Marilyn Monroe has been dead for 60 years, but there is still a kind of madness around her. Just look at the frenzied discourse surrounding “Blonde,” an unseen by the general public of Joyce Carol Oates’ fictional portrait of the Hollywood star.
There was intrigue surrounding the NC-17 rating and the reasons for the long delay in release (it was filmed before the pandemic). There was curiosity about its star, Ana de Armas, and her native Cuban accent slipped through in the trailer. Meanwhile, director Andrew Dominik, who has been trying to make this film for over ten years, called it a masterpiece.
“Blonde” was enthusiastically received at the Venice Film Festival earlier this month, but the response from film critics was divided. Some like Dominik’s treatment. Others have questioned whether it is exploitation. The New Yorker even called it, “A serious disservice to the woman it claims to honor.” It’s no different from the reactions to Oates’ 2000 novel. Or even the discussion surrounding the much tamer “My Week With Marilyn,” for which Michelle Williams received an Oscar nomination for her performance. But they all raise questions about our own relationship with Monroe, what we owe her, and what we still demand of her.
Dominik for his part has read many of the reviews. In some ways, he said, both the positive and negative reactions are indicative of its success. Like it or not, “Blonde,” which comes out on Netflix on September 28, doesn’t want you to feel good about what happened to Monroe.
“The movie is a horror movie,” Dominik said earlier this week. “It should be an absolute attack. It’s a cry of pain. It’s an expression of anger.”
“Blonde” takes viewers on a surreal journey through Norma Jeane Baker’s short life, from her childhood with a single mother living with schizophrenia (Julianne Nicholson) to her superficial successes in Hollywood, as Marilyn Monroe. It looks at her marriages to baseball star Joe DiMaggio (Bobby Cannavale) and playwright Arthur Miller (Adrien Brody), her addiction, her abuse and assaults, her abortions, her miscarriage and her death, aged 36, from a barbiturate overdose.
There are stunning recreations of iconic movie moments, from ‘Gentleman Prefer Blondes’ and ‘The Seven Year Itch’, and classic photos brought to life, but all done with a twist. A glamorous red carpet turns into a sinister phantasmagoria of gaping, gaping jaws. The timetable in the metro is a prelude to domestic violence. Even a seemingly sweet photo of her and DiMaggio takes on new meaning.
For Dominik, his film is the opposite of exploitation.
Exploitation happily sings a song like “Diamonds are a Girl’s Best Friend” with a “wink and a wink,” he said. But, he shrugged: “People like to be offended.”
“The primary relationship in the film is between the viewer and her,” Dominik said. “I’ve never made a movie that tells me more about the viewer than this one.”
What it isn’t, he said, is a commentary on Roe v. Wade, or on something as reductive as “daddy” issues, though Norma Jeane calls both of her husbands that. It’s about an unwanted child and a woman going through the industrial filmmaking process. And the real test for Dominik will come when the global Netflix audience can watch it.
It’s a moment many people have been waiting for, but perhaps none more so than De Armas, who finished “Blonde” in 2019. Her raw and vulnerable performance was widely praised, even in the more negative reviews.
It was a demanding nine-week shoot after a year of preparation, during which she also worked on other films. Her first day on set was in the actual apartment where Norma Jeane lived with her mother – a nightmare in which she rescues a baby from the chest of drawers she was kept in as a baby, while the place burns around her. Her second day on set was her visit to her mother at the psychiatric hospital, where she was allowed to speak on camera as Marilyn for the first time. It was quite a way to break the ice, she said.
While not an actor who stays in character when the day is over, living with the emotions, the character and filming the places Marilyn lived, ate, worked and even died, it was “impossible not to feel heavy and sad” , she said. Still, she considers “Blonde” to be one of the best times she’s ever had on a set.
“I trust what we’ve done,” De Armas said. “I love this movie.”
Everyone around her was also stunned by the performance. Brody said he left the set the first day feeling like he had actually worked with Monroe.
“She’s so iconic and it’s such a big job for someone to interpret,” Brody said. “What did she give to be so vulnerable and so brave? It’s not something to take lightly.”
Monroe’s paradox is that no one seems able to honor her in just the right way—at least according to everyone else. To worship her beauty and glamor is to deny her person. Enjoying her comedic skills is ignoring her depths and desire to become a serious actor. Ignoring her trauma is naive, but leaning into it is unpleasant. Though most would agree that it was scary for Hugh Hefner to brag about buying the crypt next to hers.
But the madness lives on. In fact, this spring saw two major Marilyn moments, first with Kim Kardashian wearing her crystal-embellished nude gown to the Met Gala, and a week later when someone paid $195 million for Andy Warhol’s “Shot Sage Blue Marilyn,” making it the most expensive was work by an American artist ever sold at auction.
“She’s kind of a rescue fantasy for a lot of people,” Dominik said. “You can see that in some of the negative reactions to the movie. It’s like they love Ana and they kind of hate the movie because they brought Ana, the poor character went through what she’s going through. But I think that which in a way is an expression of the film’s success.”
He continued: “There is something very challenging about her as a figure, because she is a person who had everything that the media constantly tells us is desirable. She was famous, beautiful. She had a great job. She dated the so-called dudes of her generation. And she committed suicide. And where does everyone go then? Why are they all running there? It challenges our ideas of what constitutes a good life, of the American dream.”
Follow TSWT film writer Lindsey Bahr on Twitter: www.twitter.com/ldbahr.