Joyce Chopra Compares Her Monroe Adaptation to Andrew Dominik’s – The Hollywood Reporter
The much-publicized backlash that has surrounded Andrew Dominik’s NC-17 biopic Blonde has had the surprising, simultaneous effect of elevating interest in another Marilyn Monroe project that might otherwise have slipped into the past. In 2001, pioneering female filmmaker Joyce Chopra shot a two-part TV miniseries for CBS, adapting the very same Joyce Carol Oates novel Dominik would later spend over a decade bringing to screen for Netflix.
Dominik’s harrowing, nearly three-hour telling of the Marilyn story has been widely criticized for its almost exclusive focus on the many traumas of the Hollywood icon’s life, and for devoting little interest to the episodes where she exercised undeniable agency and self-determination. As The Hollywood Reporter’s lead critic David Rooney put it in his review, “This is a treatise on celebrity and the sex symbol that blurs not only reality with fantasy but also empathy with exploitation.”
The film has also been slammed in some quarters for the way it deals with abortion. Dominik’s Blonde depicts Monroe as having had two illegal abortions, both of which seem to be imposed upon her against her will and go on to haunt her for the rest of her life. Via an effect that could accurately be described as a CGI-rendered fetus cam, the film portrays Monroe’s fetuses in the womb, with one even speaking to her to ask, “You won’t hurt me this time, will you?” (Planned Parenthood later put out a statement lamenting that “the creators of Blonde chose to contribute to anti-abortion propaganda.”)
In contrast to these takes, Chopra’s TV miniseries has been getting a second look for its more empathetic and balanced handling of the whole sweep of Monroe’s life, while also holding true to Oates’ semi-fictional 700-page novel as source material. The miniseries was scripted by a woman, as well, producer and screenwriter Joyce Eliason, who passed away at age 87 earlier this year (incidentally, she also produced David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive in 2001, the same year that Blonde aired on CBS). A key creative choice in Eliason’s script was the inclusion of the recurring device of having Marilyn, played by Poppy Montgomery, speak to an offscreen interviewer in sequences throughout the miniseries, which creates the effect that Marilyn has some agency over the telling of her own story — making the movie her critique of the Hollywood that abused her, rather than placing her in need of a directorial corrective from a filmmaker like Dominik.
A true pioneer in the male-dominated movie business, Chopra began her career making documentaries, including the the landmark autobiographical feminist doc Joyce at 34, which examined the effects that her pregnancy was having on her aspirations as a working filmmaker. After a sequence of additional innovative documentaries, her first narrative feature-length film, Smooth Talk, starring an undiscovered 15-year-old Laura Dern, won the grand jury prize at the 1985 Sundance Film Festival. An adaptation of Oates’ 1966 short story, Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?, the film has come to be regarded as a cult classic and was given a 4K restoration by The Criterion Collection in 2020. In November, she will release Lady Director: Adventures in Hollywood, Television and Beyond, a memoir about her challenging but inspiring path through life and the movies long before the hard-won progress of the #MeToo movement. Criterion Channel will also be screening a collection of six of her documentaries around the same time as the book’s release.
The Hollywood Reporter recently spoke with Chopra by phone from her home in Virginia to discuss the differences in how she and Dominik approached Oates’ acclaimed fictional telling of the Monroe story.
So, to start with, how did your TV adaptation of Blonde come about?
Well, I had done some films for television for the producer Robert Greenwald and I read Joyce Carol Oates novel and loved it. And then Robert came to me and said, “Would you like to direct this as a TV miniseries?” I said I would love to — but I had a problem. I lived in Roxbury, Connecticut, and Arthur Miller, who’s not portrayed very favorably in the book, was a friend of mine. Not only that, I was living in the same house Arthur brought Marilyn to when they were first married. And the actor Richard Widmark, who is portrayed in Joyce Carol Oates’ novel as someone Marilyn was forced to sleep with to get her part in Don’t Bother to Knock, was another neighbor living very nearby to me. So just as I was trying to figure out whether I should take this job, thinking about how I was going to tackle it and what to think of all of these personal overlaps, I was out weeding in my garden and this powder blue convertible pulls up and it’s Richard Widmark, stopping by to say hello and shouting out to me, “How the hell are you, Joyce?” And all I could think about was this character I had read in Joyce’s book, hovering over him as I looked at him waving to me and I thought, “Oh, God, I don’t know how I can do this movie.” But then it was a great opportunity and I really loved the book, so I guess that won out in the end. Thankfully, I don’t think Dick or Arthur ever saw my miniseries, because I don’t think either of them watched much television at that time.
