Blonde: the anti-Elvis

Walk into any Americana-themed restaurant in the world and without question, you will find glossy memorabilia depicting Elvis Presley and Marilyn Monroe. Born a decade apart, they both entered mainstream pop culture in the 50s and, by all accounts, only met once in passing on the backlot at Paramount. Their afterlife as mass-marketing icons is as deep a curiosity as their enduring appeal. There have been plenty of performers and sex symbols to follow in their footsteps.

The ghoulish reality is what best becomes these legends is the utility of their premature deaths as parables of glamour undone by excess. This year, audiences have been given the rare opportunity to see this parable told in two very different movies, Baz Luhrmann’s Elvis and Andrew Dominik’s Blonde.

On paper, Dominik and Luhrmann are oddly similar. Both are Australian directors (Dominik was born in New Zealand) with a relatively small body of highly stylised, heavily discussed and oft-controversial films to their credit. They represent artistic extremes. Luhrmann’s films are a watchword for camp, glamour, and showbiz at its “biz”-iest. Dominik is dark, daunting, philosophical, overwrought, but equally aesthetic. They are visually spectacular directors with deeply different stories to tell.

Elvis and Blonde each represent a nadir in depictions of the American entertainment industry. The former is the story of Colonel Tom Parker, the man who exploited and destroyed Elvis Presley. Blonde is the story of the many men who exploited and destroyed Marilyn Monroe. Both received a standing ovation over 10 minutes long on their debut, Elvis at Cannes and Blonde at Venice. But while Elvis went on to commercial and critical success, Blonde is in the midst of being torn to shreds by critics and social media.

Comparing reactions to these biopics is telling.

Elvisnegative reviews stemmed from Luhrmann’s decision to spend so much time validating the choices of his villain, “Colonel Tom”, aka Andreas van Kuijk. The movie ends with the understanding, without this monster’s abuse, there could have been no Elvis Presley. The film blazing around this jarring piece of grooming is relentless in its portrayals of the King’s excesses and successes. Yes, he suffered, but it was worth it for all the swag! The proposition appears to have succeeded with audiences, enough at least for Elvis to drag in a global box office of US$280 million before it hit streaming platforms. It has an audience score on Rotten Tomatoes of 94 per cent.

Despite its narrative and cultural similarities, Blonde, sits at the opposite end of almost every spectrum. Dominik’s creation is every bit as aesthetically relentless as Luhrmann’s. Despite their obvious beauty and artistry, both films make for exhausting viewing. Elvis spends 2 hours 39 minutes jumping through moral and ethical hoops. Blonde is seven minutes longer, and spends its screentime asking deeply uncomfortable moral and ethical questions.

Blonde has to rank as one of the most miserable movies ever made. While it acknowledges Monroe’s successes, it stays insistently clear of any audience payoff. For her entrance to Hollywood, we see the star raped by (presumably) 20th Century Fox studio head Darryl F. Zanuck. For Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, we see Marilyn’s forced abortion. For every relationship, with her mother, with her coworkers, with her husbands, lovers and friends, we see exploitation and abuse graphically depicted in an endless stream. Manohla Dargis’ New York Times review says by refusing to depict Marilyn with agency, the movie becomes as bad as any of her abusers. It begs the question, what’s worse? Depicting Marilyn Monroe without agency? Or the fact she had so little to begin with?

Blonde has staggered viewers and it’s not hard to see why. As biopics go, it is for Marilyn Monroe what Mel Gibson’s Passion was for the crucifixion. Only Dominik’s target is institutionalised violence against and abuse of women. The backlash out of America was inevitable. Blonde’s central concept is a violation of the contract behind the American dream: anything is worth it for fifteen minutes of fame.

Historically, it is likely Monroe was raped by Zanuck, if not other Hollywood executives. Chances are she was one of thousands of girls across the 20th century who were raped on the casting couch. It is known Monroe was forced to have abortions and this badly damaged her mental health. Decades after his death, we know John F. Kennedy had toxic affairs with women he considered disposable. What appears to be shocking in Blonde is its abject failure to provide lip service to fans, secure up to this point in the knowledge they would never have to see a negative portrayal of the cost to Marilyn for their adulation.

The sad truth is, Monroe as told in Blonde is a capable stand-in for the average American woman. According to anti-sexual assault organisation, the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network, one in six American women have been raped, and an American woman is sexually assaulted every 68 seconds. In the 21st century, there has been enough study for society to understand the debilitating impact on women. The idea Monroe’s rape was less painful because she got to be famous after is nothing new. A disturbing number of Hollywood legends were raped without consequence. Blonde is revolutionary for refusing to let the ends justify the means.

Elvis stops short of openly celebrating its predator, but its message is clear. What happened to Elvis was necessary. Blonde’s counterargument is: better we didn’t have a Marilyn Monroe than anyone be treated so badly. It’s an inconceivable act of heresy for a culture built on the central tenet: anything for the fans. It has and will continue to suffer for its sins. The real measure of the impact of this odd pair of films will be how audiences perceive them in 20 years time. Post World War II, young Americans flocked to cultural capitals in search of fame. Now, all they need is a smartphone. The price of fame? Time will tell.