spoilers for blonde ahead.
“Every baby needs a da-da-daddy,” Marilyn Monroe sings in one of her first credited roles, as former burlesque dancer Peggy Martin in 1948’s Ladies of the Chorus. In some ways, this infantilized yet sexualized plea is at the forefront of the portrayal of Monroe and her wounded psyche in Netflix’s blonde.
As played by Anna de Armas, director Andrew Dominik‘s vision of Monroe is one shaped by “mistaken childhood beliefs and trauma,” he told vanity fair. Based on the 2000 Pulitzer Prize–shortlisted novel by Joyce Carol Oates, he has called blonde “a movie for all the unloved children of the world.”
At the film’s beginning, the seven-year-old Norma Jeane Baker (Lily Fisher) is tormented by her alcoholic and mentally unstable mother, Gladys (Julianne Nicholson). She is shown directly threatening her daughter’s life by her multiple times—nearly drowning her in a bathtub and driving her toward the 1933 Griffith Park fire. As for her father, Gladys hangs a picture of him on the wall and tells Monroe that he’s a Hollywood power player (in real life, Gladys met Monroe’s father when she worked as an RKO film cutter). She even promises that the man will one day retrieve them from poverty. Throughout blonde, Monroe is plagued both by a missing father figure (she calls both of her husbands “Daddy”) and subconsciously ubiquitous mother.
The real Monroe was only two weeks old when Gladys first dropped her off at a foster home in Hawthorne, California. As the mother of two children—Jackie and Berniece—who had already been taken from her by an ex-husband, Gladys was eager to keep her youngest dela in her life in some form, according to Biography. She would make frequent visits to her Monroe’s foster home, and even keep her for occasional sleepovers. When her daughter was three years old, Gladys would allegedly make a thwarted attempt to break into her Monroe’s foster home, placing her daughter in a duffel bag and briefly locking out the foster mother. By age seven, Monroe was back in her birth mother’s care, although as shown in blonde, her mother would be institutionalized for paranoid schizophrenia shortly thereafter.
Monroe spent her childhood in various orphanages and foster homes, where she allegedly faced sexual abuse and emotional distress. Moving in with her family friend Grace McKee Goddard at age 11 changed her fate. “It was n’t till later that I realized how much she had done for me,” Monroe wrote of her “Aunt Grace” in her posthumously published memoir of her, My Story. “If not for Grace I would have been sent to a state or country institution where there are fewer privileges, such as being allowed to have a Christmas tree or seeing a movie sometimes. I lived in the orphanage only off and on. Most of the time I was placed with a family, who were given five dollars a week for keeping me. I was placed in nine different families before I was able to quit being a legal orphan. I did this at sixteen by getting married.” (Monroe’s only guardian in the film is a neighbor who appears briefly, played by Sarah Paxton.) When McKee Goddard and her husband announced their move to West Virginia they offered a then 15-year-old Monroe the choice between marrying James Dougherty, the 21-year-old son of a former neighbor, or returning to the orphanage. She chose marriage. They wed in 1942 and split by 1946.
When it came time to choose a stage name, Norma Jeane chose monroe, her mother’s maiden name, but that was the only part of her old life revealed—at first, anyway. “I used to tell lies in my interviews—chiefly about my mother and father,” Monroe wrote in My Story. “I’d say she was dead—and he was somewhere in Europe. I lied because I was ashamed to have the world know my mother was in a mental institution—and that I had been born ‘out of wedlock’ and never heard my illegal father’s voice.”