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Opinion ‘Blonde,’ ‘Elvis’ and the challenge of telling the truth about icons

Bobby Cannavale and Ana de Armas as Marilyn Monroe in "Blonde." (Netflix)

“Blonde” and “Elvis” aren’t just two epics about American icons. They’re also documents that force the public to consider what it means for the families of major figures to control the interpretation of cultural history.

The two films almost demand to be watched in tandem, which you can do if you have HBO Max (where “Elvis” is streaming), Netflix (where “Blonde” debuted on Wednesday), and 5½ hours to kill. Elvis Presley and Marilyn Monroe were the two single greatest stars of their era, and their early deaths — hers in 1962, his in 1977 — bookended a period of enormous social and political upheaval in a traumatized America. And just as important as their legacies are the conditions under which those legacies are being interpreted today.

“Elvis” is best understood not as a musical biopic but as a superhero movie, the origin story for The Great American Entertainer. Director Baz Luhrmann, who can fairly be described as “a bit much,” poured all his energy and talents into crafting a vision of Elvis (Austin Butler) as a larger-than-life avatar of greatness. Luhrmann is not subtle about this. He hangs a Shazam-style lightning bolt around the neck of our hero in a scene in which the young Elvis skips through the ramshackle town in which he lives. Hopping back and forth between a juke joint and a church, Elvis absorbs the skills and the talents of those around him, synthesizing them into their ultimate form.

Notably absent from “Elvis” is much in the way of Elvis’s later, decadent years, during which he got puffy and fat and drugged out. The film doesn’t depict Elvis hanging out with Richard M. Nixon. The villain here is not Elvis’s appetites or excesses or treatment of his family but Colonel Tom Parker (Tom Hanks), the evil outsider with the malicious accent, the controlling puppeteer who trapped Elvis in Las Vegas as a way of paying down his own gambling debts.

None of this should be surprising, given the need for Luhrmann and his collaborators to secure the blessing of Elvis’s estate to gain access to his songs and other elements that made the movie the rousing, audience-friendly triumph it was. Gliding past inconveniences such as Priscilla Presley’s extreme youth during their courtship is, apparently, a small price to pay for the musical catalog.

All films take artistic license — see the contretemps about “The Woman King” — and the licenses taken here serve Luhrmann’s goal, which is mythmaking. Yet a hero with his flaws sanded down is less interesting than one forced to grapple with them, and there’s a smoothness to “Elvis” that undercuts the drama of his life and his role in the mainstreaming of Black American culture.

But while the King got a superhero story, our nation’s movie Queen gets a horror movie.

Based on the novel of the same name by Joyce Carol Oates, “Blonde” shouldn’t be taken for a pure biopic. It is, rather, an interpretation of the actress’s life designed to highlight the ways in which fame can destroy a person. In the case of Norma Jeane Baker (Ana de Armas), the pursuit of fame was an effort to escape the meaninglessness and emptiness of her home life. Her mother was insane. Her father was nonexistent. She needed something to fill the void.

This is why Norma Jeane refers to husbands Joe DiMaggio (Bobby Cannavale) and Arthur Miller (Adrien Brody) as “Daddy” throughout the movie. It’s creepy and infantilizing, but that’s the point: The love from the masses couldn’t fill the father-shaped hole in her heart. Whether or not the movie needed this display of desperation at such length (166 minutes), much less the sight of talking fetuses begging not to be aborted, is a question for another day.

Again, artistic license means that director Andrew Dominik is free to use Norma Jeane’s life story however he wishes. But doing so reduces a real woman who suffered real tragedies to little more than a cut-out doll, a plaything for the amusement of filmmakers and audiences alike.

Indeed, the very existence of “Blonde” proves Norma Jeane’s eagerness for family to protect her wasn’t pathetic; it was prescient. While the Presley family controls Elvis’s assets and rights, Baker’s estate has been dispersed: Part of it is owned by a charity, and the wife of Baker’s acting coach eventually sold the bulk of it to a corporation.

Even if Baker’s legacy were controlled by family or friends who knew her and loved her as a person, there’s probably only so much an effective estate could have done to stop Norma Jeane’s life from being reduced to horrific NC-17 #content beamed directly into 200 million households globally. The estate wouldn’t have a back catalog of music under its control, and biopics don’t necessarily need the approval of their subjects.

But somewhere between the whitewashed hagiography of “Elvis” and the garish nightmare of “Blonde,” there rests a happy medium that better balances truthfulness and artistry.

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