Joyce Carol Oates’ take on the life of Marilyn Monroe in 2000 was not a straightforward biography, but rather, a melange of moments and experiences from the screen star’s life presented as vivid and often tragic incidents. The author burrowed deep into Marilyn’s psyche, interpreting the events from her POV, those that shaped her life and fed the trauma she suffered from during her 36 years. The way Oates told the tale may not have held together as historical fidelity, and indeed, it is generally classified as “fiction,” but her prose certainly captured what was likely going on in Marilyn’s head as she reacted to all the affecting drama in her life.
Andrew Dominik’s new film BLONDE is a screen adaptation of Oates’ book, in select theaters now, and slated to premiere on Netflix, its producers, on September 28th. The movie too eschews traditional biopic tropes. Gone is any easy A to B to C storyline, replaced instead by a focus on the big themes in Marilyn’s life: her quest to be accepted, respected, and loved. Anchored by a revelatory lead performance by Ana de Armas, BLONDE is a disturbing portrait of a fragile soul, used and abused from childhood on, living a life that was too often that of a waking nightmare. It’s a strange film to watch, both love letter and horror show, and yet like other fever dream biopics such as Pablo Larrain’s JACKIE in 2016 and SPENCER in 2021, it asks us to witness the unraveling of a woman’s life from inside her.
BLONDE also reminded me of Dominik’s superb biopic from 2007, THE ASSASSINATION OF JESSE JAMES BY THE COWARD ROBERT FORD. The central character of that film was the famed outlaw, of course, presented as a simple man having trouble handling his worldwide celebrity. Similarly, Marilyn could never quite fathom being the planet’s biggest movie star in the 1950s, and that mantel brought her as much misery as joy, all showcased in BLONDE.
But before wrestling with the issues of global fame, the former Norma Jeane Mortenson is shown in BLONDE confronting plenty of other horrors. We see Norma Jeane as a child surviving the attempt of her unloving mother (Julianne Nicholson) to drown her in a bathtub. We’re witness to Marilyn being raped during an audition for 20th Century Fox mogul Daryl Zanuck. And we watch Marilyn’s marriage to New York Yankee’s slugger Joe DiMaggio (Bobby Cannavale) suffer from his acute jealousy, a rage that leads him to beat her. True or not, these scenes are utterly palpable as Dominik turns us into eyewitnesses of Marilyn’s anguish.
The film plays out like a scrapbook more than a linear story, showcasing various events in Marilyn’s life, but with short-handed details and images to cement the impressions. Names of characters aren’t always used, and in Oates’ book, major people in Marilyn’s life, like Di Maggio and her third husband Arthur Miller, were called “The Ex-athlete” and “The Playwright.” Here too, the assumption is we know the players, from Tom Ewell (her costar in THE SEVEN YEAR ITCH) to Billy Wilder (her director for SOME LIKE IT HOT), without them necessarily being identified. It’s vague and unsettling at times, but it’s done to keep the characters as more phantasms in Marilyn’s mind than characters in a straight-up biopic.
And as it chronicles the instrumental moments of Marilyn’s life, BLONDE is often exceptionally bleak. Still, there are moments of light and joy to be found too. Chayse Irvin’s cinematography is stunning, showcasing Marilyn’s beauty throughout, as well as the bright sunshine bathing LA. And when Marilyn aces auditions or scores points describing the deeper meaning of Miller’s prose to him over lunch, Irvin shoots such scenes in crisp black and white to emphasize how definitive the wins were for her. The production design by Florencia Martin captures the period without feeling too idealized or pristine. And composers Nick Cave and Warren Ellis contribute a score that runs the gamut from frothy to fearful, depending on Marilyn’s mood in the scene.
The supporting players all make strong impressions here as well, especially Lily Fisher as the young Norma Jeane. It’s one of the better children’s performances of the last few years. Nicholson and Cannavale play their villainous roles superbly, even managing to conjure some sympathy for their devils. And Brody paints Miller as a caring and sensitive mensch, seemingly one of the few well-intentioned men in Marilyn’s life as presented in this take on her life.
Of course, most of the success of the film boils down to how well Ana de Armas plays Marilyn and she thoroughly aces the part. It’s a stirring portrayal that showcases Marilyn’s sexual prowess, her little-girl-lost vulnerability, not to mention her shrewd intelligence and instinctive talents as a performer. Marilyn could shine in both drama (BUS STOP) and comedy (HOW TO MARRY A MILLIONAIRE), and so too does de Armas here. And when Marilyn becomes consumed by drug addiction in the third act, de Armas makes the character absolutely heartbreaking.
At times in the film, such as when Marilyn tells us precisely what she is thinking, the script feels too on the nose. Some of Dominik’s symbolism gets heavy-handed too, especially the mysterious photo of the man who was supposedly Norma Jean’s father. At times, the character animates out of the picture frame and it feels cheesy. And the many images of fetuses’ in Marilyn’s wombs telling us what they think is sure to make this film hugely controversial. Most of Dominik’s choices are sophisticated and nuanced, but some like that, and an NC-17-rated tryst between Marilyn and JFK will likely rub audiences as too brazen or even garish.
BLONDE aims to be provocative from the first moment to the last and succeeds. It often feels feverish and harrowing, and its non-linear, POV storytelling can come across as disjointed and erratic, but isn’t all of that in keeping with Marilyn’s life? BLONDE stands as a devastating portrait of her struggles, one where Dominik wants us to wholly feel her pain. And boy, do we ever.