These two shots occur in the opening minutes of David Lynch’s 2001 masterpiece Mulholland Drive and Andrew Dominik’s 2022 adaptation of Joyce Carol Oates’s Blonde, a fictional account of the life of Marilyn Monroe. Their similarity is striking. In fact, when Blonde was first conceived as a film by Dominik all the way back in 2002, Naomi Watts, who played Betty Elms/Diane Selwyn in Mulholland, was attached to play Marilyn Monroe/Norma Jean. The project was abandoned and restarted multiple times until finally being realized in 2022 with Ana de Armas in the lead role.
Dominik’s film is not a biopic. It is more akin to a Lynch film than it is to, say, Baz Luhrmann’s recent Elvis, which is a play-by-play of Elvis’s relationship with his predatory manager. Rather than present us with reality, Dominik presents us with a fantasy, a dreamscape. This is Norma Jean’s Hollywood Dream presented as the dream. Instead of following typical narrative logic, Blonde follows a Freudian dream logic. Real events are distorted, memories from different times are shoved up against each other, and unconscious fantasies intersect with reality. It is as if Dominik felt his way through the script by free-associating and fantasizing events from Marilyn’s life as if he himself were Marilyn being psychoanalyzed.
Part 1: The Hollywood Dream
We enter this dream in Blonde the same way we enter it in Mulholland Drive, a bright white light representing the overwhelming power of the Hollywood Dream. Just as it illuminates, it blinds and consumes. This is in no small part due to location. Mulholland Drive takes its title from the dangerous, winding road in the Hollywood Hills. This is a fairly obvious metaphor for the twists, turns, and dangers of the Hollywood Dream. The Hollywood Dream is a geographical phenomenon. Both Blonde and Mulholland make early references to the fantastical quality of Hollywood. Upon arriving at her aunt’s apartment, Betty says “I just came from Deep River, Ontario, and now I’m in this dreamplace!” During an impressionistic flashback, Norma Jean’s deranged mother says, “In California, you can’t tell what’s real and what’s just yourself.” Both quotes clue us into the subjective dreamscape of the films. They are both the subjective unconscious of the protagonist (Betty and Norma) made manifest in externality. The movies are both, quite literally, to use Lacan’s neologism, ex-timate.
Light established as a metaphor for the paradoxically illuminating yet suffocating Hollywood Dream, we can read one of the most important lines of the film: “The circle of light is yours. It’s a circle of light and attention. You enclose yourself in the circle. You carry it with you wherever you go.” This is the light that illuminates actors (or, in our case, actresses) as they perform. This is an essential piece of understanding the film as we have to acknowledge that Norma Jean’s entire life was a performance as Marilyn Monroe. It is also the light of flash bulbs which go off when pictures are taken of actresses, either by camera-men for the actress posing or by paparazzi. In this sense, we feel fame as a double-edged sword. On one hand, it is the attractive light of stardom. On the other, it is the terrifying encounter with invasion and exploitation. It’s no wonder that the motif of white light appears in one more place: the doctor’s operating table as Norma Jean gets an abortion. The light shines on her most private self, as well as the essence of her sexuality: her genitalia. Through Hegelian dialectics, we understand the contradictory nature of fame. It is neither a privilege nor a curse, but both at once. It is truly fantasy realized: a nightmare.
One curious scene stands out to emphasize the dreamlike narrative. As Marilyn, solely illuminated by white light, gives an audition for the film Don’t Bother to Knock, she utters this line in reference to the plot of said film: “Where does dreaming end and madness begin?” In that film, Marilyn’s character, Nell, lives within a dream, one where her dead husband is alive and people are constantly keeping them apart. She takes on the role of the paranoiac, someone in a fantasy where her desires are constantly being impeded by the Other. Later in Blonde, we see similar paranoia in Marilyn’s contention that she is the butt of some joke created by the nebulous industry. She screams at Billy Wilder in fury as she scratches her own face, asserting that she knows “the joke” is on her. This marking of her face, literally a damaging of her beauty, parallels Marilyn’s character in Don’t Bother to Knock taking a razor to her own face as she desperately cries out for her deceased husband. The cuts on the face represent the destruction of the fantasy. Rather than a perfectly made-up, attractive visage, we see that visage with a cut of blood. It is important that we view this as a cut, both literally and figuratively. It is a manifestation of the Real of the desire for the Hollywood Dream. It realizes the unconscious death drive present in Norma’s dream.
