Elvis And Blonde Highlight The Gendered Differences In How We Worship Celebrities

Elvis Presley and Marilyn Monroe are two sides of the same coin. Both were the first global superstars of their gender, both icons of the ‘50s, Americana, and fame itself. Both remain two of the most famous people who ever lived, famous more for their existence than their work – you will not meet a single person on the street who has not heard of them, but few could name more than a handful of songs or movies by the pair. Both also had biopics this year, but unfortunately, only one of these movies is any good. Blonde is at times actively hateful, and the two films highlight the differences in the way we treat our male and female heroes.

Elvis is not a perfect movie. In many ways it has all the worst traits of Baz Luhrmann’s filmmaking; it’s nauseatingly slick, bombastic to a fault, and built around moments of storytelling causing it to lose steam in the final act. But it cherishes Elvis Presley the man, and I left the theatre fully understanding why Luhrmann had made it. Andrew Dominik, Blonde’s director, once dismissively asked if anyone even watches Marilyn Monroe movies and called Gentlemen Prefer Blondes a story of “well-dressed whores”. He also admitted that after making two movies centred around men, he wanted a female focus for Blonde. Unfortunately, he seems to resent his subject so much that it poisons it so absolutely.

While Dominik perhaps has a point that not as many people watch Monroe movies as know her stature, as someone who has seen every Monroe movie since 1951’s As Young As You Feel, as well as a handful from before like All About Eve, it’s disappointing that the life story of the most magnetic film stars ever to grace the screen completely dismisses her work. The only movie that gets any real focus is 1954’s Don’t Bother to Knock where she made her breakout as deranged babysitter Nell. Unfortunately, this focus tells us Monroe only got the job because she had a nice ass, while dismissing one of her most beloved cult hits as B-movie schlock. There is no affection here.

Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, one of her most successful films, is highlighted only to show that she’s a dumb bitch who signed an inferior contract and to tell us point blank that abortion is wrong. Some Like it Hot, generally thought of as her best performance, is used to show us that she’s a coked out whore. There’s no subtlety in this. If you watch the unfinished cut of Something’s Got to Give, the movie Monroe was halfway through filming when she died, you see Marilyn turn back into Norma Jean when the camera stops rolling. It’s tragic, endearing, highlights the pain within her, and a brain hard-wired to believe the show must go on. I doubt Dominik has ever seen it.

Contrast this with Elvis, whose career is elevated. It’s a story of his ascent to the top, while Blonde is a story of her plummet to the bottom. Luhrmann pulls out deep cuts like Trouble and If I Can Dream, celebrating Elvis’ legacy. It’s also important what they don’t show. Presley’s great humiliation was when his management tried to give him a clean cut image, performing Hound Dog in a dinner suit with a pooch alongside him. This is not shown, only the aftermath where Elvis rises above it. His increasingly hokey film career is zipped over, and his famous death on the toilet is left to our imagination. Even his later years, as an overweight drug addict, is sympathetically framed.

Monroe is treated with disdain from the outset. Even before the dismissal of Don’t Bother to Knock, Monroe is raped by a 20th Century Fox executive (likely a stand in for Darryl F. Zanuck), and aside from being a little teary as she leaves the room, this is never built upon. The core theme of Elvis is that Presley was a once in a generation talent who is manipulated and abused into seeing it all blow up. The core theme of Blonde is that Monroe is a stupid slut with daddy issues who only ever got famous by fucking her way to the top, and her life’s work doesn’t matter.

I’m aware that Blonde is not supposed to be a true story, but a) it doesn’t even follow the novel, wherein her death is markedly different in a way that changes the core themes of the story and b) that’s frankly no excuse for the narrative to be so hateful towards her. When Elvis decided to launch his comeback special, he was not really sitting in the rusted out Hollywood sign – it was a symbolic choice. Likewise in Spencer, another fictional biopic about a tragic tortured female, we are not supposed to believe that Diana ever truly saw the ghost of Anne Boleyn. It’s a reflection of how she was haunted by the history of the institution and the fate of women who had failed its test. What, I wonder, will Dominik tell us the gratuitously long close-up of Monroe with Kennedy’s cock in her mouth is symbolic of?

I don’t want to get too into what’s true and what’s false in this movie that describes itself as fiction, though it’s worth noting that there’s no evidence Monroe had an abortion (she had an ectopic pregnancy and two miscarriages, none caused by a fall on the beach), that there’s no evidence Zanuck raped Monroe (he was known as a flasher but there’s no evidence Monroe experienced even this), and that Monroe did not meet Edward G. Robinson Jnr until the ‘60s, though she did briefly date Chaplin. What’s more telling is not that these are made up, but that all three of them lead to a reductive view of women that even Marilyn Monroe cannot escape – women are for having sex with and for raising babies. Nothing else.

My objection is not that these moments are there, per se, but that they are building blocks for what the movie has to say. Elvis, which does not purport to be fiction, leaves out some key details. Elvis and Priscilla had a major age difference – she was 14 when they started dating, he was 24. Later on, during his Vegas residency, Priscilla mentions the “girls” Elvis has in his room. There are several stories (to varying degrees of verifiability, admittedly) which claim these girls were underage virgins, or as Presley allegedly called them, “cherries”. Undoubtedly this shows Presley in an unfavourable light, especially to modern sensibilities, so Priscilla’s age and the ‘cherries’ are brushed over. Monroe’s false crimes are magnified while Presley’s real sins are hidden away.

Blonde is exactly like I’d expect a Marilyn Monroe movie to be when written and directed by a man who considers her to be nothing more than a well-dressed whore. Blonde is shallow, beautiful, and hateful. Marilyn Monroe deserves better, and none of us deserved Marilyn Monroe.

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