the play is all subtext: from the covert racism of expectation of the supposedly all-inclusive school faculty, to the audience’s reaction to what they believe it is acceptable to ridicule. Sharp intakes of breath and gasps of horror from the stalls were a revealing commentary.

Eureka Day is not without its faults, but its post-Covid timing is perfect. Worthy of your time and thought. In practice, the piece reveals more about its audience than itself – and is none the worse for that.” 

Don’t forget to send in your own recommendations for Creative Sensemaker to editor@tortoisemedia.com.

That’s all for now. Enjoy the weekend and take care of yourselves.

Best wishes

Matt d’Ancona
Editor and Partner

Photographs courtesy Matt Kennedy/Netflix, Getty Images, Bettmann Archive, BBC, Warner Bros, Sam Hockley, V&A Museum, Manuel Harlan/Old Vic Theatre