Though Andrew Dominik’s sort-of-biopic is harsh & harrowing, you won’t forget Ana de Armas as Marilyn Monroe, doomed from the very start.
Social media has normalized behaving as though we know and can even speak for celebrities. Going beyond the concept of the “number one fan,” we address them directly, make demands of them, and attack anyone perceived as meaning them harm, acting as though we’re under personal orders. It peaked during the Amber Heard defamation trial, then that angry energy transferred over to Olivia Wilde, largely for committing the crime of dating Harry Styles. The mere tweeting of Wilde’s name seems to summon antagonistic replies listing her sins, accusing her of everything from being a rape apologist to a pedophile to preventing Styles from being with the person he truly loves, fellow One Direction member Louis Tomlinson. Though Styles and Tomlinson have both denied (many times) that they’re in a secret relationship, their “true” fans insist that they know better, and that it’s all subterfuge to fool the press. So it’s up to the fans to aggressively defend them, even threatening those they perceive as “enemies.”
Sometimes that sort of toxic devotion even carries over to long-dead celebrities, including Michael Jackson, and, going back further than that, Marilyn Monroe. When it was announced in 2016 that Netflix was picking up Andrew Dominik’s adaptation of the Joyce Carol Oates novel Blonde, the grumbling began before filming even commenced. Blonde, one of over 400 (no kidding) books written about Monroe, while critically acclaimed, has long been controversial among her fans. Blurring fact with fiction, it depicts Monroe’s life as even bleaker than it really was, and Monroe herself as an eternal victim, doomed to be used and abused by fans and intimates alike.
Already on the wrong side of Monroe’s fans from the beginning, Dominik only made things worse by bragging, loudly and often, about his refusal to trim anything out of the finished cut in order to bring down Blonde’s rating from an NC-17 to an R. Evidently believing that the rumored explicit sex and nudity was integral to the plot, he did not budge an inch, and the rating stayed as it was. Believing Dominik had essentially made a snuff film, Monroe’s most ardent fans began a campaign to demand that Netflix pull Blonde from distribution. When that didn’t work, its Letterboxd entry was bombed with negative reviews weeks before anyone even saw it. At this point, on the eve of its wide release, they’ve pivoted to attacking anyone who expresses an interest in seeing it (or giving it a positive review), accusing them of endorsing violence against women, if not actually enjoying the depiction of it.
Having seen Blonde, it can be said that those fans are correct to be concerned. It’s a grueling watch, and at times deeply unpleasant. There are many instances in which you wish Dominik had been forced into reining it in, and wonder if his primary intention was to make the viewer feel dirty for watching it. But, at the same time, Blonde is often a surprisingly moving film, with a stunning performance from Ana de Armas, who clearly put her entire heart into the role. It’s also about exactly what the people who designate themselves as representatives of Monroe and deign to speak on her behalf are guilty of: projecting their own wants and needs onto her, and treating her as something that belongs to them, rather than a human being with her own agency.
This version of Marilyn Monroe is born into a life of misery, and it only goes downhill from there. Raised by a mentally ill single mother (an absolutely terrifying Julianne Nicholson), young Norma Jeane Mortenson is told that her absent father is a very important man in Hollywood and that he’ll come for her any day. After her mother attempts to drown her in a bathtub, Norma Jeane is taken away from her and placed in an orphanage. The film then jumps ahead more than a decade, and Norma Jeane is gone, now replaced with “Marilyn Monroe,” who’s beginning her rise to fame. Marilyn is an invention, a representation of everything that makes America great: white blonde hair, blue eyes, porcelain-pale skin, with a body built like a brand new Cadillac. She’s the perfect combination of little girl and sexy woman, always smiling, never wanting anything but what you want, Daddy.
Marilyn can’t walk into a room without every single man in it ogling her like a vegetarian eyes a T-bone steak. She can’t be alone with a man without him putting his hands on her, or worse. She doesn’t enjoy it, but she understands: this is a game she has to play, letting men think they own her, that they can do whatever they want to her, but eventually it’ll all be worth it in the end. Her undying hope that her father will come for her keeps her going, especially when she begins receiving letters from him, promising that they’ll be together soon. That his letters are occasionally judgmental of her tabloid-fodder lifestyle, and creepily suggest that he’s spying on her from a distance, make little difference. It’s knowing he’s out there and waiting for her that matters.
