My Obsession: Norma Jean & Marilyn
How HBO’s Monroe biopic highlighted the need for #MeToo
When most people think of TV movies, the usual assortment of tawdry Lifetime melodramas comes to mind: titles such as She Fought Alone, She Cried No, and similar "She Was Defiant" stories about women seeking justice against their abusers – most of which look very different now in the #MeToo era, for better or worse. While these TV movies still stand out in my mind (obviously), few left quite the impression that Norma Jean & Marilyn did. Like those Lifetime dramas, HBO's Marilyn Monroe biopic has taken on a new dimension in the context of society's current reckoning with serial sexual abusers, primarily because it stars two of Harvey Weinstein's prominent accusers: Ashley Judd and Mira Sorvino.
Norma Jean & Marilyn premiered on HBO in 1996, when I was just 11 years old. My father was, like most baby boomers, quite smitten with Monroe – the Hollywood bombshell whose life was cut short following a drug overdose in 1962. Posters featuring the platinum-haired, sleepy-eyed icon adorned my father's workspace. Naturally, I was curious about the only woman ever permitted to take up permanent residence in a space that was usually off-limits. And so my own infatuation with this breathtaking Hollywood tragedy began, and by 1996 I was well-versed in the woman, the myth, the legend that was Marilyn.
The HBO film admittedly hasn't aged that well (the acting in particular is quite soapy), but its more ambitious elements – such as daydream sequences in which Norma Jean/Marilyn recalls and reimagines her traumatic upbringing – evoke the waking-nightmare surrealism of David Lynch. It feels more voyeuristic than conventional biopics, due in large part to the bold visual choice of having Judd's Norma Jean interact with Sorvino's Marilyn during the latter's most crushing personal moments, as when she doubts her talent or makes choices that might stifle her career (like marrying Joe DiMaggio).
Judd's Norma Jean is tenacious and resilient, having endured – as told via recurring flashback – repeated physical and emotional trauma at the hands of various men throughout her life. From predatory father figures to former lovers who underestimated and devalued her, Norma Jean learned early on that her body was both a tool and a weapon, capable of making her dreams a reality just as easily as it could destroy them. Sorvino's Marilyn fights to repress this past, changing her name to "kill" Norma Jean and, when that doesn't work, using an assortment of prescription drugs to finish the job.
While the film is as preoccupied with her romantic life as any other Monroe biopic, the scenes in which Norma Jean battles it out with Marilyn remain incredibly poignant and surprisingly relevant – particularly when the subject turns, as it often does, to the way that Marilyn uses her sexuality as currency and willfully reduces herself to a sex symbol, effectively abandoning her higher ambitions (and Norma Jean) in the process.
Norma Jean & Marilyn debuted on HBO around the same time that Weinstein is alleged to have sexually harassed both Judd and Sorvino. According to both women, after they rejected Weinstein's unwanted advances, the disgraced former Hollywood executive went to great lengths to damage their careers in the years that followed (and he arguably succeeded). These stories – as well as those of many women who have bravely spoken out against their abusers in recent months – would likely resonate with Marilyn Monroe, who rose to fame in an era when these repulsive behaviors were considered normal. That two of Weinstein's most outspoken accusers appeared together in a film that explores, however clumsily, the horrors of the very system that enabled and protected their abuser is rather extraordinary.
Britt Hayes is a writer on film and culture. Her work has appeared at ScreenCrush and Birth.Movies.Death.