Wilder’s brief inclusion provides another telling connection, that of the film Sunset Boulevard, another story about a woman living in fantasy. Norma Desmond is lost in the fantasy of her previous fame, unable to acknowledge that her star has faded. She was a queen of the silent screen era, but her fan mail is written by her butler and the public no longer cares about her. She lives in deluded isolation. The comparison here between late-era Marilyn and Norma is obvious. Marilyn also lived in seclusion late in life and her star had faded. Her last film did poorly at the box office. Both characters medicated themselves with drink. The Hollywood Dream is ruining. The light always fades, or becomes so bright that the bulb eventually breaks.
While Norma Desmond’s journey ends in her murdering someone else as she is subsumed in the role of Salome (she becomes a Deleuzian Body without Organs, pure fantasy with no subject), both Betty and Norma Jean kill themselves at the end of their Hollywood Dreams. Both in bed, both abandoned by someone they thought cared about them, Betty Elm (at this point, Diane Selwyn) shoots herself in the head and Norma overdoses on barbiturates. Norma becomes absorbed by her own performance as Marilyn, a vision of perfection, an idealized male fantasy that can never be real. Marilyn could never exist as a real person; she must be a performance by Norma. So, when the facade, reliant on the fantasy of the father, dies, so does Norma.
As Betty and Norma pass on to the afterlife, both of their visions are consumed by white light. The Hollywood Dream we were introduced to at the beginning exits identically. The Hollywood Dream is death. It has no other end. We also get analogous recapitulations of the beginnings of both of their dreams. Diane’s vision flashes back to the white light shining on her as she wins the jitterbug contest and Norma’s body splits into a vision of Marilyn hugging the covers like one of her early pinup photos. As life ends for both characters, we are transported back to the inception of their dreams. The beginning of the Hollywood Dream necessitates its destruction and the death of its dreamer.
Part 2: The Double-Gaze
John Berger first coined the term “male gaze” in his Ways of Seeing in reference to the concept of women being objectified by being painted. Rather, the subject of the painting of a woman is the painter’s Id. This is clearly on display in the early montage of still pinups, one of which is a full nude of Marilyn. They turn Marilyn into an object, making the subject of the image male desire. In fact, in Ways of Seeing, Berger compares the pinup picture to the king’s image of his submissive wife, meant to convey ownership and spur envy in those who viewed it. In this same way, pinup images connote an ownership in the owner of the magazine who can fantasize about the images however they please.
We are introduced to this as a theme when Marilyn walks into a restaurant to meet with her manager. The camera lingers on Marilyn’s swaying rear and the head of every man in the restaurant turns to her presence, which is “so intrinsic to her person that men tend to think of it as an almost physical emanation, a kind of [...] aura.” Walter Benjamin theorized this concept of the aura which Berger develops in that quote. We see the privileging of the woman, the raising of her status to that of a work of art. This is a perfect formulation of the dialectic. Works of art do not act, they do not have subjecthood. Rather, they are gazed upon for the satisfaction of the viewer. The attractive woman is both privileged and not. She is elevated and degraded at once. In fact, her elevation is her degradation. The two are formed in one inseparable act.
At the same time as the men engage in looking at Marilyn, we engage in looking at her. We, like the men in the restaurant, derive enjoyment from looking. This is what Freud conceived as ‘scopophilia’ in his Three Essays on Human Sexuality. However, what makes the male gaze in image and film distinct from Sartre’s theory of the look is the fact that Marilyn cannot stare back at us. Thus, we engage in a voyeurism where the subject of our interpretation of the filmic image is our own desire rather than the character of Marilyn. In this shot of Marilyn’s butt swaying in front of our faces, we already know Norma as a character, yet we feel an objectifying arousal rather than recognition of subjecthood. Norma’s character experiences a rupture. No longer is she our place of subjective relation to the film, but the libidic object of our desire. Our introduction to Marilyn is that of object, whereas our introduction to Norma was that of subject.
This is what I mean by ‘double-gaze.’ Marilyn is objectified both diegetically and non-diegetically. Characters objectify her just as we inevitably do. Ana de Armas even lamented the fact that the nude scenes from the film would circulate around the internet. The actress is an object of desire to the audience just as Marilyn is to the characters. So, when the camera lingers on Marilyn’s rear, it directs us in exactly what it wants us to do. It wants us to stare and enjoy. It wants us to be aware of the uncomfortable reality of Marilyn’s objectification exactly as we partake in its perpetuation.
