Here is a horror film about the life of Marilyn Monroe, based on the novel by Joyce Carol Oates: a glossily expensive nightmare about the great movie actor as bleating sacrificial sex-lamb on the altar of celebrity. Andrew Dominik’s movie throbs with her radioactive victimhood.
It benefits from a showstopping central performance by Cuban-Spanish actor Ana de Armas, who eerily incarnates the legendary star with a weird little hint of Mia Farrow in Rosemary’s Baby, although it is Marilyn’s impending and repeated childlessness which is shown as the real emanation of evil. Like Polanski’s stricken heroine, she is surrounded by a secretly complicit male priest-caste: a brotherhood of misogyny, exploitation and rape, including doctors, agents, producers, directors, early lovers (the movie amplifies Hollywood-Babylon-type rumours about Charlie Chaplin Jr and Edward G Robinson Jr into a full-tilt bisexual threesome), two husbands – Joe DiMaggio and Arthur Miller – and one president, JFK.
It has the ring of truth, up to a point. As for Norma Jeane, as she originally was, the film shows her as the peroxide prisoner of the character “Marilyn Monroe” which she created, or had created for her by the studio, and regards her as a fascinating but essentially infantile victim of an absent father obsession – a neurotic byproduct of neglect at the hands of an unstable and depressed single mom. Julianne Nicholson gives a very good performance as Marilyn’s unhappy mother Gladys (although there’s nothing about her job as an assistant editor at Consolidated Film Industries); Bobby Cannavale is DiMaggio, the retired ball player not understanding Marilyn but vainly hoping to be her blue-collar kindred spirit in the world of stardom, and then Adrien Brody as Arthur Miller, the intellectual dramatist, with whom Marilyn hopes for a meeting of minds and finds only a supercilious intellectual fetishising her as a primitive, childlike creature. It is a tradition carried on by this film. Caspar Phillipson has a cameo as Kennedy, reclining on his hotel bed naked except for his corset for back pain, forcing Monroe to attend to his sexual needs. And all the time, Monroe becomes more unwell, more overworked, more dependent on drugs, more passionately convinced that she doesn’t deserve any of it.
Perhaps the key dialogue exchange comes when DiMaggio, on his uneasy first date with Marilyn, asks her how she got her start in movies. It’s a question which appears to stump Marilyn – she eventually says something about being “discovered” – and it stumps this film as well. Blonde shows her as a terrified little girl (Lily Fisher) and then later, with the “Marilyn” persona more or less fully formed. How did she get there? How and when did she get her hair cut, styled and dyed? How did she learn to speak that way? The film isn’t interested: it is at once knowing and naive, simply buying into “Marilyn” as a mysterious phenomenon to be proprietorially swooned over. The one moment when Marilyn comes most alive here as a recognisably fierce, shrewd person is her rage at hearing that Jane Russell is getting $100,000 for her role in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, but she is only getting her studio wage of around $5,000.
You wouldn’t see from this film that Monroe was a brilliant comic actor or a great musical talent. Like many Monroe fans, I am mildly obsessed by the extended, brilliantly argued memorandum she wrote criticising the 1957 film The Prince and the Showgirl in which she starred with Laurence Olivier: a memorandum in which she revealed she was not a shaman victim-sex-goddess, but a tough, smart movie professional.
Well, there’s no doubting that de Armas gives this everything she’s got and that is a very great deal, an expert analogue performance digitally deepfaked into various hallucinations. She has striking scenes with DiMaggio’s disapproving Italian in-laws, and with Brody’s Miller, reducing him suddenly to tears with her artless insights into his work. Her performance is great; the film itself is self-satisfied and incurious.
• Blonde is released on 21 September in cinemas and on 28 September on Netflix.