Does ‘Blonde’ offer a fair account of the troubled marriage of Monroe and DiMaggio, the baseball legend from Martinez and San Francisco?
In the Hollywood mythology surrounding Marilyn Monroe, there were rumors that she and Joe DiMaggio hoped to reconcile, years after their brief, turbulent marriage fell apart in 1954.
While it’s known that Monroe and DiMaggio remained good friends, the movie star reportedly downplayed any plans to reconcile with her ex. Sadly, any hopes that these two icons could find their way back together ended when Monroe died in August 1962 at age 36, officially from an accidental drug overdose.
“Blonde,” the controversial new biopic of Monroe, makes it seem even less likely that Monroe and DiMaggio could have ever worked again as a couple. That’s because the baseball legend and Bay Area hometown hero is depicted as controlling and abusive and not at all interested in his wife’s creative ambitions or inner life.
How much of that is true? Over the years, biographies and news reports have tried to tell as much as they can about Monroe and DiMaggio’s troubled relationship, while “Blonde” offers its version. As Slate and other publications have said, “Blonde” isn’t so much a historical rendering of Monroe’s life as it is “a speculative dive into her psyche,” told in an associative, dream-like, non-linear way.
“Blonde,” based on Joyce Carol Oates’ fictional reimagining of Monroe’s life, depicts its heroine as a “sensitive, guileless Red Riding Hood” navigating a forest full of wolves, Slate said. A character based on “Joltin’ Joe” DiMaggio, known as the Ex-Athlete, is presented as one of those wolves, though he talks about how much he wants to be her protector.
Bobby Cannavale portrays the DiMaggio figure, at that point a recently retired New York Yankees player and national sports hero. Cannavale’s ex-athlete is madly in love with the 12-years-younger Hollywood sex symbol, played with wispy-voiced fragility by Ana de Armas.
Monroe’s star is rising, and the DiMaggio figure promises to keep her safe from the Hollywood “jackals” and to give her a more normal life and family. Considering that the movie’s central thesis is that Monroe suffers from the trauma of parental abandonment, she is happy to have a big strong man take care of her and responds by calling him “Daddy.”
In real life, DiMaggio, like Monroe, came from humble origins. The son of an Italian immigrant fisherman, DiMaggio was born in Martinez and raised in San Francisco, learning to play baseball on the sandlots and the North Bay playground near his family’s home.
DiMaggio also brought Monroe to his hometown to get married at San Francisco’s City Hall on Jan. 14, 1954. They posed for photos on the steps of Saints Peter and Paul Church in North Beach. Because both had been married previously, they were denied a Catholic Church wedding.
In “Blonde,” the DiMaggio character wants Monroe to behave more like a traditional Italian wife, but she calls acting her “life” and yearns to expand her horizons and study in New York.
Very quickly, the DiMaggio character becomes threatened by Monroe’s increasingly high profile and her willingness to appear in provocative photos or movie scenes, according to “Blonde.” His anger boils over and he hits her after he’s confronted with nude photos she posed for when she was a struggling actress.
“Don’t you see how much I love you?” the DiMaggio character says in the movie. “Don’t you understand? I can’t bear to see you cheapen yourself like that.”
In this husband’s view, his movie star wife cheapens herself even more when she shoots the famous subway-grate scene in “The Seven Year Itch” in New York City in September 1954. In front of photographers and thousands of onlookers, she stands over the grate as a rush of air from a passing subway train blows up her white dress, exposing her legs and underwear. She giggles with delight.
The DiMaggio character’s last scene in “Blonde” is when he confronts her back at their hotel room. He calls her “a (expletive) whore” and gives her a beating so violent that director Andrew Dominik apparently thought it would be more dramatically effective to take it off screen.
Was DiMaggio really so controlling and abusive? Did he truly lose it over “The Seven Year Itch” scene? In many ways, this view of DiMaggio is true, according to biographies, news reports and eyewitness accounts.
