When Marilyn Monroe was cast as a spunky cannery worker in Clash by Night (1952), she took “an all-night bus to Monterey to observe cannery workers and to practice being working class.” As biographer Lois Banner noted, she was even offered a job, cutting off the heads of sardines. But Marilyn was already familiar with factory work. During the war, she worked at the Radio Plane Munitions factory, assembling drones and painting cloth fuselages with a toxic lacquer, a job that she later called “the hardest work I’d ever done.” In less than a decade she had gone from the airplane factory, to the dream factory, and, for a few hours, to the sardine factory.
While this particular episode is not featured in Netflix’s forthcoming Blonde, a daring adaption of Joyce Carol Oates’s fictionalized account of Marilyn’s life, the film reminds us that the star who epitomized Hollywood glamour had a broken childhood. Marilyn never knew her father, and from a young age she bounced between foster care, orphanages, and the homes of extended family members. Blonde director Andrew Dominik explains that the film is about “how a childhood trauma shapes an adult who’s split between a public and a private self.”
Blonde isn’t the only biopic out this year that traces the working-class roots of a major star. Baz Luhrmann’s Elvis, now streaming on HBO Max, draws on the director’s interviews with Elvis’s childhood friends, who remembered playing with Elvis among the shacks and revival tents in the poorest, Blackest neighborhoods in Tupelo, Mississippi. Elvis also lingers on the singer’s short career as a super cool looking truck driver.
It’s intriguing that two biopics of the 20th century’s most famous—and most working-class—superstars have appeared in 2022. Why? Do they reflect increased interest in workers as baristas, Amazon workers, teachers, railway workers, and many others are on the march? Perhaps. In addition, these films remind us that Marilyn and Elvis were progressives. Marilyn was a left-wing intellectual who, as one writer has pointed out, was more often photographed reading a book than posing naked. When she married Arthur Miller in 1956, FBI agents were concerned that Marilyn was “drifting into the Communist orbit.” In 1962, an FBI report described Marilyn’s views as “very positively and concisely leftist.”
Elvis was also progressive, especially when it came to race and civil rights. He was friends with B.B. King and other Black musicians who frequented Beale Street. Elvis was devastated by the murders of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy, as the Luhrmann film suggests. And, according Nancy Isenberg, author of White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America, Elvis supported President Johnson’s civil rights efforts.
It mattered that Elvis and Marilyn were working class. Elvis had a deep knowledge of folk, country, and rhythm and blues music because he had spent his life on the other side of the tracks, where poor whites and Blacks intermingled. This knowledge shaped the originality, and the popularity, of his sound. Likewise, Marilyn had a humility and a frankness that were key to her popularity. When it was discovered that Marilyn had posed nude early in her career, Marilyn weathered the scandal without incident. When she was asked why she did it, she replied simply that “I was broke and needed the money.”
But there’s another and rather ironic way to read these films: Marilyn and Elvis are generating revenue—surplus value—for a struggling entertainment industry. In July, 2022, for the first time, streaming outperformed cable television, accounting for 34.8% of viewing compared with 34.4% for cable and 21.6% for broadcast television. Yet Netflix, one of the pioneers of streaming, lost nearly a million subscribers in the first quarter of 2022. The platform is counting on Blonde to bring viewers back. HBO Max is also getting new subscribers from streaming Elvis (which aired September 2).
Put simply, these streaming companies are using Elvis and Marilyn, two 20th century working-class icons, to up their coolness quotient, increase their subscriber base, and make money. In a strange way, Marilyn and Elvis fit Marx’s definition of “dead labor.” So much capital swirls around them; their images, stories, and tragedies are easy money, endless clickbait, infinite profit.
Exploitation shaped both of their careers, as the biopics acknowledge. While Colonel Tom Parker states in Elvis that the King died from the intensity of love he felt for, and from, his audience, the film also suggests that it was Parker himself who killed Elvis by exploiting and abusing him for the entirety of his career. Blonde offers a similar argument, suggesting that Marilyn’s audience, and, especially, the men who desired her, caused her death. And as David Rooney writes, the film continues that exploitation: “This is a work of such wild excesses and questionable cruelty that it leaves you wondering how many more times . . . are we going to keep torturing, degrading, and killing this abused woman.”
In their own time, Elvis and Marilyn generated tremendous value for a rapidly expanding culture industry. In ways that are both wonderous and grotesque, they continue to generate value—for the teams that produced Elvis and Blonde and for the platforms that stream them. Ironically, perhaps, because Marilyn and Elvis were not born to wealth and privilege, they never mastered the industries that they were helping to create. They enjoyed some short-term benefits from their fame, but they lost control over their own images, and, to some degree, of themselves. They existed for the profit of others. A tragic, working-class ending for both.
Kathy M. Newman, Carnegie Mellon University