Synopsis: After a traumatic childhood, Norma Jeane Mortenson becomes an actress in Hollywood in the 1950s and early 1960s. She becomes world famous under the stage name “Marilyn Monroe,” but her on-screen appearances are in stark contrast to the love issues, exploitation, abuse of power, and drug addiction she faces in her private life.
Stars: Ana de Armas, Adrien Brody, Bobby Cannavale, Xavier Samuel, Julianne Nicholson, Lily Fisher, Evan Williams, Toby Huss, David Warshofsky, Caspar Phillipson, Dan Butler, Sara Paxton, Rebecca Wisocky
Director: Andrew Dominik
Running Length: 166 minutes
TMMM Score: (8/10)
Review: The more we tell the same story over time, the more it can grow and gradually change form. Fact becomes fiction, and fiction becomes the legend passed down like a campfire story from one generation to the next. Each culture has its lore, and even established social circles find it hard to rebound from its stars that burn bright and then fade. Marilyn Monroe, born Norma Jean Mortenson, is a glittering example of a celebrity that captured the attention of an adoring public for her beauty and has remained an elusive mystery in the decades since her untimely death from a barbiturate overdose at 36. Her marriages (and more famous affairs) have fueled books, movies, television, and even a stage show or two. Has anyone ever told the real story of Marilyn Monroe?
Those looking for ultimate truths aren’t going to find it in Andrew Dominik’s adaptation of Joyce Carole Oates’ 2000 novel Blonde. A bestseller and finalist for the Pulitzer prize, the author claims her work is pure fiction, and still, it’s hard not to read between the lines of the salacious details and align them with the meteoric rise of Monroe during the ’50s through to her demise. Already adapted in 2001 into a television mini-series, Blonde has been Dominik’s pet project for over a decade, with A-listers like Naomi Watts and Jessica Chastain attached to star over that time. Ultimately, the film was made for Netflix, starring Ana de Armas (Knives Out), a surprising choice given her Cuban heritage.
The de Armas casting aside, Blonde faced an uphill battle with viewers wanting a look after it was slapped with the dreaded NC-17 rating by the MPAA. Having a limited theatrical run to qualify it for awards consideration, the rating limits where it can play and who can see it while it plays in theaters. On Netflix, it’s fair game, and the rating doesn’t carry nearly the same stigma it did back when it was equitable to an X. It earns that rating through several hard-to-watch, graphic sexual acts of violence Monroe experienced and a few camera angles that are looking out from a, shall we say, nether region.
At 166 minutes, watching Dominik’s film is a commitment, but one that I think is essential in beginning your understanding of the Marilyn Monroe persona that Norma Jean took on to disassociate from her painful childhood. Later, we see that Norma Jean becomes the safe haven when “Marilyn” is taken advantage of by a series of perverse men, overwhelmed, or needs solace. When learned coping can satiate neither side any longer, Dominik starkly shows the destruction within an already fragile soul. That’s as hard to take in the first time we see a budding Monroe violated by a studio head when she thinks she’s auditioning as it is when she flies in to meet JFK only to be disgustingly objectified while others sit in the next room, doing nothing.
To deny the film is to disregard the exceptional work on display from de Armas. In Blonde, she’s giving the kind of haunted, go-the-distance, audience-challenging performance we ask for every year of a Best Actress and then are too scared to reward or acknowledge. And who cares if de Armas doesn’t “sound” totally like Marilyn Monroe? The voice is far better than the early reviews said, not to mention it’s eerie how much she resembles the real woman she’s playing. This film isn’t a Vegas revue being mounted, and the spirit inside the performance counts. Remember a few years back when Reese Witherspoon won an Oscar for Walk the Line while looking (and sounding) nothing like June Carter Cash?
Identified as The Playwright (really Arthur Miller), Oscar-winner Adrian Brody (Clean) reminds us why he won that prize for The Pianist two decades ago. His scenes with de Armas are gold; quiet moments of a soft-spoken man and a woman used to people raising their voices at her are so touching and played with strength. I almost wanted the movie to be exclusively them chatting. Her marriage to The Ex-Athlete (Joe DiMaggio, played by Bobby Cannavale, Thunder Force) and complicated relationship with her mentally unstable mother (Julianne Nicholson, August: Osage County) are also examined, albeit with more of the histrionics that give the film more of a tabloid feel.
Flipping between black and white and color photography, as well as employing multiple aspect ratios, the small screen experience of Blonde can be more than a little dizzying. I’m betting the aspect ratio changing works better in theaters where the impact can be felt more, its point clearer. All these changes feel like gussied-up tricks instead of choices at home—distractions from the shiny object at the center that keeps us watching Blonde and de Armas. Recreating many of Monroe’s famous appearances but never going full-on into impression or parody, Dominik isn’t above jumping away into another scene right as we think we’re going to get a restaged musical number or see a familiar appearance.
Though it’s already long (too long, some would argue), I was surprised at how much Dominik omits along the way. While mostly told chronologically, several leaps ahead can leave viewers unsure of where they are in the Monroe timeline. One moment, she’s a child being dropped off at an orphanage; the next, she’s posing for Playboy. What happened between that fateful day and her first appearance in the magazine that began to shape Norma Jean into the woman she’d become? Most of her relationships have no actual start and end. They just “are,” and that’s that.
Bound to be an endurance test for some, a fascination for many, and potentially triggering to others, I found Blonde to be a powerful watch based solely on the performance de Armas was giving. It’s not hard to root for Monroe, but what the actress brings to it is a doomed vulnerability we don’t want just to protect but help her find the tools to do it on her own. Like most legendary tales in Hollywood, the details may be fuzzy, but the ending is always the same, and the final shot of Blonde is a telling reminder that even in death, some only saw the Marilyn Monroe they wanted.