Wow. That’s all pretty amazing. So what was it like for you watching Andrew Dominik’s adaptation?
Well, I loved her [Marilyn’s] movies. She had such grace and charm and many of them were so touching. So we tried to make a movie like that. You know, I didn’t see Andrew Dominik’s film until yesterday. I had read all of these scathing reviews that gave me the impression I was maybe better off not watching it. But knowing I was going to be talking to you, I thought I ought to pull it up on Netflix. It’s hard for me, because I know the book so well, and all of the scenes he had portrayed, I had done another version of them. So it was strange — like when another person has moved into your old house, you know?
How would you describe the differences in how you each chose to handle the material?
Well, our miniseries was written by Joyce Eliason. That’s a very big difference because Dominik wrote his own script. I think it’s an old story about the male gaze and how someone can look at the same person and story and come up with an entirely different version. His film is not something that I could have conceived of. For me, Marilyn was the center, really. One of the big differences is that Joyce Eliason created a lot of interviews in our script where Marilyn would speak directly, straight to camera, and we’re able hear from her and connect to her in a very different way. That’s one of the biggest differences in the storytelling, aside from stylistically. For me, Marilyn was a strong character, with all that she went through. In the version that I worked on, Marilyn is smart and she tries as much as she can to do what she wants to do. You could say that she was a victim of the system — and of course, there were a lot of other actresses who went through such horrors at that time and all the way up to the Harvey Weinstein story. But I guess I just had an entirely different sensibility about it all, because I didn’t see her foremost as a victim. The male gaze is an overused phrase now, but Andrew Dominik just had an entirely different passion. This is somebody who had been trying for 10 years to make his movie, and I deeply respect him for that — to follow through with your vision and your passion like that. I just wouldn’t have made the movie he made, and I didn’t. In the version that Joyce Eliason wrote, she chose to show a lot of the earlier Marilyn, how her career began and how she got into doing nude photographs — all of that story. And I felt you needed that complete overview to really get a sense of her as a complete character.
What do you make of the reaction that Dominik’s film has generated?
Well, I want to tell you something I’ve been thinking about this evening. When our miniseries was released, it did not get good reviews. People were upset with it. Our star, Poppy Montgomery, just like Ana de Armas, got rave reviews but the miniseries itself was generally dismissed. And I’m thinking that when you pick up Joyce Carol Oates’ book — that huge tome — you accept that it’s a fantasy version of Marilyn Monroe’s life. But when you adapt it for the screen, viewers get more confused about this point for some reason. So when the CBS version came out, in a similar way, people didn’t really know how to look at it. Before our version was on TV, I showed it to a friend of mine, who was a journalist, and she was so angry with me. She said, “How could you do that? I’ve written about Marilyn and she was nothing like that.” So it’s probably a novel that shouldn’t be adapted, because Marilyn is still so important to so many people — at least in my generation. I don’t know if young people today are even interested.
You’ve adapted two of Joyce Carol Oates’ works. Did you seek her input much? She’s been among the few prominent voices who have been quite supportive of Dominik’s adaptation. When The New Yorker recently asked her if she was pleased with his film, she said, “Oh, yes. It’s a work of art. Andrew Dominik is a very idiosyncratic director, so he appropriated the subject and made it into his own vision.”
Yeah, that’s typical of her. She also said wonderful things about our miniseries. She’s really great. When I did Smooth Talk, she never, ever wanted to be involved in any way. She was so respectful and kept her distance. She’s very respectful of filmmakers. I think she thinks, “That’s their medium and my medium is writing, so God bless them.” To me, that’s just great.
So, Dominik made this movie for Netflix and created sequences that earned the film an NC-17 rating, which is something you can occasionally get clearance to do on a streaming platform (and by all accounts, he was very adamant about doing so). Your miniseries was made for CBS. There’s a lot of tough stuff in the book — as there reportedly was in Marilyn’s life. Did the constraints of network TV present any challenges in how you told her story? Would you have done anything differently if you had had the leeway of a streaming platform like Netflix?
