A detail of the trailer for Netflix’s Marilyn Monroe film Blonde that may surprise some viewers is the NC-17 rating at the end. The film is clearly artistically shot, and seems to have an intense, dramatic tone, but in other respects it could pass for a traditional, tragic celebrity life story. What has earned it the MPA’s most stringent, adults-only rating — a first for any Netflix film?
Blonde is written and directed by Andrew Dominik, an Australian filmmaker who made his name with the 2000 crime film Chopper and the Brad Pitt-starring elegiac Western, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. The uncompromising Dominik is much admired by peers like David Fincher, who hired him to direct several episodes of Mindhunter. But Dominik hasn’t had a big commercial success yet, and has sometimes struggled to get films made on his terms.
Blonde is not a straight biography of Monroe, but instead a heavily fictionalized version of her story, based on the novel by Joyce Carol Oates. Dominik has been trying to get it made since as early as 2010. The book features some shocking, graphic scenes, and it seems Dominik has insisted that these make it into his movie.
Blonde, which stars Cuban actor Ana de Armas (Knives Out, No Time to Die) as Monroe, was shot in 2019. According to reports, it was originally slated for release in 2021 before Netflix delayed it to 2022. No reason was given for the delay, but rumors circulated that Netflix had objected to some of the film’s more extreme content, and was considering reediting it to avoid the NC-17 rating.
These rumors were eventually confirmed, more or less, by an interview Dominik gave to Screen Daily in February 2022.
Dominik laughed off the notion that the film featured a bloody scene depicting menstrual cunnilingus as “hilarious” and untrue. But he did confirm that Blonde features a rape scene taken from Oates’ book. This is likely the scene behind the NC-17 rating, which the MPA ascribes to “some sexual content.”
Dominik said Netflix had “insisted” on bringing in a new editor, Jennifer Lame (Marriage Story, Tenet), “to curb the excesses of the movie.” But, going by the rating, it appears Netflix has capitulated and Dominik has got an undiluted version of the film through. He acknowledged that Netflix had issues with the content of the film, but praised the streamer for supporting its release anyway. “It’s much easier to support stuff when you like it. It’s much harder when you don’t. I have nothing but gratitude for Netflix,” he said.
NC-17 ratings for movies are incredibly rare. Only a handful of films over the past decade have carried the rating, according to the MPA’s Classification and Rating Administration website. Some films, including recent releases such as Spiral, The King’s Man, and Midsommar, have reportedly been initially struck with the rating, but were reedited and resubmitted to the MPA to secure a more theater-friendly R rating.
An NC-17 rating is much less damaging for Netflix than it is for a traditional movie studio. Although such a rating severely restricts the distribution and marketing of a movie in theaters, it will have little impact on the streaming platform, where the homepage is Netflix’s chief marketing tool. In the past, it’s not been hard to find extreme content on Netflix, such as Gaspar Noé’s explicit, unrated erotic drama Love, which was a big hit there. Nevertheless, the studio seems to have been quite sensitive to Blonde’s rating, perhaps considering the film’s close alignment with its brand as a Netflix Original.
Speaking to Screen Daily, Dominik was characteristically unrepentant. He said the film “wouldn’t have got done” if it hadn’t been for #MeToo, “because nobody was interested in that sort of shit — what it’s like to be an unloved girl, or what it’s like to go through the Hollywood meat-grinder” — an apparent justification for its unflinching portrayal of Monroe suffering abuse. And, while calling the NC-17 rating “a bunch of horseshit,” Dominik embraced it as a badge of the film’s lack of compromise.
“It’s a demanding movie,” he said. “If the audience doesn’t like it, that’s the fucking audience’s problem. It’s not running for public office. It’s an NC-17 movie about Marilyn Monroe, it’s kind of what you want, right? I want to go and see the NC-17 version of the Marilyn Monroe story.”