Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1911
There seems to be no end to the biographies and fictional representations of Marilyn Monroe. To say she is the most famous motion-picture star America has produced is to understate her importance. She is an icon, a point of reference for advertisers and artists worldwide. Her image is so well known that it can work by synecdoche. Just show a certain pair of lips, a skirt blown up in the wind, and Marilyn Monroe comes to mind.
With a figure so familiar can there be anything new to add? Yes, because the facts about her career, her relationships, and her family background continue to accumulate as researchers dig more deeply, as her friends and business associates die and documents are released, as those who were close to her feel it is now possible to be more candid about her and her circle. Recent biographies by Donald Spoto and Barbara Leaming, for example, flesh out new details of Monroe’s life.
It is to Joyce Carol Oates’s credit that she acknowledges in an “Author’s Note” the books that most influenced her interpretation of Monroe’s life. At the same time, the copyright page of Blonde emphatically states that Oates has not written a biography, that her work is the product of her imagination. It is natural to inquire, then, about the nexus between fact and fiction. How is Blonde to be read? How can it be based on fact and yet be the product of the author’s imagination?
The novel’s title offers a clue to the answer. Monroe has become “the blonde,” the archetype of the film star. The facts of her life have been repeated so often that they are now a kind of allegory of the blonde. Thus the novel includes references to Arthur Miller by name, but he is also “the Playwright,” just as Joe DiMaggio is named but is a character called “the Ex-Athlete,” and John Kennedy is called “the President.” In other words, Blonde captures—as no other book on Monroe has—the way Marilyn Monroe, the person and the legend, the fact and the fiction, circulates in the contemporary imagination.
As does any allegory, Blonde simplifies; that is, Oates does not attempt to account for all of the facts of Monroe’s life. She does not, for example, describe all of the actress’s foster homes or all of her important friendships and love affairs. At the same time, Oates does freely invent characters, including two gay male figures involved in a sexual triangle with Monroe. This is her economical way of dealing with the enormous appeal Monroe has for gay audiences as well as acknowledging the close relationships the actress had with gay men.
Unquestionably, however, Blonde will cause uneasiness among some readers. What is the point of inventing scenes and characters that have no reality in Monroe’s life? What is the point of making the Ex-Athlete a wife beater when the evidence against DiMaggio has not yet been produced? To both questions, it might be said that the reality of Monroe’s life is still emerging. To create new characters is to speculate about aspects of Monroe’s life that are still not very well known. Sometimes a novelist can suggest areas of investigation that are later corroborated by biographers looking for new evidence. In the case of Joe DiMaggio, there is the fact that his marriage to Monroe ended very abruptly—right after he watched the filming of the famous skirt-blowing scene in The Seven Year Itch (1955). It is known that DiMaggio and Monroe had a terrible, noisy quarrel after the filming. If DiMaggio did in fact hit her, that would certainly account for her sudden decision to divorce him. After all, the couple were married for only nine months.
Thus Oates probes the familiar details of Monroe’s life for new meaning. As a novelist she is free to find a coherence that the biographer, forced back upon only the facts, can find only fitfully since the gaps in the evidence cannot be imagined. Oates uses her novelist’s advantage to the hilt. What is new about her treatment of the Marilyn Monroe myth is her rigorous and brilliantly consistent treatment of the men in the actress’s life.
Monroe’s first husband, James Doughtery, appears as Bucky Glazer in the novel. He has the attributes of the man described in the Monroe biographies, with this additional characteristic: He likes to take pictures of his beautiful young wife in various stages of undress and in erotic postures. He poses her in wigs and costumes. She is ashamed of his exploitation of her body, but when she protests he explains that he is just having fun. Lots of husbands do such things with their wives. It does not mean anything. Yet Bucky himself is disturbed when he looks at the photographs, for in some of them it looks as if his young wife is enjoying herself. In other words, she projects a mood of independence, and though she has become the very sex symbol he has wanted, she is also maddeningly beyond his control. Nevertheless, Bucky cannot help bragging about his wife and showing these photographs of her to his buddies at work. One of them, Robert Mitchum (not yet a film actor), is so angry that a husband would exploit his wife that he tears up the photographs. In the novel, Mitchum will tell Monroe about this incident years later when she is beginning her rise to stardom.
Thus James Doughtery, transformed into Bucky Glazer, becomes a fully integrated character in the allegory of Marilyn Monroe. He is not just the man who did not want her to have a career. He is the man who wanted his wife to be glamorous and sexy and who wanted to show her off so long as he could be in control, so to speak, of the means of production. In a nutshell, the dilemma Monroe faces with her first husband is the conundrum she will confront throughout her career. She is not happy being a sex symbol, yet she projects a talent for exploiting herself that wins the attention of powerful men who are then disturbed because they cannot control the very sexuality they want to promote or, in DiMaggio’s case, own for himself.
