Judging by the haunting and haunted “Blonde,” which hit theaters Sept. 28 en route to Netflix, Marilyn Monroe’s life was no joke. She was too stressed to maintain the blonde bombshell image that the Hollywood patriarchy had used to commodify, abuse, and imprison her.
Based on the 2000 novel by Joyce Carol Oates, the film also reshapes the facts of Monroe’s life to better reflect her damaged psyche. Written and directed by Andrew Dominik (“The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford”) with a poet’s eye and a forensic attention to punitive detail, “Blonde” is glamor cloaked in misery.
It’s also an almost three-hour endurance test that only uneasily achieves something original and true. But if it hits you’ll be knocked out for a loop. Monroe died in 1962 at the age of 36 from barbiturate poisoning, a probable suicide. “Blonde” means to shake you with its challenges. And always does.
All credits to the gritty and captivating Ana de Armas, the Cuban star of Knives Out and No Time to Die, the Bond girl who delivers a performance through makeup, hair and wardrobe coupled with acting magic that can border on reincarnation. She reenacts Monroe’s breathless whispers of sexual indulgence with subtext of the nervous tension seething underneath.
What a coincidence that the two leading cultural and sexual icons of the 20th century, Monroe and Elvis Presley, were both mythologized in films this year. Although Elvis died at 42, a broken and bloated shadow of his former self, he had it easy compared to Monroe.
In and out of orphanages and foster homes, while her mother, wildly played by “Mare of Easttown” Emmy winner Julianne Nicholson, struggled with health issues, young Monroe – then Norma Jeane – stuck to her mother’s claims that she nameless and invisible his father would save her one day.
That day never comes, though Monroe purrs “Daddy” to her father figure husbands, baseball star Joe DiMaggio (Bobby Cannavale) and playwright genius Arthur Miller (Adrien Brody). One physically abuses her while the other exploits her tragedy in his plays and films.
De Armas gives us a Monroe who has had to roll with the punches since childhood. A young Norma Jeane, played by a radiant 8-year-old Lily Fisher, must endure her mother’s attempts to drown her in a bathtub, driving them both into a raging Los Angeles wildfire.
Talk about trauma. And yet Monroe believes that her “daddy” will save her. In an interlude, she simultaneously embarks on a sexual adventure with two men, Charles Chaplin Jr. (Xavier Samuel) and Edward G. Robinson Jr. (Garret Dillahunt), with famous fathers who have neglected them.
Too much of? You bet. As are the scenes in which Monroe has conversations with the fetuses she aborted at the studio’s urging — or out of her own fear that her mother’s mental health issues might spread to the children she says are growing up wishes so much.
Dominik goes to great lengths to show the intelligence Monroe has hidden beneath her sellable disguise as the ultimate dumb blonde. We watch as she skillfully negotiates a deal that will put her on an equal footing financially with Jane Russell, her co-star on Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.
Later on the set of 1959’s “Some Like It Hot,” we see Monroe raging at director Billy Wilder for humiliating her by getting costar Jack Lemmon to watch her shake and teasingly joke that she “looks like jelly”. What would Cancel Culture think of this sexist comment today?
Monroe never felt the support of #MeToo. Her insecurities made men define her as a difficult diva. On screen, at least, Monroe always had the last laugh, ready to tease her image before anyone else could. That’s why their best performances still feel fresh and spontaneous.
What “Blonde” shows us is a sex-uninterested sex symbol. “We’re soul mates,” she confides to two Secret Service agents who take her on a secret hotel tour with President John Kennedy. But while Dominik is filming this scene, JFK callously treats her like a piece of meat.
De Armas makes us feel every slight, every humiliation, like a series of cuts that register like PTSD before the term was coined.
Is Dominik taking advantage of Monroe by reducing her life to a series of assaults carried out by men he films like lustful gargoyles? Once in a while. But the film is a far cry from “The Assassination of Marilyn Monroe by the Coward Andrew Dominik.”
In the end, Dominik cares too much about it. As Monroe’s leg dangles from her deathbed in the final scene, Dominik grants the tormented Norman Jeane a peaceful stillness that she and Marilyn never found in life. “Blonde” is hard to see but impossible to forget.