Getting behind the artifice of more than half a century of pop culture fairy dust is difficult. The tactile quality of iconography is elusive; it’s starlight dancing between your fingertips. And yet, that same quality’s legacy for the truly timeless, seminal figures of history is irresistible. It’s a collective memory we all share of Elvis Presley shaking his hips on national television for the first time, or Marilyn Monroe standing above a New York City subway grate, waiting for the next gust of air to blow as a train passes.
This year we’ve seen both figures re-contextualized by star-studded Hollywood biopics that, like so much of the dream factory’s output, seem eager to admire show business legends. But that fawning can also be a facade. Whereas the male emblem of 1950s sex got a glorifying piece of hagiography courtesy of Baz Luhrmann over the summer, Andrew Dominik’s Blonde is eager to strip away the lairs of popular fantasy (and just about everything else) until all we’re left with is a fragile, scared young woman who was smothered by the adoration that gave her everything… except happiness.
It’s a shame then that Blonde is no more interested in being kind, or necessarily self-aware, than the legion of wolves who leer at Marilyn for nearly three hours throughout the picture. Dominik’s film might recognize the ugliness of its vision, but it seems to struggle in finding any more compassion or sense of remorse than the studio system did for exploiting a girl named Norma Jeane by putting her above that subway grate and into an early grave.
At the very least though, you cannot fault the casting. Blonde’s biggest salvation is that it has Ana de Armas playing the woman above that grate, watching her from Marilyn’s earliest days in the business to the very detailed (and fictionalized) account of her final hours at the bottom of a bottle of pills. It’s even a bit of fitting irony, too, that the most buzzed about element is not the movie star Blonde has ostensibly come to eulogize, but the curiosity factor around the one who seems poised to become an A-list sensation by playing her.
All the months and years leading up to Blonde’s premiere centered around apprehension in the media over a Cuban woman playing the American movie star. Which is strange since many of the same voices waxing and waning their displeasure have nowhere near the same level of anxiety over an English actor playing Abraham Lincoln (or winning an Oscar for it), nor for that matter when an American played the Princess of Wales.
As Monroe, de Armas reveals the most delicate of crumbling effervescence. She’s a crystal chandelier that is already cracking when we meet her during an audition at the beginning of her career. It’s only a matter of time before she shatters into a thousand pieces of broken light. No, the accent is not one-to-one perfect, but it’s no more off than when an English Oscar winner plays Richard Nixon. And more importantly, the emotion and vulnerability rings startlingly true.
Which is why Blonde’s attempt to bury it under so much artifice of its own, and a good deal of fiction from author Joyce Carol Oates—whose Blonde novel rewrote Monroe’s life for the worst—misses out on the opportunity provided by de Armas’ almost-great performance. The star wattage and sensitivity is there, but it’s in service of a movie that only wants to see one side of Monroe: the victim, the sexpot, the hysterical woman, and much like its subject matter, it traps the lead performance in a constrictive box.
Nonetheless, it has splendid wrappings. Dominik is nothing if not a master of his filmmaking craft and alongside cinematographer Chayse Irvin and a small army of collaborators, there’s sharp attention to detail in this vision of mid-20th century decadence and unfulfilled hopes. But then, young Norma Jeane’s chances of hoping for anything real are diminished as soon as the picture begins.
From the jump, we’re invited to be an uneasy fly on the wall during Norma Jeane’s childhood where she survives being repeatedly abandoned: first by a father she never met, then by a mother (Julianne Nicholson) who succumbs to her mental psychosis after attempting to drown Norma Jeane in a bathtub. Eventually, the little girl is left with no one at all and winds up in an orphanage.
Given that backdrop, it’s no small wonder Norma Jeane was anxious to become Marilyn after the movie cuts to her adulthood. When de Armas picks up the role, Marilyn is already a successful model who has replaced the lack of parents in her youth with the first of several father figures among her lovers, here an aging talent agent who she refers to as “daddy.”
And rest assured, Blonde is obsessed with the absence of Marilyn’s father, going so far as to suggest that hole in her formative years is something akin to the Rosebud sled in Citizen Kane. It’s a fair observation, but ultimately a shallow one, with Blonde showing more interest in how the men or surrogate father figures view Marilyn than how she views or interacts with them.
In fact, the only man in her life who doesn’t come across as a lustful brute or fool is Arthur Miller (Adrien Brody). As per the movie, the unlikely pairing was due to the celebrated playwright becoming as attracted to her mind and underrated intellect as he is to her famed physique. Their first scene together depicts Miller mystified upon learning Marilyn has read the plays of Anton Chekov. It’s an aspect of her life that was rarely acknowledged by the ‘50s media men who only wanted her in diamonds and little else. However, it’s also a side we never see meaningfully explored by Blonde in the two hours or so before Marilyn and Miller grab coffee. Nor do I recall it being mentioned that Monroe was among the first movie stars to start her own production company.
Instead the movie chooses to revel in the objectification demanded by a misogynistic society, and how eagerly Monroe pursued it. And to be fair, Monroe was a sex symbol—a “blonde bombshell” who was never disillusioned about her appeals to men in movie houses or on the 20th Century Fox lot. While that is true, there’s still little difference in sentiment from the dismissive studio head Daryl Zanuck who refused to ever take Marilyn seriously and the way Blonde lingers as much or more on the sexcapades of Marilyn’s life than how she felt about the men in them.
Marilyn was never ashamed of her body, but Blonde seems as distracted by it during scenes about the implosion of her marriage to Joe DiMaggio (Bobby Cannavale), as well as infantilizing Marilyn to the point of caricature, as it is with actually exploring the patriarchal possessiveness which lured Monroe into a string of unhappy marriages. Ultimately, the movie’s pretensions of attempting a quixotic examination of Marilyn Monroe’s sex life amounts to little more than art house cinema proving it isn’t above exploitation.
Despite these shortcomings, many elements of the movie work, including Nick Cave and Warren Ellis’ counterintuitive score that stalks Marilyn through the halls of studio soundstages like an unseen ghost. Dominik’s dedicated desire to also recreate many of Monroe’s classics in exacting detail, right down to a film’s color grading, adds to the movie’s seductive illusion. In certain scenes shot on black and white film, with Dominik recreating the exact blocking of a scene from, say, Some Like It Hot (1959), it took this reviewer a moment to recognize he was looking at de Armas and not the actual Monroe of 60 years ago.
Such mimicry isn’t used as a form of flattery though; it’s an invitation to blur the lines of fact and fiction, and to accept Blonde’s attempt at turning the victimization of a woman into something mythic and beautiful in its cruelty. Unlike other showbiz biopics, the movie doesn’t celebrate; it coldly observes and perhaps even welcomes being lumped in with all the other people who took and took until there was nothing left.
But beyond de Armas’ performance, it gives very little back worthy of all that craft. It’s certainly not worthy of Marilyn.
Blonde is now streaming on Netflix.