Before Diana, there was another blonde whose potent blend of fragility and beauty stirred up pity and lust, and whose tragic death at age 36 cemented her status as a cultural obsession.
Half a century after her fatal overdose (or suicide, or murder – the conjectures and conspiracy theories abound), Marilyn Monroe’s star still burns bright and hot. Her name appears on the latest cover of American Vogue, which features an essay by Lena Dunham on the icon’s legacy. The ever-growing library of biographies includes volumes by avowed fan Gloria Steinem (who said the vulnerable and childlike Monroe represented everything women feared being) and Norman Mailer (his Marilyn was: “blonde and beautiful and had a sweet little rinky-dink of a voice and all the cleanliness of all the clean American backyards”). More recently, the hummingbird-prolific novelist Joyce Carol Oates was moved to shade in the story. Her critically acclaimed 2000 novel based on Marilyn’s life is the source material for the writer and director Andrew Dominik’s psychological thriller Blonde, now available on Netflix after premiering at the Venice film festival.
Dominik is the New Zealand-born Australian film-maker behind such grizzly works as The Assassination of Jesse James and Chopper, a crime drama based on the life of an Australian serial murderer known for feeding a man into a cement mixer and convincing a fellow inmate to slice his ears off for him. It isn’t terribly surprising, then, that his latest feature zooms in on the lurid aspects of Monroe’s biography. His film, which jerks back and forth between color and black and white, is a litany of degradations and torments, many of which are served up as slow-motion sequences that had such a deadening effect on this home viewer that a two hour and 45 minute film took some 25 hours to finish.
Anybody looking for the magic and glamour of mid-century Hollywood – say, delightful evocations of the Schwab’s drugstore counter where vivacious girls went to be discovered, or the studio canteens where executives sucked on cigarettes and dined on wedge salads – will find something of a different order in Dominik’s grim take. Diehard Marilyn fans who want to get a better sense of the woman behind the myth will be equally disappointed. In addition to the energy deficit, there is a paucity of complexity and ideas in this overwrought production that plays the trauma for squirms.
Viewers are treated to vignettes concerning Norma Jeane’s violent and mentally ill mother (a formidable Julianne Nicholson), an ongoing threesome with two actors who look like 1990s Calvin Klein models that involved public bouts of heavy petting (and private acts that the film won’t spare you), numerous abortions and failed pregnancies. And yes, there is a talking fetus. Blonde’s saving grace is its star Ana de Armas, whose charisma is uncontainable and whose resemblance to the original bombshell is uncanny. Her pillow lips and fawn eyes perfectly mirror Monroe’s own (we also see a lot of the actor’s curves, hence the NC-17 rating).
Alas, De Armas can’t save the movie. Nor can its director on his ham-handed press tour, on which he’s been betraying his retrograde (to put it nicely) attitude toward women. When a reporter from Sight and Sound magazine tried to open a dialogue about gender dynamics in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, the filmmaker seemed confused, then suggested that the women in the picture are “well dressed whores”. It’s a blinkered worldview that infiltrates the film, whose countless attempts to stun and sizzle converge into a paunchily epic fizzle. Despite the myriad shock and awe tactics, the story feels oddly watered down, devoid of shape or illuminating take. How did this singular woman, who spent much of her childhood shuttling between orphanages and foster homes, lift herself out of poverty and rise above all the other pin-up girls? What was her battle plan for becoming a larger-than-life persona whose film roles would come across as cameos? Sex and submission can’t be the only answer.
We don’t see the voracious reader who enrolled in evening classes at UCLA to study literature. Absent, too, are Monroe’s politics, her obsession with psychoanalysis, her conversion to Judaism in order to marry Arthur Miller (a croaky Adrien Brody). She appears as an overgrown child in the scenes with her playwright husband, calling him “Daddy” – as she does all the husbands who pop up in the film.
Today Marilyn would be 96 years old. Somehow, she remains a superstar and a mystery, a swirl of rumors and an abiding symbol of decadence and self-destruction. We all carry our own montages of Marilyn: Happy Birthday, Mr President, the girl in the white dress on the subway grate, the priceless Andy Warhol silkscreen. It’s Marilyn who dominated last spring’s Met Gala, where Kim Kardashian showed up in the nude-colored crystal-covered silk gown that Monroe notoriously wore to serenade President Kennedy. The dress didn’t conform to the modern-day bombshell’s body, so she had to throw a fur stole over the uncooperative zipper. Her stunt allegedly damaged the garment, as Marilyn Monroe scholar Scott Fortner exposed in a picture of torn fabric that he posted on Instagram. “Was it worth it?” his caption asked.
It’s a question that’s been resurfacing with regards to Blonde. The peanut gallery’s answers are nearly unanimous. TikTok is awash in “why this film is a problem” takes. Reviewers call the movie “complicated”, at best. For her part, Oates has been keeping a quiet distance from the adaptation, feeding her Twitter timeline with retweets of Canadian paintings and dispatches concerning her fascination with a local tortoise.
Brutal and bloodthirsty as Blonde may be, it’s also a wasted opportunity. The Marilyn story doesn’t get the insight or answers that it’s owed. The salacious close-ups don’t make up for lack of focus. Imposition isn’t intimacy. Heightening a cliche doesn’t make it less of a cliche. If only the movie loved its subject half as much as she wanted to be loved.
Blonde is now available on Netflix