Marilyn Monroe is one of the few actors or actresses to merit the adjective iconic: for Andy Warhol, her image was up there with those of Elvis Presley and Campbell’s Soup. Nevertheless, there’s been much concern over the reputational damage she might suffer as a result of Blonde, director Andrew Dominik’s controversial new fictionalised biopic of the star, which landed on Netflix this week.
In an interview with Sight & Sound magazine, Dominik said he didn’t think it mattered that a portion of his audience might take the contents of his semi-apocryphal film – based on the similarly impressionistic 2000 Joyce Carol Oates novel – as the gospel truth about its adored, tragic subject.
It’s certainly true that Blonde ignores many interesting aspects of Monroe’s career (her gift for comedy, her business acumen, and so on), in order to portray this version of the actress, sensationally played by Ana de Armas, as a kind of secular martyr. Its fragmented narrative unfolds like one of the Saints’ Lives tales so popular in Chaucer’s day, in which an innocent endures a lifelong barrage of hardship and torture, and through their suffering casts a beautiful spell upon the world.
But to me, another historical figure appearing in Dominik’s film has far more to lose from it, reputationally speaking, than Monroe, and whose cinematic reckoning is arguably long overdue to boot. He pops up for only a single 10-minute scene around two hours in, after Marilyn finds herself on an aeroplane flying from Los Angeles to New York.
It’s 1962, though the last time we saw her was the premiere of Some Like it Hot three years earlier, and the setting blurs from first-class cabin to cinema auditorium and back again as she struggles to get her bearings. Once the plane lands, two suited bodyguards bundle her into a car and drive her to a hotel suite, where President John F Kennedy awaits.
“Am I glad to see you baby,” Kennedy drawls, lying shirtless in bed. “It’s been one hell of a day.” The science-fiction B-movie Earth vs. the Flying Saucers is playing on television, and we see a missile phallically angling itself towards the sky.
Kennedy is on the telephone fending off allegations of improprieties with employees: Marilyn also notices lipstick prints on champagne glasses. Her job, Kennedy quickly makes plain, is to provide him with sexual release at this time of great strain – so she fumbles with his trousers and does her patriotic duty.
“Why does Marilyn do these things? What does Marilyn want?,” she asks herself. “Or is it a movie scene, where I’m playing the part of a famous blonde actress, meeting the boyishly handsome leader of the free world?” In response, the camera backs off to reveal the image of her servicing Kennedy playing on a vast cinema screen. Then at the climactic moment, we’re back with the flying saucers: the aliens begin their kamikaze attack, and symbols of US democracy – the Washington Monument, the Capitol building – are left in smouldering ruins.
Marilyn jokingly refers to herself as “room service,” but the reality is bleaker: having been flown in solely for the purpose of satisfying the President’s sexual appetites, she’s essentially being trafficked. And her attempt to talk to him as an equal – “You don’t have to worry about me,” she smiles, to allay any fears that a further kiss-and-tell might be in the offing – results in him slapping his hand over her mouth and pushing her down on the bed.
The man playing Kennedy is Denmark’s Caspar Phillipson, who bears an uncanny resemblance to the former president: perhaps unsurprisingly, the 51-year-old actor has portrayed him a number of times before, most notably opposite Natalie Portman in Pablo Larraín’s Jacqueline Kennedy biopic Jackie. JFK’s physical presence in Jackie is limited to a few glimpses of the figure famous from newsreels, grinning and shaking hands on the tarmac of Dallas airport. (His assassination takes place around 15 minutes into the film.) But Portman’s Jackie later talks about the ugly truth behind her husband’s dashing do-gooder image.
“Jack and I hardly ever spent the night together,” she confides in John Hurt’s priest. “Not even that last night at Forth Worth.” Ruing his affairs, she goes on: “I seem to remember there being more to our vows.”
What Jackie was driving at, and what Blonde lobs into our laps, is the JFK of James Ellroy: “a desiccated liberal playboy with the moral convictions of a crotch-sniffing hound dog,” in the words of FBI director J Edgar Hoover in the pages of American Tabloid.
That blistering 1995 work of historical fiction, a conspiracy thriller about events surrounding the Kennedy assassination, reframes the 35th US President as “Bad Back Jack”, the living embodiment of America’s loss of innocence: conniving, abusive, amphetamine-popping, sex-crazed but only meagrely endowed – yet also outwardly the living, Camelot-dwelling essence of mid-century American optimism and wholesomeness.
Oliver Stone’s 1991 political epic JFK also positioned the assassination as the pivot point in America’s downfall. But unlike Ellroy, he saw Kennedy as a genuine progressive force for good, whose elimination was in shadowy establishment interests. Stone’s film was instrumental in minting Kennedy’s posthumous image, as well as the widely held belief that his death was the work of more than one lone gunman.
But Ellroy’s version – and Blonde’s, which are more or less the same – could still come out on top. American Tabloid is currently being adapted into a 12-episode series of scripted podcasts, so a rekindling of interest in a screen adaptation (a project originally linked to David Fincher around 15 years ago) may follow. If it does, one assumes a certain Danish actor’s agents can expect a call.