Somewhere in Norma Jeane Baker’s magical/tragical journey to becoming Marilyn Monroe, she stands naked in front of a mirror with Charlie Chaplin Jr. Both gaze into the abyss of self: “Look, Norma Jeane,” soothes Charlie. “Your magic friend. Here, you can hear waves and waves of applause.” The allure of fame and stardom lies at the heart of Blonde, the Netflix film starring Ana De Armas and based on a novel by Joyce Carol Oates. But it’s a bottomless pit.
Andrew Dominik’s nearly three-hour film detailing this journey is also a pit of sorts. In it, the New Zealand director tosses every imaginable style and technique, every Freudian cliché, everything we think we know about Marilyn Monroe, and quite a lot we didn’t know into the mix. Yes, there were horrific sexual assaults (used to call it the “casting couch”) by Hollywood moguls. Yes, there was an affair with Chaplin’s ne’er-do-well son (Xavier Samuel), though no evidence of a threesome with another troubled Hollywood scion, Eddy Robinson Jr. (Evan Williams). Yes, there were rumored abortions, some reputedly forced by studios. Yes, there was the affair with John Kennedy, who’s shown here throughout his scene lying on his back, on the phone, while Marilyn works her fingers to the bone. (Yet another devastating blow to the JFK mythology.) There are men who vow to protect Norma Jeane and end up abusing and assaulting her. It’s a series of violations that makes for uncomfortable viewing. (Those unused to the horrors of the world will be triggered.)
And at the center, there is a performance by de Armas that is shattering, incandescent, disturbing.
Like another blonde at the center of a gallery of grotesques — Florence Pugh in the recent Don’t Worry Darling — de Armas has to hold every scene together. She does so with a bottomless vulnerability that, eventually, does hit bottom.
We see Norma Jeane as a little girl with her mentally unstable mom (Julianne Nicholson), her father a mere faded photo on the wall, and we know all the literary images of Oates’ framing will come back again and again to haunt the film: the fire in Laurel Canyon that mother and daughter drive towards, like moths to a flame, hunting down the absentee dad; the mother whose growing cray-cray Norma Jeane fears is hereditary, contagious; the studio shot of a mustached man that becomes every male in Marilyn’s later life. All of it is overladen, overstated, and overdone throughout Blonde, with Dominik veering crazily from David Lynch to painstaking recreations of Marilyn’s iconic film scenes.
With an “everything but the kitchen sink” approach that’s as schizophrenic as Marilyn’s fragile psyche, there’s not a camera trick Dominik won’t pull out of his kit bag — whether it’s the warped, extruded bodies of Norma Jeane and her two male lovers, or the 2001 fetus floating in Norma Jeane’s belly, or the Blair Witch Project nightcam video as the actress grows paranoid about government spying after her affair with JFK.
The film has been faulted for not 'celebrating' Marilyn enough, but Oates’ novel was not about that kind of redemption—it’s a bitter autopsy of male abuse and female destruction.
It’s all presented as a cautionary tale, perhaps, about the price of fame and the absence of a strong emotional center. We see Norma Jeane transform into a Hollywood glamour icon — literally a 50-foot-woman cutout, towering over the cinema marquees and billboards — and with it comes a certain power: sexuality as currency, a path to controlling one’s life and career, the kind of thing pop star Madonna would later take up and run with for decades. But in Marilyn’s hands, the power is given away too easily, too quickly, too frequently. You kind of wish there had been a wise therapist father figure around her, instead of a 24/7 pharmacist.
The two diametrically opposite men who come along as her protectors — baseball legend Joe DiMaggio (Bobby Cannavale) and playwright Arthur Miller (Adrien Brody) — turn out to be disappointments, either physically abusive or indifferent. Norma Jeane is put through the wringer, again and again, and it ain’t pretty to watch.
You could easily call de Armas’ performance brave, and that’s not because she happens to be naked in about a third of the film. She captures the tremulous quality of the film star (waterworks are never far away). This was a role originally considered for Naomi Watts 10 years ago, then Jessica Chastain for a bit, before landing in de Armas’ lap. It’s a project that’s gone through countless drafts and versions, and it shows. The focus of the script is splintered, not just non-linear, but layered over so many times it’s hard to find a center, beyond de Armas’ fearless performance. Some fault the Cuban actress for not fully losing her accent, but what comes through is total commitment to the character. (Nevertheless, de Armas has stated she feels “disgusted” that her nude scenes in Blonde will go viral online.)
The body of Marilyn Monroe is a connective tissue here: whether considering herself in a mirror, summoning the glamour to appear, or through invasive vagina-cam shots, the camera has to make her physicality a central feature. Whether this is feminist or exploitative is definitely a thorny question. The film has been faulted for not “celebrating” Marilyn enough, but Oates’ novel was not about that kind of redemption: it’s a bitter autopsy of male abuse and female destruction.
Perhaps the key “iconic” scene recreated here is from The Seven Year Itch, where Marilyn is shown standing above a subway grate in NYC, the winds blowing up her skirt, as actor Tom Ewell — and an impossibly large crowd of leering male rubberneckers — watch the shot recreated over and over. The only one in the crowd not leering or smiling is sourpuss DiMaggio; but Marilyn is transported in the moment: she is afloat on the empty dreams of a thousand fans, a thousand thousand fans, and the scene is all swirling skirts and Nick Cave and Warren Ellis’ somewhat eerie music, until it ends with her skirt falling to earth, gravity setting in, and all that is left standing there is a simple girl, eyes downcast, trying to get the attention and love of the world.
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Blonde is now on Netflix.