Marilyn Monroe has been dead for 60 years, but there’s still a kind of madness about her that lingers. Just look at the frenzied discourse surrounding “Blonde,” an adaptation of Joyce Carol Oates’ fictional portrait of the Hollywood star that hasn’t been seen by the general public.
There was intrigue surrounding its NC-17 rating and the reasons for its long release delay (it was filmed before the pandemic). There was curiosity about its star, Ana de Armas, and her Cuban accent slipping through the trailer. Meanwhile, its director Andrew Dominik, who has been trying to make this film for well over a decade, called it a masterpiece.
‘Blonde’ was enthusiastically received at the Venice Film Festival earlier this month, but reactions from film critics were divided. Some love Dominik’s treatment. Others have questioned whether it is exploitative. The New Yorker even called it, “A disservice to the woman who claims to honor it.” It’s not unlike the reactions to Oates’ 2000 novel. Or the discussion about the much tamer “My Week With Marilyn”, which earned Michelle Williams an Oscar nomination for her performance. But they all invite questions about our own relationship with Monroe, what we owe her and what we still ask of her.
For his part, Dominik has read many of the reviews. In a way, he said, both the positive and negative reactions are indicative of his success. Like it or not, Blonde, out September 28 on Netflix, doesn’t want to make you feel good about what happened with Monroe.
“The film is a horror film,” Dominik said earlier this week. “It’s supposed to be an all-out attack. It’s a howl of pain. It is an expression of anger.”
Blonde takes viewers on a surreal journey through the short life of Norma Jeane Baker, from her childhood with a single mother living with schizophrenia (Julianne Nicholson) to her superficial Hollywood successes as Marilyn Monroe. It explores her marriages to baseball star Joe DiMaggio (Bobby Cannavale) and playwright Arthur Miller (Adrien Brody), her addictions, her abuse and assault, her abortions, miscarriage, and her death at age 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 come to life, but all are done with a twist. A glamorous red carpet turns into a garish phantasmagoria of gaping, gaping jaws. The subway grid moment is a prelude to domestic violence. Even a seemingly cute photo of her and DiMaggio takes on new meaning.
For Dominik, his film is the opposite of exploitation.
Exploitation means happily performing a song like “Diamonds are a Girl’s Best Friend” with a “wink and nod,” 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 film that tells me more about the viewer than this one.”
That it was not so, he said, was a comment on Roe v. Wade or something as reductive as “daddy” themes, although Norma Jeane calls both of her husbands that. It’s about an unwanted child and a woman going through the process of industrial filmmaking. And the real test for Dominik will come when global Netflix audiences get a chance to see it.
It’s a moment many people have been waiting for, but perhaps none more so than de Armas, who finished work on Blonde in 2019. Her raw and vulnerable performance was widely praised, even by 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 apartment where Norma Jeane lived with her mother – a nightmare sequence in which she rescues a baby from the dresser drawer where she was kept as a toddler while the place around her burns. Her second day on set was visiting her mother in the mental hospital, where she was allowed to speak on camera as Marilyn for the first time. It was quite a journey to break the ice, she said.
Although she’s not an actress who keeps her role when the day is over, living with the emotions and the character, and filming in the places where Marilyn lived, ate, worked and even died, it was “impossible not to to feel heavy and sad”. She said. Still, she counts “Blonde” as one of the best times she’s ever had on a set.
“I have faith in what we did,” said de Armas. “I love this movie.”
Everyone around them was also stunned by the performance. Brody said he left the set on his first day feeling like he had actually worked with Monroe.
“She’s so iconic and it’s such a big challenge for someone to interpret her,” Brody said. “What did she give to be so vulnerable and so brave? This is not something to be taken lightly.”
The paradox of Monroe is that no one seems able to honor her in just the right way — at least according to everyone else. To adore her beauty and splendor is to deny her person. Enjoying her comedic abilities means ignoring her depths and her desire to be a serious actress. Ignoring your trauma is naïve, but engaging with it is uncomfortable. Though most people seem to agree that bragging about buying the crypt next to theirs was creepy for Hugh Hefner.
But the madness lives on. There were even two big Marilyn moments this spring, first with Kim Kardashian wearing her crystal-embellished nude dress to the Met Gala, and then a week later when someone paid $195 million for Andy Warhol’s “Shot Sage Blue Marilyn” what made it the most expensive work by a US artist ever sold at auction.
“She’s a kind of rescue fantasy for a lot of people,” Dominik said. “You can see that in some of the negative reactions to the film. It’s like they love Ana and kind of hate the movie for hurting Ana, the poor character going through what she’s going through. But I think that’s an expression of the film’s success, in a way.”
He continued, “There’s something very challenging about her as a character because she’s a person who’s had everything that the media keeps telling us to be desirable. She was famous, beautiful. She had a great job. She was with the so-called guys of her generation. And she killed herself. And what is everyone running towards? Why are they all running towards it? It challenges our notions of what constitutes a good life, the American Dream.