Oates presents a similar case in her depiction of Richard Widmark, Monroe’s costar in Don’t Bother to Knock (1952). Called W in the novel, he is a “sexual predator,” certain that he can dominate her. She is not yet a star and she seems unsure of her acting. However, when Widmark sees the film he realizes that she has completely dominated him. He realizes that Monroe has a kind of genius that emerges only on screen.
This point about Monroe’s supremacy on screen is why her agent, Johnny Hyde (I. E. Shinn in Blonde), has so much trouble convincing studio executives and directors of her talent. To H (John Huston) she just seems like one of the agent’s girls, and her tentative behavior only strengthens the impression that she has no talent. Both H and Shinn have a crass side that is absent in the biographies of Monroe. Johnny Hyde has been rather sentimentally treated because he had so much faith in her genius, but it is likely that he was more like Oates’s I. E. Shinn—a rather crude man who exploited Monroe but nevertheless recognized her artistry. Huston, because he directed so many fine films, has rarely been treated with the kind of irreverence that Oates excels in. She does not demean his brilliance, but she takes his measure as a man who, like many Hollywood directors, exploited women and had contempt for them.
The trajectory of Blonde takes its natural course with the President becoming the ultimate exploiter of Marilyn Monroe. This is the John Kennedy who used women up quickly and recklessly. Oates makes Monroe not his victim but his willing accomplice. Although Oates realizes that Monroe was suicidal and ended her own life, the novel ends with a Central Intelligence Agency assassin carrying out an ambiguous mission. It is not clear to him whether the injection of Nembutal he will give the blonde will save the President or perhaps destroy him.
Of all the male characters in the novel, the Playwright (Arthur Miller) is treated the most compassionately. Oates apparently believes he really did try to save Monroe and that his intention was not to exploit her. Yet this is a dubious conclusion. Whatever Miller’s intentions may have been, the end result was that he profited from Monroe by putting on screen inThe Misfits (1961) all of her weaknesses. If Miller also showed some of her strengths—especially her intelligence and shrewd understanding of men—and if Monroe gave a brilliant performance, Blonde also shows that it was not enough for the actress. No one recognized her craft, and she felt too exposed, for Miller had cut down the distance between her screen persona and herself.
Oates may also have been easier on Miller because he is alive. Here is where the novelist is in no better position than the biographer who may be concerned about hurting a living person’s feelings and about libel. It is inconceivable that Blonde could have been written while Johnny Hyde, James Doughtery, Richard Widmark, Joe DiMaggio, and John F. Kennedy were alive. At the very least, Oates would have had to disguise the resemblance between fiction and fact so thoroughly that she would have written a very different novel.
Although it is the fresh and original treatments of the male characters that stand out in Blonde, mention should be made as well of Monroe’s mother, Gladys Baker. Gladys is presented as a sharp-tongued, mentally unstable woman. Whenever she is well enough to be with her daughter Norma Jeane, Gladys keeps the girl off balance. Norma Jeane never knows what kind of mood her mother will be in, and Gladys often criticizes her daughter for looking so solemn. There is no way for Norma Jeane to relax, though, because her mother is so critical. There never seems to be a moment when Norma Jeane can just be herself. It is natural that she should find release in performing roles. As an actress she can completely inhabit a character in a way that she cannot experience herself.
However, acting is also Monroe’s downfall, since she feels she has to perform her roles perfectly. To her a false note is a failure to find the authenticity she craves. Directors and agents do not understand this aspect of Monroe. She is counseled to just enjoy herself, to take her roles lightly. Such advice to Monroe, though, is the equivalent of being asked to take herself lightly, since she is unable to create any distance between herself and her roles.
It is Oates’s achievement to have taken the myth of Marilyn to another, more complex level. That she has been able to do so with a story that is so familiar, so much a part of the nation’s—indeed the world’s—psyche, is astonishing.
Sources for Further Study
Booklist 96 (January 1, 2000): 835.
Library Journal 125 (February 15, 2000): 198.
The Nation 270 (May 8, 2000): 41.
The New York Review of Books 47 (June 15, 2000): 21.
The New York Times Book Review 105 (April 2, 2000): 6.
Newsday, April 8, 2000, p. B13.
Newsweek 135 (April 10, 2000): 76.
Publishers Weekly 247 (February 14, 2000): 171.
Time 155 (April 17, 2000): 82.
The Washington Post Book World, May 7, 2000, p. 5.
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