Well, I don’t know that I would have. For example, I watched the first part of the miniseries just to refresh my memory, and we have a similar scene with the character Mr. Z (former 20th Century-Fox studio head Darryl F. Zanuck, who is shown raping Marilyn Monroe in Dominik’s film). She thinks she’s been invited to his office to read dialogue, and she’s looking at his stuffed bird displays, and he basically says, “Get down, Blondie,” and she sits down on a white rug and you see him starting to just reach for his belt buckle — and then it cuts. And the next scene is her in the bathroom trying to clean herself up. You can figure out what happened — you don’t have to see it. That’s sort of what we did throughout. And I don’t think I would have changed that, even if we could have. I mean, the audience is not stupid. They know what’s going on.
So, I’m pretty curious to hear the story of how you came to know Arthur Miller and live in the home he once inhabited with Marilyn.
Well, we were friends with Arthur before we lived in that house, but we became quite a bit closer afterwards because he was still living right up the road. My husband, Tom Cole, who died some time ago, he was a writer and he and Arthur were very close. I knew Arthur socially but we weren’t close in the same way my husband was. They used to go for walks together most days, chatting and confiding in each other about various things. I had been living in L.A., but my husband wanted to go back to Connecticut to be near his old friends. So we were renting a house there, trying to find a place to buy, and the real estate agent said, “I have a place that’s exactly what you’re describing.” But when she referred to it as “the Marilyn Monroe house,” I said, “No, I don’t want to see that” — because we knew Arthur and it just felt a little strange. But in the end, we couldn’t find anything in the area that we liked, and as soon as we went into that house, we just really wanted it, because it still had all of these wonderful built-in bookcases. And it was only after we moved in that we found out — even the real estate agent didn’t know this — that up on the hillside of the property, there was a little shack, which turned out to be where Arthur had written Death of a Salesman and The Crucible. We had no idea, but Arthur was thrilled the first time he came to visit, because he hadn’t been in that house for years. He loved it. He was somebody that I liked a lot. He was very funny and nice, and just wonderful company.
At the Venice Film Festival premiere, I had the chance to speak with Adrien Brody, who plays Arthur Miller in Dominik’s film. I told him that I really enjoyed his performance, in part because he’s one of the few characters in the film who isn’t overtly horrible towards Marilyn. His sequences with her almost feel like a respite. He was happy to hear that, because he said Arthur Miller is someone he admires deeply and portraying him somewhat positively was something he fought for during production. Since you knew the real man, what did you make of his performance?
Oh, I thought he was wonderful. He’s a very fine actor and very convincing. I can’t say how Arthur behaved around Marilyn Monroe, because I didn’t know him then. I have a sense of it though. I fear I’m getting a little gossipy now, but after Arthur’s wonderful wife Inge Morath died, he was with another woman, and he was so tender with her — it was just wonderful to see. And he might have been that way with Marilyn, too. Why not? He was multi-dimensional. Brody conveys the warmth that Arthur had beautifully, though.
One aspect of Netflix’s Blonde adaptation that has elicited a lot of criticism is the handling of the abortion scenes and that photorealistic CGI “fetus camera” effect that is repeatedly used. Planned Parenthood even put out a statement criticizing the film as “anti-abortion propaganda,” and some abortion rights activists have been very critical of those scenes.
Well, I hadn’t thought about it too deeply yet — I only watched the film last night — and I’m kind of surprised to hear that Planned Parenthood got involved. But I suppose I can see why people might have an issue with it. Most abortions are performed in the first trimester and what he’s showing in those scenes is like a fully formed child. And then to keep going back to it, and to have the baby actually say, “Please don’t hurt me…?” Give me a break.
But I do want to make one thing clear: I totally respect Mr. Dominik for working so hard and finding a way to make the movie he wanted to make. It’s not the movie that I would do, but that’s what makes the world go round. It’s certainly not my intention to diss him. There’s nothing more repulsive to me than somebody faulting someone else for trying to express their art.
Interview edited for length and clarity.