Endless works of art were inspired by the legendary platinum blonde bombshell. Marilyn Monroe, also known as Norma Jeane Baker, was homaged by artists like Andy Warhol and an incommensurable number of filmmakers who tried to tell her story through their craft. Netflix, just a few months ago released Emma Cooper’s documentary The Mystery of Marilyn Monroe: The Unheard Tapes, that retraced the book Goddess by Anthony Summers about Monroe’s obscure death.
Recently, another bestselling novel about the Hollywood diva — written by Joyce Carol Oates — has inspired a new Netflix film that was recently presented at the 79th Venice International Film Festival: Blonde. The film adaptation, directed by Andrew Dominik, is not a biopic since — like its inspirer — it takes artistic liberty in reconstructing certain circumstances of Marilyn’s life and it openly takes us on a journey inside her trauma.
The film produced by Brad Pitt, Dede Gardner, Jeremy Kleiner, Tracey Landon and Scott Robertson boldly reimagines the life of one of cinema’s everlasting icons — from her troubled infancy, through her rise to stardom and romantic entanglements. After a brief childhood prelude, with Monroe’s mentally unstable mother Gladys (Julianne Nicholson), Blonde skips Norma Jeane’s first marriage to James Dougherty and favours a fictional love triangle inspired by the rumours of the alleged affair between Marilyn (Ana de Armas) Charlie Chaplin Jr. (Xavier Samuels) and Edward G. Robinson Jr. (Evan Williams), that will hold a surprise when audiences least expect it. This imaginative detour sets the ground to show how the jaded offspring of cinema’s cream of the crop represents the other side of the coin of Norma’s daddy issues. Whilst Cass and Eddie feel crushed by the overbearing presence of their important father figures, Marilyn seeks in every man the paternal figure she always lacked, to the point of calling her husbands “daddy.” We witness this with the jealously abusive baseball star Joe DiMaggio (Bobby Cannavale) and with Pulitizer-Prize winning playwright Arthur Miller (Adrien Brody). Blonde also provides a quick glimpse of her affair with John Fitzgerald Kennedy (Caspar Phillipson), but doesn’t expand on her involvement with his brother Robert. Of all the men who cross Marilyn’s path, the only one who doesn’t want to shape her to his personal advantage is Allan “Whitey” Snyder (Toby Huss), her personal makeup artist. In turn, he helps her with her disguise, by creating the mask of the diva that the world wants to see.
In her day, Monroe was a construct that the media circus fed on. This perfectly resembles the contemporary situation concerning public figures whose private lives are thrown to the wolves. Director Andrew Dominik very effectively stages this, also through one of the lines of dialogue that says: “when you’re famous, you’re always running into people’s unconscious.” Marilyn was a forerunner of what it means for celebrities to acquire a new identity that is forged by public perception. Dominik tries to break the fantasy of what icons carry within themselves, to explore their multifaceted vulnerability.
The film shows how childhood trauma can affect an adult life, and it does so by splitting the public self and the private self. Blonde shows the anatomical and spiritual grief of a woman who wanted nothing more than to become a mother and create a family, and was instead devoured by the showbiz meat-grinder. The director portrays how the American actress’ body was pawned throughout her entire existence. She was treated like flesh, abused, raped, forced into an abortion, and suffered a miscarriage. The critique of Marilyn’s objectification, sexualisation and exploitation is praiseworthy, but when the film attempts to give voice to the unborn life inside her womb it derails. The irony of it all, is that it is a male director who voices out what is going on inside the female anatomy, claiming the intentions are feminist.
By doing this, instead of sticking to the psychoanalytical stream-of-consciousness of the individual versus the multitude, Blonde make the unpardonable mistake of oversimplifying a complex subject matter. The way this is carried out seems to endorse America’s anti-abortion statement in post-Roe v. Wade and Hungary’s decision to force pregnant women to hear foetal heartbeat before abortion.
Setting the disturbing sense of voyeurism that emerges every time that Marilyn Monroe’s uterus is exposed, the film has other strengths worthy of notice, starting with its female lead. If filling the shoes of one of the greatest female screen legends from the Golden Age of Hollywood seemed like an impossible task, Cuban actress Ana de Armas is sublime, not only in the way she replicates the voice and gestures of the divine Marilyn, but in the sensitivity with which she unleashes her frailty. She is capable of demonstrating that Marilyn is much more than a pretty face and voluptuous silhouette. Norma Jeane craves for Chekov plays and a domestic environment, but finds herself caged in a system where she can only be a sex symbol. Besides the impeccable performance, Ana de Armas’ resemblance to Monroe is the outcome of a meticulous work carried out by acclaimed makeup artist Tina Roesler Kerwin and hair department head Jaime Leigh McIntosh. Just like the rest of the cast, de Armas further shines thanks to the excellent selection of outfits curated by costume designer Jennifer Johnson.
Further sense of authenticity is instilled by the impeccable replica of the spaces created by production designer Florencia Martin. Within this setting, it’s entertaining to observe how Blonde’s recreations of Marilyn’s most famous motion pictures playfully fuse Ana de Armas’ reenactment with the performance of the original actors like Tony Curtis, through the magic of Adam Robinson’s editing.
Technically the film is majestic, as is switches from a retro black and white to vivid colour palettes, and moments of hallucinogenic fuzz. Director of Photography Chayse Irvin uses the camera and light to alternate scenes of raw authenticity with instants where reality is distorted. Also the music embellishes the storytelling, through the score by Warren Ellis and Nick Cave — the bond between the latter and the director was consolidated while filming the documentary One More Time with Feeling.
All in all, Blonde accomplishes Andrew Dominik’s intentions of taking “something like the American goddess of love on the subway grating [reference to iconic scene in the The Seven Year Itch] and turn it into a scene of human sacrifice.” He truly shows the annihilation of a person for an idea, to the extent that he clumsily subjects a bioethical debate to the sensationalism of a high-grossing movie.
Final Grade: B-