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Beyond The 'Blonde': A Look At Marilyn's Inner Life

May 9, 2012
Originally published on May 9, 2012 6:19 pm

Manuel Munoz's first novel is What You See in the Dark.

Think Julianne Moore's take on Sarah Palin, or Meryl Streep's depiction of Margaret Thatcher.

Actors in biopics have a major leg up on writers when it comes to developing character. Even casual viewers can judge the performance a success if it mimics what we remember of the public persona.

This isn't to say that all Jamie Foxx had to do to play Ray Charles was find the right pair of shades and tilt his head at the proper angle. Yet sometimes movie performances do give the aura of effortlessness: more costume than character.

Historical novels give up the props, the hairdos, the prosthetic noses and the accents and aim for something different: inner life. It's one of the reasons I find Joyce Carol Oates' Marilyn Monroe novel from the year 2001, Blonde, such an audacious book.

Oates takes great pains to remind readers that this is fiction, not biography. But it's still hard to approach the book without preconceived ideas of Marilyn Monroe as historical figure or pop icon. With the note to her readers, Oates kills the illusion even before she starts it, but she's in on the conundrum and power of the actress — a woman born under one name, but dying under another, an American fairy-tale heroine who refuses to disappear.

Blonde mimics the large scope of a biography: We get her life and death, as well as the rise and fall of her stardom, and our curiosity is sated by the language of tabloid, and the privacy of diaries. Flamboyant and energetic, the novel assembles everything from gossip to pinups to present the life of a woman who, in the end, was overshadowed by her onscreen persona.

Oates knows what attracts us to the life of a star: We get the humble beginnings, the first foray into modeling and then the streak of luck that brings the bigger-than-life movie roles (a cameo in All About Eve, a major lead in the potboiler Niagara and her triumph in Some Like It Hot). Monroe's marriages to Arthur Miller and Joe DiMaggio are given wide space as well, and these are the sections where Oates best shows us how Monroe valiantly tried to become a self-determined woman, even when the men in her life wouldn't allow it.

There's a famous photo of Monroe, alone, reading James Joyce's Ulysses. It's a rare glimpse at her interiority, maybe the woman she wanted to be, far from the image of the "dumb blonde" that dominated her life.

There's no spoiler here in discussing the end of the novel — when we witness Monroe's infamous birthday salute to President Kennedy, we already know that Oates must take us to its lurid, tragic conclusion. The result is devastating nonetheless, driven mostly by a sense of shared intimacy with a star who remains, in the end, completely out of reach.

You Must Read This is produced and edited by Ellen Silva and Rose Friedman with production assistance from Andrew Otis.

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One of the reasons many of us pick up a book is to inhabit someone else's life. And when that person is a celebrity, even better. Author Manuel Munoz knows the feeling. His favorite book is a fictional biography of one of history's most glamorous movie stars. It's called Blonde by Joyce Carol Oates, and he recommends it for our series You Must Read This.

MANUEL MUNOZ: Think Julianne Moore as Sarah Palin or Meryl Streep as Margaret Thatcher. For an actor in a biopic, it's not really about developing character. We remember the public persona, so we know right away if the performance worked.

But in historical novels, it's different. Novels give up the props, the hairdos, the prosthetic noses and the accents. They aim for something different: interior life. The best and most audacious one is "Blonde" by Joyce Carol Oates, which examines the inner life of Marilyn Monroe. This book is fiction, not biography. But it's still hard to let go of what you know of Marilyn. Oates tries to kill that illusion in a note to her readers, but she knows that Monroe is a conundrum. She's a woman who was born under one name but died under another, an American fairy tale heroine who refuses to disappear.

"Blonde" gives us her life and death, the rise and fall of her stardom. It's written in the language of tabloid and the privacy of diary. The novel is flamboyant and energetic. It assembles everything from gossip to pinups, and it presents the life of a woman who was overshadowed by her on-screen persona. Oates knows what attracts us to the life of a star. We see humble beginnings, the unstable mother and a series of adults - some kind, others manipulative. Then there's a foray into modeling and the streak of luck that brings the bigger-than-life movie roles - her cameo in "All About Eve" or a major role in "The Asphalt Jungle" and then her triumph in "Some Like It Hot."

Monroe's marriages to Arthur Miller and Joe DiMaggio are given wide space. They're called only the playwright and the ex-athlete, but that's where we see how she tried to become a self-determined woman, even when the men in her life wouldn't allow it. There's no spoiler here in discussing the end of the book. We witness the infamous birthday salute to President Kennedy, but we already sense the lurid, tragic conclusion. But the result is devastating, driven by a sense of shared intimacy with a star who remains, in the end, completely out of reach.

CORNISH: Manuel Munoz is the author of "What You See in the Dark." He recommended "Blonde" by Joyce Carol Oates. You can comment on this essay at our website. Go to nprbooks.org and click on You Must Read This. There, you'll also find other essays from authors, including Lauren Groff, Seth Grahame-Smith and National Book Award-winner Jesmyn Ward. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.