Biopics stride a fine line when seeking to depict the frailties of tragic subjects. On one hand, the film should serve as an oracle for the protagonist’s truth, both internal and external. A whitewash is a biopic’s greatest sin, and even unpleasant revelations are the essential function of the genre. On the other hand, it is equally imperative that a film not so disassemble a character that it — inadvertently or not — robs them of their agency.
Such is the sad case in the very sad “Blonde,” which adapts Joyce Carol Oates’s very sad 2000 “fictional biography” of Marilyn Monroe. The fault of the overlong “Blonde” is not that it shines an ultraviolet light on the deeply ingrained, fundamental misery informing a cultural icon who — let’s face it — suffered a broken childhood, three divorces, and perhaps three lost pregnancies before an untimely death at age 36. Many Monroe bios have made the grievous error of illuminating her megawatt charm, style, and talent before a perfunctory nod at a demise framed without development or proper context.
Director Andrew Dominik certainly avoids that pitfall, instead turning “Blonde” into a handsomely grim funhouse mirror. Every episode of Monroe’s life is morphed into a vehicle for the film’s central conceit, that each element of Monroe’s life and fame was an offshoot of the manipulation and avarice of others.
It begins with née Norma Jean Mortensen as a little girl living in California, the offspring of an emotionally damaged mother (Julianne Nicholson) and an unknown father whose lifelong absence would haunt and inform her persona — she calls each of her two last husbands by the pet name “Daddy.” After Norma is deposited with an orphanage, the film fast forwards to Monroe (Ana de Armas) already as a pinup star on the eve of a film career — when later asked how she got her start, Monroe says only, “I was found” while memories flash of her abuse on the casting couch.
Nearly every romantic relationship (real or fictitious) is tainted. A three-way affair with Charlie Chaplin Jr. (Xavier Samuel) and Edward G. Robinson Jr. (Evan Williams) is born of the men’s manipulative self-indulgence. Her coupling with Joe DiMaggio (Bobby Cannavale) is an elaborate PR stunt sprung on Monroe that hatches into an abusive, emotionally arid marriage. Her union with playwright Arthur Miller (Adrien Brody) begins with mutual affection but remains tinged with Monroe’s feelings of inferiority around Miller’s New York literati and Miller’s feeling that someone is playing a prank on him. As for Monroe’s dalliance with John F. Kennedy (Caspar Phillipson), well, let’s just say that it is unceremonious, appalling, and contains the scene that undoubtedly earned “Blonde” its NC-17 rating.
Monroe is fashioned like a feather in the wind, cast to and fro by the dictates of others. Every audition, movie set, film premiere, acting class, restaurant, or other setting Monroe wanders into is steeped in greed and toxic masculinity. Dominik even conspicuously alters every gathering of adoring fans into a horde of exclusively testosterone-crazed men, their visages contorted into an animalistic fervor. When Monroe twice tries to expound on the characterizations of Chekhov, it is met with bemusement (by a casting crew) and incredulity (by Miller). The only time that she is allowed to assert herself are crazed clashes with director Billy Wilder on the set of “Some Like It Hot,” a performance that nevertheless won Monroe a Golden Globe, something the film doesn’t mention.
There is genuine merit in “Blonde’s” unflinching audacity, its singular focus on divining the seediness of Tinseltown, celebrity, politics, and our patriarchal culture. And if the film had pulled off its macabre mosaic, it would have been thanks to the hypnotic visuals of Dominik and cinematographer Chayse Irvin and, moreover, some sensational acting by de Armas. The Cuban native sprang to notoriety with her performances in “Knives Out” and “No Time to Die.” De Armas absorbs and becomes Marilyn Monroe, capturing her outward sensuality, damaged soul, and suffocating despair while desperately clinging to some notion of her humanity.
Unfortunately, the premise of “Blonde” is that Monroe’s life was the controlled, compromised product of awful people. Her successes were ancillary and illusory, and her demise was inevitable. The film is a searing indictment of the exploitation of women and dehumanization of stardom that ends up channeling its own critiques.
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