Directly after the scene at the restaurant, Marilyn goes to her first audition for a ‘Mr. Z.’ She reads rather poorly, but as she does, Mr. Z walks behind her, silently pushes her over his desk, pulls down her undergarments, and assaults her. As Berger writes, “how a woman appears to a man can determine how she will be treated.” In her audition, Marilyn is understandably nervous and her performance is weak and stilted. Marilyn’s act, since she is a woman, is inherently perceived as self-reflexive. If she performs weakly, it is not because of an external factor (the fact that this is her first audition). Rather, it is because she views herself as weak. This allows room for Mr. Z’s humiliation of her through the act of rape.
But just as Marilyn has to pay the price of objecthood, she reaps the benefit of being admired. She gets the role without having to audition again and the film cuts instantly to the premiere. In the scene shown in the movie on the secondary screen within the movie, Marilyn is spurred to convince a man to do something for her and “make him happy,” an obvious parallel to what just occurred. However, this is the Hollywood-Dream-ified version of the events, in which Marilyn is an eager seductress, not an exploited victim. We can view Marilyn’s viewing of this on the screen as her rose-colored recollection of the events. She represses the events as a ‘movie-dream’ rather than recognize reality. Similarly, the first half of Mulholland Drive is a dream recollection of real events in which, rather than lose out on roles because she couldn’t satisfy the director sexually, Betty (who is really Diane), is simply a victim of bad luck. The reality, that she is living in squalor and her dream is self-destructing, is repressed.
At Marilyn’s next audition, her performance is substantially better, if still somewhat amateurish. However, we see she gets the role not during her audition, but as she leaves. The director stares at her from the back as we did earlier and says, “look at the ass on that girl.” Her status has been raised and the barrier for entry is lower, but only because she paid the initial price of being assaulted. In all of this, we feel as if Norma Jean never realizes her own sexual power. She commands every room she enters, yet seems unaware of it (which may make it even more powerful to many men). It is not until she encounters Cass and Eddie that she is made to recognize the power she holds over men. It is her encounter with the Lacanian Mirror Stage.
Pre-coitus, Cass positions Marilyn in front of a mirror and strips her bare, revealing her beauty to both herself and the audience. Thus, Marilyn finally participates in the gaze she is constantly under. Cass recounts his childhood with a narcissistic father (Charlie Chaplin) and says, “only in the mirror could I see myself.” The same is true of Marilyn. Only in the presence of a mirror can she recognize her Subject/Object split. In gazing into a mirror, she recognizes her objecthood while experiencing her Subjecthood. This is the fundamental contradiction of her existence finally recognized.
The next scene shows Marilyn at a premiere being fingered and caressed in furor by Cass and Eddie. She is quite literally being masturbated to herself on the screen. Just as Norma Desmond obsesses over her image on the screen, Norma Jean gets off on the larger-than-life persona of Marilyn Monroe on the giant screen. Now that she has recognized her objecthood in the mirror, she can fetishize it, spurred on by Eddie’s and Cass’s seductive romantics.
Indeed, Norma has fallen in love with Cass and Eddie, but moreso, she has fallen in love with their vision of her. We understand this when Marilyn describes her love for Cass as being “because he gazed upon me with those eyes.” Sartre, in Being and Nothingness, tells us that more than falling in love with a person, we fall in love with how their gaze (or ‘look’ in the original translation) makes us feel. This means that Marilyn is now avoiding her own subjecthood under the gaze of Cass. She feels more comfortable as object than subject because recognizing one's subjecthood means an encounter with the contradiction inherent to every subject. However, her subjecthood is radically manifested when she becomes pregnant with Cass’s child. She can no longer avoid her subjecthood knowing she will have a child. Pregnancy is the ultimate representation of Norma’s subjecthood in this context because it realizes her desire for family.
Cass and Eddie attempt to reassert her object status when they take a pregnant Marilyn to view an extremely tall billboard of herself. They are letting her know “this is the reason you are who you are. You exist to be looked at.” Pregnancy causes these men to encounter the Real of Norma Jean’s subjecthood as presented through the Real of her desire, thus their attempt to re-objectify her. The Real of the contradictory split Subject must be avoided by Cass, Eddie, and Marilyn. As Marilyn experiences her subjecthood, Cass and Eddie experience it as well and are terrified. Marilyn, while outwardly happy, is also terrified and gets an abortion, ostensibly so the child does not inherit her mother’s mental issues. However, the split Subject struggles to reconcile her two objects of desire, fame and family. On the operating table, she rises from her twilight sleep and runs into her childhood home on fire. When she removes her Subjecthood, she returns to the last time she was a true split Subject, a daughter with a mother. Her return to her act of freedom (running from her mother) shows us that in her act to get an abortion, she is countering her freedom as a subject. She gives ground on her desire for a family and her unconscious desire for subjecthood is repressed.
