How Netflix has sold a controversial take on a Hollywood icon
Based on Joyce Carol Oates’ novel of the same name, Blonde arrives on Netflix this week after a brief limited theatrical run to qualify for various awards. Written and directed by Andrew Dominik, the movie stars Ana de Armas as legendary actress Marilyn Monroe in a biopic story that follows her from her early days as Norma Jeane Mortenson through her tragic death in 1962 at the age of just 36.
Given the celebrities Monroe encountered in some manner over her short career it’s no wonder the film is stocked with just as much talent. Adrien Brody, Julianne Nicholson, Bobby Cannavale and others star as the people in Monroe’s life, from those she married to those she befriended to those who helped her at various times over the years.
Monroe continues to fascinate even 60 years after her passing, and this movie arrives with as much controversy as she herself could sometimes generate.
announcement and casting
The project has been kicking around Hollywood for a decade or so, with Naomi Watts and Jessica Chastain previously attached to star. It wasn’t until early 2019 that de Armas was cast in the lead role, with most of the supporting players joining in August of that year just before filming was scheduled to start.
De Armas was interviewed about the prep work she did, especially when it came to getting Monroe’s voice right, in early 2021.
In June of that year news came that Netflix declined an invitation for the movie to play the Cannes Film Festival, albeit out of competition. As usual, the two parties couldn’t agree on the festival’s requirement that movies appearing there be released theatrically in France.
In July the movie was postponed to 2022.
Dominik talked about how he was hoping for a Cannes debut in 2022, having missed the previous year’s festival.
While that was still up in the air, in March Netflix confirmed the film’s NC-17 rating, making it the most explicit original feature produced by the company and the first film of that rating to be released in several years.
After that news broke Dominik shared how the freedom Netflix gave him to explore that rating allowed him to tell the story he wanted to and do so in a way that will likely offend everyone.
the marketing campaign
The campaign seemed to kick into gear in early June with the announcement the film’s premiere was scheduled for the Venice Film Festival in early September.
Both de Armas and Dominik were interviewed in Netflix’s in-house publication about the process of making the film and the amount of research they each put into the project to get things right while still taking a fair amount of artistic license with the story.
That was followed by a teaser trailer (6.3m YouTube views) that doesn’t show much – it’s mostly Marilyn having her makeup done while praying that “she” arrives. Amidst that we see a few additional shots but not much as it’s mostly designed to whet the audience’s appetite while giving us a first look at de Armas in character.
There was some backlash after that trailer, particularly focused on de Armas’ accent. But her using her natural voice was defended by both the estate of Monroe and producer Brad Pitt. Oates also gave the film her stamp of approval.
Vanity Fair debuted a new set of stills in late July, including several behind-the-scenes shots of de Armas practicing her movies and more.
The full official trailer (9.3m YouTube views) came out at the same time. It uses a conversation between Monroe and DiMaggio (Cannavale) as its framing device, with scenes showing her on- and off-screen life and all the problems each one contains. That includes recreations of some of Monroe’s most iconic moments. Over all of that, she is explaining to DiMaggio how Marilyn Monroe is just a character that appears on film, that she’s Norma Jean in real life and that she’s tired of playing the part of her more famous persona.
Also arriving at that point was the first poster, which shows an extreme close up of de Armas as Monroe, the former seemingly disappearing entirely within the latter. It also uses the same “Watched by all, seen by none” tagline used in the trailer.
De Armas expressed her confusion over the movie’s NC-17 rating, pointing out in an interview there are plenty of other films that are even more explicit in their depiction of sexuality and related topics. In another interview she talked about how playing Monroe never seemed like much of a possibility given they don’t share much in common aside from, de Armas points out, being a woman. Dominik as well as past director Rian Johnson praised the actress’s skills and commitment to her work in that profile.
The cast and crew all talked about the story, the film’s rating, its runtime and lots more at the Venice press conference accompanying the premiere there.
De Armas was set to receive the Hollywood Rising Star Award at September’s Deauville American Film Festival where the movie was scheduled to screen following its premiere at the Venice Film Festival.
How de Armas was transformed into Monroe each day for filming was covered in a profile of the movie’s makeup team that ran at the same time a red carpet premiere was held in Los Angeles.
After that de Armas appeared on “The Late Show” and “Late Night” to talk about the movie. She was also interviewed about the movie’s nude scenes and how she felt they were necessary to the story and handled by Dominik and others with the utmost sensitivity but that she was a little bummed they were likely to appear out of context on the web eventually.
Things wound down with the release of a clip showing Monroe breaking down while filming Some Like It Hot.
There has been a lot of controversy around this movie, not least of which the critical response in the last few weeks that has called out how the story seems to victimize Monroe for no real reason, presenting her as perpetually traumatized.
That may or may not be accurate, but it seems like Dominik and de Armas in particular knew the movie they wanted to make and were at least mostly successful in doing so, the fight to realize that vision being part of the reason for the multiple delays.
Netflix’s campaign has leaned into much of that controversy, at least tacitly, to get and keep people talking about the film and hopefully increase its streaming viewership and then its awards chances. Along those lines, the focus on de Armas makes this effort as much about her as it is about Monroe. While she’s been well-received in previous roles, this is positioned as her star-making turn and there’s nothing in the campaign to dissuade me from that belief.