DiMaggio was “obsessed” with Monroe, tried to control his wife’s career, discouraged her from taking roles that reinforced her sexualized blonde-bombshell image and wanted her to dress more modestly and not outshine him in public, Slate reported.
If Monroe didn’t comply, DiMaggio became physically abusive, Slate reported. Monroe’s plight is confirmed by his son, Joe DiMaggio Jr., who once recalled waking up to “the sound of my father and Marilyn screaming,” the New York Post reported in 2014, citing the book, “Joe and Marilyn: Legends in Love” by biographer C. David Heymann.
“After a few minutes, I heard Marilyn race down the stairs and out the front door, and my father running after her,” DiMaggio Jr. continued. “He caught up to her and grabbed her by the hair and sort of half-dragged her back to the house. She was trying to fight him off but couldn’t.”
Monroe also confirmed that her participation in “The Seven Year Itch” led to the end of their marriage. She was quoted as saying, “exposing my legs and thighs, even my crotch — that was the last straw,” according to Biography.com.
Photographer George S. Zimbel recalled everything going deathly quiet as DiMaggio, present for filming the scene, stormed away from the set. A violent fight followed at their hotel, according to Zimbel.
After returning to California, Monroe filed for divorce on the grounds of “mental cruelty.” In October 1954, a tearful Monroe stepped outside their Beverly Hills home for a hastily arranged press conference, where her attorney announced their separation. In a letter DiMaggio wrote to Monroe after their separation, he said, “I love you and want to be with you. … There is nothing I would like better than to restore your confidence in me. … My heart split even wider seeing you cry in front of all those people.”
“Blonde” doesn’t let viewers know that DiMaggio reportedly stopped drinking after the divorce and went to therapy to learn to control his anger, the New York Post reported, citing Heymann’s book. “Blonde” also doesn’t show how he and Monroe eventually became friends again, despite the violence during their marriage.
After Monroe’s marriage to playwright Arthur Miller fell apart in 1960, DiMaggio helped his emotionally fragile ex-wife secure her release from a psychiatric hospital in Manhattan, Biography.com said. He also brought her to Florida to recuperate while he worked as a batting coach for the Yankees.
DiMaggio’s renewed closeness to Monroe reportedly prompted reporters to stake out her Manhattan apartment building, and Bob Hope to jokingly “dedicate” the 1960 Best Song Oscar nominee “The Second Time Around” to the ex-spouses at the 33rd Academy Awards.
As Monroe struggled with addiction, depression and anxiety in her final years, DiMaggio reportedly was concerned that she began spending time with certain people in Hollywood and in the Kennedy White House, whom he felt were detrimental to her well-being.
It’s known that DiMaggio claimed his ex-wife’s body after she died and arranged for her funeral. According to reports, he barred certain Hollywood figures and Kennedy family members, including President John F. Kennedy, from attending the funeral. “Blonde” addresses Monroe’s reported affair with Kennedy, presenting a fictionalized encounter between Monroe and Kennedy that shows her being sexually exploited by the president in agonizing detail. DiMaggio also never forgave his friend Frank Sinatra for introducing her to the Kennedys, Biography said.
Other poignant aspects of DiMaggio’s relationship with Monroe also don’t make it into “Blonde.” The sports legend never married anyone else after her death, reportedly because he always hoped they could reconcile, according to Heymann. DiMaggio also arranged to have roses delivered to her crypt in the Westwood section of Los Angeles three times a week, the New York Times reported when DiMaggio died in 1999 at the age of 84.
In his book, “Dinner with DiMaggio,” author Rock Positano, DiMaggio’s foot doctor and friend, quoted the former baseball star as saying, “I’ll go to my grave regretting and blaming myself for what happened to her,” Biography said. The New York Post, citing Heymann’s book, reported that DiMaggio’s last words on his deathbed were, “I’ll finally get to see Marilyn again.”