The final time we see Marilyn on a diegetic screen is when she is performing oral sex on JFK, the president at the time. She envisions herself as a soft porn actress, putting on a performance for an audience. She is only comfortable with the objectification when it is neutralized by the privileging of her image, i.e. she needs the gaze to maintain the objectification. It is worth noting that during the blowjob, Kennedy is on a phone call, not looking at her. He does not deliver the gaze, which is why she envisions the audience doing it. She, as Sartre has conceptualized, defined herself by the Other. The Other’s conception of her is all that matters. The Other’s desire for her is all that matters. Marilyn does not exist if an audience doesn’t see her. This revelation recalls one of the final scenes of the film in which Norma is only able to conjure up the persona of Marilyn while looking in a mirror.
The scene with Cass in front of the mirror is paralleled later in the film when Norma stands alone in front of a mirror. Instead of entranced by her image, she is disgusted. She is encountering the Subject beyond the objecthood, present in her image because we can see the scar from her abortive surgery. She finally sees the mirror as a mirror, not just another screen on which her image is portrayed. She finally recognizes Subjecthood and it terrifies her that she has freedom, has had freedom this entire time and neglected it in favor of being objectified. Once she is alone, she can no longer be for the Other. She has to be for herself and she has no idea how to accomplish such a task.
Part 3: The Object of the Object
Norma’s subjecthood is only apparent through her desires. Early on, we see the Real of her desire in her absent father, shown to her by her mother. In childhood, she hallucinates her father saying that he will return and “claim” her. Norma spent much of her youth in an orphanage and thus developed strong abandonment issues. With her father nowhere to be found and her mother in an institution, she had no parent-figure to latch onto, though she did spend some of her childhood with her drunkard mother.
As dreams intersect with reality, Norma sees her mother as a director yelling “cut!” (that makes three cuts in this scene) during the filming of Don’t Bother to Knock. This is in reference to both a director stopping a scene and the fact that Marilyn is holding a razor during the scene. Her hysterical mother lashes out against her, making her feel unwanted, making her turn to an invisible male for validation. Indeed, when Norma auditions for the film, she pictures her father as the ideal Other.
The plot of Don’t Bother to Knock has numerous implications for the meaning of Blonde. It is, as previously stated, about a woman named Nell who sees her dead husband Philip in a male companion Jed. As the evening goes on, she becomes more and more delusional. She has transferred the fantasy of Philip to Jed simply because he is, like Philip was, a pilot. She keeps attempting to resurrect the fantasy via copulation, but is constantly interrupted. As such, she will do anything to prolong the fantasy, even tie up the little girl she is supposed to be babysitting. But, as she gives the audition, the man she pictures as her husband is her father. We see that what she is really transferring is the fantasy of the father that never was (in Blonde, at least). She even says, in reference to her character, “Isn’t all love based on delusion?” while she is lost in her own father-centric fantasy. So, when her mother interjects at the climax of Don’t Bother to Knock, when the fantasy is broken, what is really being broken is the fantasy of the father by the mother.
Part of her fantasy of being fathered is that of being a mother. Through this connection, we can view the husband and father as connected entities. In Don’t Bother to Knock, Nell even yells to Jed (her fantasy husband), “You’re acting just like my folks!” Earlier in the film, Nell tries on the clothes of the mother of the child she is babysitting. She puts on the act of motherhood while attempting to get rid of the child. Her actions are contradictory and reveal her desire: to have an ideal father/husband. The child keeps intervening into what she actually wants– the conception– and Nell protests, saying “You’re trying to keep Philip and me apart!” This can be read as analogous to Norma’s mother being abandoned after becoming pregnant. The child keeps the mother away from her ideal husband.
