The movies Blonde and Elvis aren’t just two epics about American icons. They are documents that force the public to consider what it means for the families of eminent figures to control the interpretation of cultural history.
Other movies almost beg to be watched together, which you can do if you have HBO Max (where elvis streams), Netflix (where Blond debuted Wednesday) and five and a half hours to kill.
Elvis Presley and Marilyn Monroe were the two biggest single stars of their era, and their early deaths – hers in 1962, his in 1977 – heralded a time of tremendous social and political upheaval in a traumatized America. Just as important as their legacies are the conditions under which these legacies are interpreted today.
elvis is best seen not as a musical biopic, but as a superhero film, the origin story of The Great American Entertainer. Definitely “a bit much,” director Baz Luhrmann poured all his energy and talent into creating a vision of Elvis (Austin Butler) as a larger-than-life avatar of greatness.
Luhrmann is not subtle there. He hangs a Shazam-style bolt of lightning around our hero’s neck in a scene where young Elvis is bouncing around the seedy town he lives in. Elvis bounces between a juke joint and a church, absorbing the skills and talents of those around him.
Specifically absent from elvis gets in the way of Elvis’ later decadent years of becoming bloated, fat and drugged. The film does not show Elvis hanging out with Richard Nixon. The villain here is not Elvis’ appetites or excesses or treatment of his family, but Colonel Tom Parker (Tom Hanks), the evil misfit with the malicious accent, the controlling puppeteer who held Elvis captive in Las Vegas to pay his own gambling debts .
None of this should come as a surprise, given that Luhrmann and his collaborators had to secure the blessing of Elvis’ estate to gain access to his songs and other elements that made the film the rousing, audience-friendly triumph it was. Sliding past inconveniences like Priscilla Presley’s extreme youth during her courtship is apparently a small price to pay for the music catalogue.
All films take artistic licenses, and the licenses taken here serve Luhrmann’s goal of myth-making. But a hero whose flaws have been smoothed out is less interesting than one forced to confront them, and there’s a certain smoothness to that elvis this undermines the drama of his life and his role in the mainstreaming of black American culture.
But while The King got a superhero story, America’s movie queen got a horror movie. Based on the novel of the same name by Joyce Carol Oates, Blond should not be taken for a pure biopic.
Rather, it’s an interpretation of the actress’ life, designed to show how fame can destroy a person. In the case of Norma Jeane Baker (Ana de Armas), the pursuit of fame was an attempt to escape the meaninglessness and emptiness of her personal life. Your mother was crazy. Her father didn’t exist. She needed something to fill the void.
For this reason, Norma Jeane refers to husbands Joe DiMaggio (Bobby Cannavale) and Arthur Miller (Adrien Brody) as “daddy” throughout the film. It’s creepy and infantilizing, but that’s the point: the love of the masses couldn’t fill the paternal hole in their hearts.
Whether or not the film needed this display of desperation of such length (166 minutes), let alone the sight of talking fetuses begging not to be aborted, is a question for another day. Again, artistic freedom means director Andrew Dominik can use Norma Jeane’s life story however he likes. But it turns a real woman who has suffered real tragedy into little more than a cut-out doll, a plaything for the amusement of filmmakers and viewers alike.
In fact, the mere existence of Blond proves that Norma Jeane’s zeal for her family to protect her wasn’t pathetic — it was prescient. While the Presley family controlled Elvis’ fortune and rights, Baker’s estate was dispersed: part of it belongs to a charity, and Baker’s acting coach’s wife eventually sold most of it to a company.
Even if Baker’s legacy was controlled by family or friends who knew and loved her as a person, an effective estate probably could have done only so much to prevent Norma Jeane’s life from being cut short.
But somewhere between the hagiography of elvis and the glaring nightmare of Blond, there rests a happy middle ground that better balances veracity and artistry.
https://www.independent.ie/opinion/comment/two-american-icons-but-only-one-is-a-hero-the-challenge-of-telling-the-truth-about-elvis-and-marilyn-42031247.html Two American icons, but only one is a hero: the challenge of telling the truth about Elvis and Marilyn