‘Blonde’ Turns Marilyn Monroe’s Story Into a Wrenching Nightmare
In the fever dream that is “Blonde,” every waking moment in the life of Marilyn Monroe is pure hell. At least that’s the case for this Marilyn Monroe, who is meant to evoke an idea of the icon and not a straight biography. Director Andrew Dominik goes for broke in this adaptation of the controversial 2000 novel by Joyce Carol Oates, which was nominated for the National Book Award, but remains a divisive imagining of the Monroe story. Dominik spent over a decade trying to get this project made and it is palpable in every frame of this very long, visually bold and edgy film. Its merit lies in the risky technique and structure. To actually sit through the entire work means enduring a film that can be both stunning and brutal. Dominik proves you can make impressive cinema that might not inspire you to want to revisit it for a while.
It has to be said from the beginning that the most impressive talent on display is actor Ana de Armas, who is required to be in nearly every scene constantly flogged by life. The sheer physical toll on display alone deserves an Oscar nomination. But first the story begins with the child Norma Jean (Mia McGovern Zaini) who watches as her mother, Gladys (Julianne Nicholson), slips into madness while rambling about Norma Jean’s absentee father. A final breakdown results in Norma Jean being taken away to foster care. We then time jump to the early ‘50s, as a grown Norma Jean (de Armas) now goes by the name of Marilyn Monroe. Her modeling career and dynamic looks have opened doors for her to be in Hollywood. It’s a predatory system where producers take sexual advantage while Marilyn’s agent (Dan Butler) steers her career with iron focus. But Monroe’s inner demons are raging and she spirals into a void of pills, affairs and a destructive identity crisis.
“Blonde” is an obsessive piece of filmmaking, often compelling and building to such wrenching intensity that the end credits feel like relief. Dominik’s drive is both the film’s gift and curse. Visually it features the director’s trademark style of lush frames and moments. He is one of the great modern cinema stylists, capable of making a Western like “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford” into a work of overwhelming richness. His Nick Cave documentaries, “One More Time With Feeling” and this year’s “This Much I Know to Be True” are intimate portraits but experiences of light and sound as well. Much like the Oates novel, Dominik structures “Blonde” like a series of moments that all come together to form a fictionalized portrait of Marilyn Monroe. This is not a biography striving for historical accuracy, or even interpretation. It almost doesn’t matter that Ana de Armas’s Cuban accent does manage to leak through in certain scenes, because she’s channeling an idea of Monroe. Much of the tragic aspects of her life are well known and have been chronicled in grueling detail in books like “Goddess: The Secret Life of Marilyn Monroe” by Anthony Summers. Oates’s novel has always been controversial because it’s a phantasmagoria about the icon in the Gothic literary tradition. We don’t know how much of what we read or see is accurate, but that’s not the point.
As with the novel, some of the film’s strongest material comes early when we see life through the eyes of Norma Jean as a child. Because this happens before Dominik jumps into full excess, the childhood passages have a more subdued, haunting quality. A mad Gladys rambles about her actor lover, presumably Norma Jean’s father, whose Clark Gable-like portrait hangs in their shabby apartment. She forces Norma Jean into hot baths and car drives, amid L.A.’s infamous fire season, with ashes falling all around, and snarls at the police. Eventually Norma Jean goes to a foster home, then Dominik makes the curious choice (probably because of time limits) of cutting out the novel’s sections dealing with Norma Jean’s adolescence and early, practically forced, marriage. We catch up with her in the 1950s, already sporting blonde hair and going by the stage name of Marilyn Monroe.
From here on out, as Marilyn meets with her agent, or auditions for a producer who practically rapes her on his white rug, the film seems would be more suitably titled, “The Passion of Marilyn Monroe.” This is not to mock the premise, it really does become a searing journey through the exploitation, abuse and inner turmoil of the character. Do not expect any breakdowns of Monroe’s films or her artistic process. Important personalities like baseball icon husband Joe DiMaggio (Bobby Cannavale) are not even named, except for playwright spouse Arthur Miller (Adrien Brody). Instead we enter an experience of anguish. Monroe is defined by being treated like meat. She wants to seriously act but executives only see her curvy figure. DiMaggio beats her in jealous rages, especially after her famous skirt-blowing scene in “The Seven Year Itch.” She longs for the father she has never met, who seems to write her letters from unknown places, praising and judging her. De Armas’s performance surely took a physical toll because she channels Monroe well, while having to spend much of the film yelling, screaming and crying, sometimes in quite long takes where we feel the emotional pressure. She never has a full conversation, mostly communicating in spurts of sorrow or false joy. Monroe as a complex human being never comes across, but we’re only watching the side that is falling apart. She only seems to be truly happy when involved in a three-way relationship with Charlie Chaplin’s son, Cass (Xavier Samuel) and Edward G. Robinson Jr. (Evan Williams). They at least try to make her see her worth as an individual.
One of Dominik’s fascinating visual accomplishments is in turning iconic Monroe moments into melancholic, at times unnerving dreamscapes. De Armas flawlessly pulls off the “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend” sequence from “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes,” but it’s also staged as exhibitionism for a Hollywood system using her for commerce and nothing more. The “Seven Year Itch” moment where her dress is blown upwards is turned into a hypnotic, black and white nightmare David Lynch would be proud of. But by the time the movie is finally reaching its end game we’re left wrung out from all of the depressing vignettes. Dominik seems to be trying to make a feminist film without the complexities or nuances of genuinely dismissing the male gaze. He tries too hard with the visual statements at times, as when Monroe undergoes an abortion forced upon her by the studio and we get a vagina POV shot as a doctor prepares the procedure. But we never really get to know what makes Monroe tick, even as a fictionalized version. Not all of the graphic imagery is without thought. “Blonde” has earned an NC-17 rating and it can be largely attributed to a scene where Monroe performs oral sex on John F. Kennedy (Caspar Phillipson), in a hotel room guarded by Secret Service. It’s boldly iconoclastic, in the style of something written by Gore Vidal. How the powerful indulge themselves and abuse others is disturbingly dramatized.
Intriguingly enough, we can compare this “Blonde” to another one. The Oates novel had already been adapted in 2001 for television in an excellent version starring Poppy Montgomery as Monroe. It was directed by Joyce Chopra, who made another, brilliant Oates adaptation, “Smooth Talk.” Viewers can find this version on streamers like Tubi, and it’s worth making the comparison. The Chopra version is made by a woman, actually dismissing the male gaze and letting Marilyn Monroe be portrayed as someone balancing the exhilaration of reaching stardom with the pain, abuse and exploitation described in the book. She’s allowed to speak more than scream. Montgomery’s Monroe is vulnerable but with an obvious intelligence bogged down by the system turning her into a commodity. Dominik’s is all pain and by the end spirals into a hallucinatory hell as Monroe feels the effects of the pills she consumes, sometimes awakening smeared in blood from her dreams. The score by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis transforms into a terrifyingly sad dirge, although well-composed as we expect from the Australian duo. But the question is what does Dominik get across in the end? After 2 hours and 48 minutes we deserve some clarity, even as “Blonde” still features striking moments and a notable performance. It’s not a complete success yet also not forgettable.
“Blonde” begins streaming Sept. 28 on Netflix.