Marilyn spends the rest of her life looking for the ideal replacement for her father fantasy. First, she finds it in Joe Dimaggio, who has the authoritative nature she yearns for in a spouse. She even calls him ‘daddy’ during their relationship. During one scene, Marilyn is told she should expect a special guest in her hotel room. Expecting her father, she instead encounters Joe, who offers to marry her. Joe is quite literally a replacement for the father she never had. But since she is trying to fulfill a fantasy which can never be fulfilled, Joe disappoints her. He is too aggressive and not permissive enough. He is a reflection of the patriarchal costs of her success. He beats her for doing a film with racy elements and she divorces him.
Her next surrogate father is playwright Arthur Miller. This relationship also ends in disaster as Miller is too permissive and cannot satisfy the role of father. She gets pregnant by him, but miscarries. He literally cannot be a father to a child nor to her. He is figuratively impotent. He is a father sans phallus. Marilyn turns to drugs and pills to cope. As their marriage implodes, Marilyn begins to be unable to sustain her abilities in her career. In one scene, she gets so angry over an industry decision, she throws her phone in a dresser drawer. But the phone keeps ringing and we begin to hear the cries of an invisible baby accompanying the ringing. Much earlier in the film, Norma’s mother told her that they were so poor Norma used to sleep in a drawer. She chooses the phone, leaving her desire for a family in the drawer, repressed. This was foreshadowed earlier in her relationship with Cass, during which Cass tells her, “An actress wants to be seen,” and Marilyn responds, “what I really want is you.” Yet, because she is avoiding her subjecthood, she cedes her desire to the Other and becomes the actress who wants to be seen.
In the contrasting marriages and following divorces, we see how the object of desire represents a lack in the Subject. Norma Jean desires a retroactive relationship with her father which she attempts to create via surrogate father figures. She makes them into paternal figures by calling both of them ‘daddy’ and being submissive to the point of neurosis. However, like in the decision to have an abortion, her desire for fame is stronger than her unconscious desire for family and she chooses fame over family, since fame is achievable and the fantasy of the father never will be (though she never consciously realizes this). What she desires is a contradiction neither husband can satisfy. Joe is too authoritarian, Arthur too permissive. She wants both at the same time, which is impossible.
Following her divorce from Arthur Miller, Marilyn lives in seclusion, comforted only by letters she receives from her supposed father. One day, however, she receives a letter revealing that it was in fact Cass sending her those letters and helping to keep her fantasy alive. As the fantasy is finally destroyed, Marilyn loses all reason to live and kills herself by overdosing on barbiturates. Upon entering the afterlife via the white light, she sees her father welcoming her. The only way for the subject to be united with her fantasy is through death. The drive for fantasy is the drive for death.
Part 4: Conclusion
It should be no mystery that the most lasting image of Marilyn is not of her from her movies, but rather Andy Warhol’s Marilyn Diptych. The image is a startling commentary on fame, destruction, and death. Camille Paglia put it well when she said it displayed Marilyn’s “plurality of values” in her book Glittering Images. As put forth in this essay, Norma Jean’s life was a contradictory mess of desires both conscious and unconscious ultimately undone by her own death drive. In a sense, Blonde is Andrew Dominik’s attempt to make the Marilyn Diptych manifest in motion. Dominik expresses the multitudes of Marilyn through her desires and actions, which he paints across the screen using dream logic as opposed to traditional narrative.
Just before her suicide, Norma repeats the line from the beginning of the film: “The circle of light is yours. It’s a circle of light and attention. You enclose yourself in the circle. You carry it with you wherever you go.” The light that used to shine on her face has become the light that shines on her genitals in the abortion sequences. Her most private self has manifested into externality. Her base desires have become her actions as presented through her addiction and aggression. The light is now the endpoint of the death drive. Since she relies on the Other for the satisfaction of a desire which can never be fulfilled, she inevitably self-destructs upon ending up alone. The desire can only be sustained as long as the Other allows it to be sustained. When Cass reveals that he has been sending the letters to Norma as her father, he eliminates the Other, which eliminates the desire, leaving Norma in unsustainable solipsism. Norma cannot survive without her desire. There is literally no other way this story ends than death.
Here, we can recapitulate Norma’s parallel with Mulholland Drive’s Betty, whose desire for fame is ultimately extinguished through her own death drive which causes her to seek out the death of the real Camilla Rhodes, who represents the unattainable Hollywood Dream realized through an external Other. She kills the Hollywood Dream by killing Camilla and thus cannot survive herself. The connection between the two films is clear: extinguishing the desire of the subject extinguishes the subject. Desire is inseparable from life and subjectivity.