A good biopic invites the audience to experience, from the inside out, who the subject really was. That’s the level that “Blonde,” Andrew Dominik’s film about Marilyn Monroe, operates on for most of its 2 hours and 46 minutes. Based on Joyce Carol Oates’ 2000 novel, the movie is a hushed and floating psychodramatic klieg-light fantasia, shot in color and black-and-white, that presents a fusion of reality and fiction. But most of it is torn from reality.
In “Blonde,” we glimpse Monroe’s cataclysmic childhood, watch her shoot key scenes from her movies or stare up at them from the audience of a Hollywood premiere (where the red-carpet flashbulbs sound like guns), see her turn the incandescent Marilyn wiggle and pizazz on and off, see her caught in a maelstrom of drugs, gossip, self-hate, and unfair studio contracts, and watch her melt into the glow of pregnancy only to lose one baby after the next. Mostly, we eavesdrop on her relationships with men (Joe DiMaggio, Arthur Miller, JFK) who become, for Marilyn, a dysfunctional daisy chain of honeymoon-turned-nightmares.
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“Blonde” takes a handful of poetic liberties (as most biopics do). A couple of them don’t quite pan out, but mostly the movie sticks to the literal and spiritual chronology of Marilyn’s life. The film recognizes that Marilyn was one of the greatest of all movie stars because she was, on some level, a genuine artist, but the majority of it takes place away from the limelight. With a passion that’s inquisitive, nearly meditative, and often powerful, “Blonde” focuses on the mystery we now think of when we think of Marilyn Monroe: Who was she, exactly, as a personality and as a human being? Why did her life descend into a tragedy that seems, in hindsight, as inevitable as it is haunting?
The movie takes us much closer to Marilyn than “Elvis” did to Elvis, in part because it’s built around a performance, by Ana de Armas, of breathtaking shimmer and imagination and candor and heartbreak. It’s a luscious piece of acting with a raw scream tucked inside. De Armas has to create every nuance of Monroe’s fabulous surface, and she does — the big eyes that popped open with bedazzled adoration, the sunburst smile, the breathy voice of spun sugar that sounded like a grown woman pretending to be a little girl who mocked, with a glint of affection, her own theater of innocence. No actress alive is going to look just like Monroe (de Armas’ eyes are a dead ringer; her smile is a tad less ripe and more knowing), but with Marilyn the voice is everything — that’s where her personality lives — and de Armas nails it to an uncanny degree. In “Blonde,” she gives us nothing less than what we came for. She becomes Marilyn Monroe.
Ah, but what of the endlessly discussed Cuban Accent Question? I would hardly say that de Armas, who is a native of Cuba, plays Marilyn with a Cuban accent, but there are moments, beneath her pitch-perfect impersonation of the Monroe baby-doll-lolling-on-cashmere sound, when you hear the flicker, the echo of a Cuban inflection, which I would liken to the way that actors like Gary Oldman or Anthony Hopkins, in performances as Americans, will let a tinge of their English or Welsh elocution through. No one makes a big deal of it. And it’s no big deal here, because from that dreamy-candy singsong voice on down, de Armas channels Marilyn with a conviction that’s melancholy and arresting.
Onscreen, what made Marilyn the icon of the century, apart from the singular glow of her beauty, is that she made the expression of pure carnality seem nurturing. That’s why people went nuts for her. What we see in “Blonde” is a Marilyn who bathes her allure in the warmest shades of temptation, but in private, where most of the film takes place, that legendary come-on is cut with a sadness, a hint of despair, that sits over her like an invisible cloud. It’s ever-present, even in the “happy” scenes and even when it doesn’t speak its name.
In “Blonde,” we perceive something that’s often said about Marilyn but seldom understood: that the greatest character she ever created was…Marilyn Monroe. It’s true. That’s why she was a superb actress even though she was no Vivien Leigh. On a movie set, or at the Actors’ Studio, she was not in command of what you would call “technique.” But that’s because her technique — her Method, as it were — was already fully at play in her creation of Marilyn. And what “Blonde” lays bare is the tragic paradox of that: that onscreen, in public, performing for her audience or for her sundry “daddies,” the Marilyn persona was as sweet and delicious as a sundae, but offscreen, in its delicately melting, arrested, meant-to-reassure quality, it was an expression of trauma. What we’re seeing in “Blonde” is the story of a woman who was so damaged as a child, and such a figure of teasing enticement to the world at large, that she grew up by refusing to allow herself to grow up.
The film opens with a sequence that captures the fear and loathing of Monroe’s childhood. It’s 1933, in Los Angeles, where Norma Jeane Baker is seven years old (she’s played by Lily Fisher, luminous in just the right way), but her mother, played with ravaged rage by Julianne Nicholson, is a schizophrenic harridan who demonstrates the horror of what child abuse is. Norma Jeane is terrorized by this mother who will drive the two of them right into a roaring fire, who will try to drown her in the bathtub, and who will set up her absent father, pictured on the bedroom wall — Norma Jeane has never met him, and doesn’t even know who he is — as a god perpetually hovering out of reach. Dominik doesn’t want the audience to choke on this situation, so he gives us just enough of it, culminating in Marilyn’s tear-stained arrival at an orphanage, to suggest all we need to know about the emptiness she built herself on.