In the meantime, in an attempt to both find surrogate fathers and make a life separate from her outlandish persona, Marilyn goes through short-lived marriages to Joe DiMaggio (Bobby Cannavale) and Arthur Miller (Adrien Brody). Still, both of them seem to be as incapable of distinguishing the real Marilyn from “Marilyn” as her fans. DiMaggio seethes with rage that his professionally sexy wife is still professionally sexy after they get married. At the same time, Miller, when Marilyn tells him she’s read Dostoyevsky, gawks like she’s grown a third hand out of her forehead. Even the men who should know her best perceive her as a cardboard cutout, a personality-free symbol of passive (but still overtly, even aggressively sexual) femininity.
Struggling with alcoholism and pill addiction (and possibly the same mental illness that claimed her mother), Marilyn’s career begins to struggle, even though it’s a career she’d walk away from if she could. Being “Marilyn Monroe” is tiring business, an endless cycle of too-tight dresses, striking poses, smiling smiling smiling, and letting men hoot and holler at her like monkeys in a zoo. But it’s all she knows how to do, and, as her wardrobe mistress points out, “If you weren’t Marilyn Monroe, who would you be?” More importantly, who would want her? As far as everyone else is concerned, there is nothing beyond the façade worth knowing.
Except maybe for her father, who continues to keep her at a distance, but still promises that he’ll see her soon. Marilyn believes that. She has to believe it. After a certain point, it’s the only thing she has.
It must be reiterated that Blonde is a harrowing, often disturbing watch. It’s got all the elements of a biopic, but filmed through the same hallucinatory nightmare lens as Requiem for a Dream. Dominik employs a lot of flashy tricks to emphasize that this is all as artificial as Marilyn’s image, switching from ’50s-style Technicolor to stark black and white to cinéma vérité to 35mm style grain. While it’s visually interesting, it doesn’t take away from the fact that this is still about a real person, and what she’s put through is painful and grotesque. Two rape scenes (one mostly off-screen and one very much not) are almost bearable compared to two separate scenes in which Marilyn is forced to abort a pregnancy, both filmed from what’s supposed to be inside of her vagina. They’re indefensible and made even harder to watch by the fact that Dominik is trying to hold the audience complicit. You see, we’re all guilty of treating celebrities, particularly female celebrities like our property, to be used and discarded when we don’t want them anymore.
It’s got all the elements of a biopic, but filmed through the same kind of hallucinatory nightmare lens as Requiem for a Dream.
And yet, enhanced by Warren Ellis and Nick Cave’s eerie score, there are moments in Blonde that are hauntingly beautiful, like when Marilyn’s mother nearly drives them into a raging wildfire, or the (mostly fictitious) throuple Marilyn enters into with the wild child sons of Charlie Chaplin and Edward G. Robinson. The latter, in particular, has the hazy look of a dream (occasionally verging close to looking like a ’90s-era perfume ad), as does the early days of her marriage to Miller, all dappled golden sunlight and blurred edges. Again, these scenes are deliberately artificial looking, movies within movies, suggesting the alternative, happier lives Marilyn could have led if she had been able to leave “Marilyn” behind.
It would also be unfair to bury de Armas’ performance under controversy. Looking only somewhat like Marilyn in some scenes and so much like her in others that it seems like more trickery, blending in actual footage with recreation, her performance is visceral and heart-rending. A third act betrayal leaves her all but howling in sorrow, and it’s impossible to not be moved by it, even if by that point you’re hoping it’s almost the end for her, just so she finally has some peace. It’s a remarkable performance that can hopefully be considered separately from the rest of the movie.
When I look back on Blonde, I hope it won’t be about its grotesqueries so much as Marilyn’s quiet moments, when there’s still light in her eyes, before she has to slip into character. It’s these times that make the movie almost worthwhile. Maybe I’m misguided for saying that, because I never knew the real Marilyn Monroe. But then again, neither did anyone else.
Blonde is in limited release in theaters & premieres on Netflix September 28th.