In life, so the story goes, Marilyn Monroe sought and found fame, but only ever fleetingly found happiness. In her career, she perfected the screen persona of the “dumb blonde,” while struggling to be seen as an artist capable of much more.
But in death, it’s filmmakers who struggle to see more in Monroe’s fascinating legend than the cautionary tale of a woman abused, abandoned and exploited all her life, adored by millions, yet despairingly alone.
Fusing pop culture iconography with raw emotion, Blonde (★★☆☆☆) writer-director Andrew Dominik devises some sublime imagery evoking Marilyn’s magnetism, and in depicting a few of her triumphs.
The film’s raison d’être, however, seems to be showing how every one of those triumphs, but especially her trials and missteps, and every unwise decision she ever made flowed from the inescapable trauma of a horrible childhood shaped by a father who abandoned her, and a mentally ill mother who abused her.
Abuse is threaded through Marilyn’s life and this story like barbed wire through satin. Born Norma Jeane Mortenson in ’20s L.A., the shy girl grows up poor in Tinseltown, in love with the movies, uneasily attached to her mother Gladys, portrayed with blazing intensity by Julianne Nicholson.
After Gladys lands in a state mental hospital, Norma Jeane is shuttled between foster homes and orphanages, never knowing stability. Dominik films her young, Depression-era life in crisp black-and-white before jumping a decade to her colorful magazine pinup period, then her early years as a studio contract player.
The constant shifts between color and black-and-white — not triggered just by jumps in time — lend the movie a dreamlike quality that’s accentuated by the lilting, synth-heavy score by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis, and epitomized by de Armas’ disarmingly accurate transformation.
A stunning visual and vocal embodiment of the Marilyn we know, de Armas’ characterization is both grimly authentic and a brilliant technicolor fantasy of a fantasy. Her hold on Norma Jeane never falters, even as the film puts the character through a crucible of recreated pain and degradation, including an All About Eve audition that ends in rape on an executive office floor.
The distance between the characterization and the real thing seems most striking in a sequence spotlighting Marilyn’s famous “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend” number from the movie Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. As perfect as de Armas looks in the part, abetted by hair and makeup, she doesn’t move like Marilyn.
But in every other sense, the performance is powerful, even when Marilyn is at her most vulnerable, as in a shamefully debasing rendezvous with “The President” (Caspar Phillipson). At times, it’s uncanny to see her suffering enacted with the kind of raw pain that Marilyn took care to disguise publicly, and never displayed onscreen.
It’s also amusing — the film’s one consistent thread of humor, in fact — to watch her fall into a daring threesome with bisexual best friends, and Hollywood scions, Charlie Chaplin, Jr. (Xavier Samuel) and Edward G. Robinson, Jr. (Evan Williams), pretty boy narcissists burdened by inherited fame.
The three are idealized beauty in black-and-white, with Marilyn enjoying a double handjob from her boys inside a movie theater.
The film flies fancifully and sensually around the trio’s historically dubious affair, before settling into more conventional biopic mode to wade through Marilyn’s marriages to “The Ex-Athlete” and “The Playwright.”
The film, like the Joyce Carol Oates novel it’s based on, doesn’t name Joe DiMaggio and Arthur Miller, but Bobby Cannavale and Adrien Brody, respectively, are both fine playing them, and playing into the movie’s heavy-handed thesis that Marilyn’s daddy issues defined her.
“The Ex-Athlete” is controlling and abusive. “The Playwright” calls her “Darling,” and she calls him “Daddy.” It’s gross, despite their sweetly affectionate rapport and country home idyll in New England. But no idyll lasts for Marilyn, just the pain, and this movie.
Clocking in at 166 minutes, the film hits a point late in its second hour when it becomes impossible to tell if the plot is headed anywhere, or just planning to wallow with Marilyn in the pits until she dies.
Ultimately, having fixated on the abuses she suffered and the losses she endured, including multiple abortions depicted provocatively from the birth canal point-of-view, Blonde could only end in dejection.
And apparently a drug-fueled death isn’t dejected enough. The film delivers one last cruelly painful blow to Marilyn’s fragile psyche before her final curtain, and a final blow to her memory with a resolution suggesting this version might have been just a dumb blonde all along.
It will stream on Netflix starting Sept. 28. Visit www.netflix.com.
These are challenging times for news organizations. And yet it’s crucial we stay active and provide vital resources and information to both our local readers and the world. So won’t you please take a moment and consider supporting Metro Weekly with a membership? For as little as $5 a month, you can help ensure Metro Weekly magazine and MetroWeekly.com remain free, viable resources as we provide the best, most diverse, culturally-resonant LGBTQ coverage in both the D.C. region and around the world. Memberships come with exclusive perks and discounts, your own personal digital delivery of each week’s magazine (and an archive), access to our Member's Lounge when it launches this fall, and exclusive members-only items like Metro Weekly Membership Mugs and Tote Bags! Check out all our membership levels here and please join us today!