The movie then cuts to a dazzling Marilyn montage set to “Everybody Needs a Da Da Daddy,” the startling confessional torch song she performed in “Ladies of the Chorus,” and to 1950, when Marilyn is auditioning for the role she got in “All About Eve.” Her audition consists of reading from the script in Darryl Zanuck’s office until Zanuck, the head of Fox, comes up behind her, forces her down, and violates her from behind. The moment, we’re given to understand, represents a dozen others like it, but while the casting couch isn’t news, the drama here is in seeing Marilyn’s special navigation of the toxicity of Hollywood’s harassment-meets-sugar-daddy culture. She is so possessed by her lack of a daddy, with such a hidden hole in her soul, that she’s able to experience even the most corrosive and exploitative sexual encounter as a twisted form of “acceptance.”
At the same time, she’s working the only system there was in Hollywood. She’s not a masochist; she’s using these men as much as they use her. She’s also a woman of healthy eroticism who’s able to treat sex as sport. We see this in the first of the film’s extended episodes, which is also the most problematic. At an L.A. actors’ society, Marilyn walks into a room that’s empty except for the presence of two flirtatious young men, who seduce her in unison. One (Xavier Samuel) is the son of Charlie Chaplin; the other (Garret Dillahunt) is the son of Edward G. Robinson. They’re dissolute Hollywood party boys, and for a while they and Marilyn become a walking ménage à trois — which is startling, because it communicates something that too many people today, even those who work in entertainment media, never seem to grasp: that the people in the movie industry have always led far wilder lives than even the tabloid gossip grapevine allows.
Monroe did, in fact, date Charlie Chaplin Jr., and this mostly invented episode stands in for her unabashed willingness simply to play around (she’s not using her relationship with these two for leverage). But why did Dominik, who wrote and directed the film, insist on portraying the two look-alike playboys as if they were contempo porn stars who act like incestuous siblings? It’s just too unreal. And it jars.
But “Blonde” settles into its groove when Marilyn meets Joe DiMaggio (a well-cast Bobby Cannavale), who is the picture of sweet chivalry, placing Marilyn on a pedestal, until she falls off it in his eyes, at which point he turns into a monster. Dominik, the forceful director of “Killing Them Softly” and “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford,” stages luxurious long scenes that play out in real time, so that we move into the space that Marilyn inhabits. We’re observing her, just as the world is. The DiMaggio soap opera is very well-known, down to Joe’s outrage over watching everyone leer at his wife during the filming of the swirling-white-dress-and-subway-grate sequence in “The Seven Year Itch” (in this case, the incident is preceded by a blackmail attempt based on photos of Marilyn that are even racier).
The fascination of how Dominik stages it is that even before DiMaggio has revealed that he can’t handle being married to a sex symbol, we see how distant Marilyn is from him, and from life itself, within the cocoon of their marriage. His relatives come over, and she doesn’t know how to have a normal conversation. You could call it shyness, but it’s really something else — a kind of personality disorder that seals Marilyn, for all her warmth and charm, into a bubble of bubbleheaded solipsism. It’s a running joke that no one can believe she reads books, but we can, because the Marilyn we see is more believable as a bookworm than she is as a companion. She’s adorable and intelligent (as she has always been described by those who knew her), but she’s also an overgrown child who can’t crawl out of herself.
Her relationship with Arthur Miller crashes and burns in a different way. Adrien Brody plays him with the right touch of Brooklyn diffidence, and while he’s kind, on the surface, to Marilyn, he lies to her about using her in his writing (which is just what happened), and after she becomes pregnant, there’s a terrible scene on the beach where she trips and miscarries. Marilyn’s persistent inability to become a mother was probably the key factor in her downfall, and there’s an episode in “Blonde” that deals with it in a possibly fictionalized but resonantly disturbing way. I say “possibly” because what happens is that a movie studio forces her to undergo an abortion, and while Dominik stages it like a scene out of a shock-corridor horror film, it’s quite reflective of what went on in Hollywood during the ’40s and ’50s. This happened all the time. It could well have happened to Marilyn (though we don’t know).
It’s while her relationship to Miller is crumbling that Marilyn herself, for the first time, begins to fall apart. On the set of “Some Like It Hot,” she flies into a volcanic rage at the line “She’s just like Jell-O on springs,” feeling the primal-gaze insult of it — but it’s no different than the lines that have been written about her before. What’s changed is that it’s now the late ’50s, Marilyn has been a star for a decade, and she’s waking up to the full trap of what she, and other women, endure.
The film then leaps ahead to 1962 and the affair she is carrying on with JFK. The scene Dominik stages with Marilyn and the president (Caspar Phillipson) is relatively brief and, in its way, dark and devastating. He treats her as his whore — as a utensil. And when she imagines their sexual encounter as a scene out of one of her movies, it’s an extraordinary, audacious moment of filmmaking. Yet I still wish that the scene had played out with greater complexity. Marilyn and JFK had, in fact, been sexually involved going back to the early ’50s, when they had a companionship, and if we could have seen a glimmer of that it might have brought “Blonde” to a more arresting place.
Once their dalliance is over, the air goes out of the movie. The last half hour leads, step by step, to Marilyn’s death by a depressive drug overdose, and there’s a groggy inevitability to it. Dominik may have fumbled an opportunity by not dealing with how the circumstances surrounding her death were covered up, as the government and the press colluded to suppress the story of her relationships with both Kennedy brothers. In that sense, Marilyn died just as she’d lived: as a supreme victim/product of the image culture.
Of course, the most glorious of those images was Marilyn herself. She was not a real blonde. She was not (or not quite) the angelic voluptuous pinup cuddlebug she played onscreen. Yet “Blonde,” flaws and all, reveals how the myth of Marilyn Monroe was built on top of who she was inside — a trauma of need so intense that she transformed herself into the greatest image of the power of beauty in the 20th century. The film leaves us with just how haunting it is that where the world saw a goddess, she saw no there there.
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