Film & Television

Blonde — Still Exploited After All These Years

Marilyn Monroe died sixty years ago at age 36. She was found in bed, by her housekeeper and psychiatrist, having ingested many times the lethal dose of barbiturates. Her death was ruled a probable suicide. She’d reportedly had “abrupt and unpredictable mood changes,” and been “prone to severe fears and frequent depressions.” In her brief career, she had appeared in 30 movies that grossed $200 million (approximately $2 billion today). But, as Elton John famously sang about a decade after her death, “All the papers had to say was that Marilyn was found in the nude.”

Six decades later, you can still find Marilyn’s iconic image selling wine, clothing, home décor, collectibles, and countless Halloween costumes. Her life has been immortalized in operas, dramatic and musical theatre productions, poems, television shows, video games, and in more than 200 books.

One of these is Joyce Carol Oates’s Blonde, published in 2000. Oates insists that while her narrator (Norma Jeane) was a real person, Blonde is a novel and should not be confused with a biography. In the two years that she researched and wrote it, Monroe became the author’s personal white whale, a “Moby Dick, the powerful galvanizing image about which an epic might be constructed, with myriad levels of meaning and significance.” Running 700 pages, it was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award. Oates, who has written 58 novels and won many prestigious awards over the course of her career, believes that Blonde is one of only two titles for which she’ll be remembered.

Blonde, Andrew Dominik’s nearly three-hour movie recently released in theatres and on Netflix, is based on Oates’s bestseller. And the author herself recently told The New Yorker that although she wasn’t involved in the film, she was given a rough-cut toward the end of production. “I had to stop watching about midway through. The film is emotionally exhausting.” And, she adds, it’s “Not for the faint of heart.”

Amen to that. Blonde is one of the most grueling movies I’ve endured in a long time. I had to break it up into two sittings (despite being a stickler for watching movies start to finish in one), and was actually relieved when Marilyn at last swallowed a handful of pills and lay motionless on her bed. Her suffering — like mine — was almost over.

And, boy does she suffer. The movie begins when Norma Jeane (an affecting Lily Fisher) is a little girl living with her single mother (a genuinely frightening Julianne Nicholson), who we soon learn is mentally ill and shockingly abusive. Once her mom is institutionalized, Norma is dropped off at an orphanage, although she protests that she has a father who will come get her soon. That missing father becomes an obsession, one that haunts Norma for the rest of her life.

Soon, we meet Marilyn Monroe, a persona created by the industry and one that Norma never quite feels comfortable with or recognizes as herself. Ana de Armas stars as the orphan-turned-pinup-girl-turned-contract-player-turned-sex-symbol-turned-tragic-icon. The Cuban and Spanish actor is best known for Knives Out and No Time to Die, and she worked hard to play Marilyn, studying with a dialect coach, reading Oates’s novel, and absorbing all of Monroe’s movies, news clips, and audio recordings. De Armas’s ability to convey her subject’s traumas, fragility, and mental illness are really quite remarkable. She looks enough like Monroe, convincingly portrays her most famous scenes, like the subway grate from The Seven-Year Itchand “Diamonds are a Girl’s Best Friend” from Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, and acts the hell out of the part whenever the focus is on Monroe’s offscreen life.

That said, de Armas uses Marilyn’s familiar breathy, baby voice all the time. She’s too naïve and trusting to be real. We hear that she’s smart (she’s read Chekhov and Dostoevsky), but she comes across as such a simpleton that at times she seems intellectually impaired. Even the depiction of her mental illness and addiction is too heavy-handed. Surely there were days when Monroe was happy, sane, and sensible, when she wasn’t being beaten by a husband or raped by a producer. In real life, she founded a production company herself and was a human rights advocate.

I don’t think the decision to make Marilyn seem so detached from reality was the actress’s. I think it was a deliberate move on the part of the director. In fact, Dominik’s decisions are apparent throughout, often to the detriment of the story — and it’s hard to make sense of them, except perhaps to rationalize that he’s making a movie about the movie industry, so he might as well flex his moviemaking muscles. Scenes are in color, then in black and white. The aspect ratio changes from classic 4:3 (the squarer screen of old movies) to the more contemporary size we’re used to on widescreen TVs. The paparazzi pop up like a swarm of hungry insects in places where they wouldn’t have been in real life. Scenes move from realistic to surreal and back again. And, while the film is certainly presented from Monroe’s point of view, Dominik takes that a step further with sequences that include the movie star vomiting into the camera, fellatio in an extreme close-up, and multiple abortions from the perspective of her vagina. Later, when the fetus of one of her unborn babies begins talking to her, I was reminded of a certain scene early on in Pam & Tommy when Tommy Lee’s animated puppet penis gives the musician a pep talk. I also wondered if anyone involved in Blonde realized what a pro-life message they included when the ill-fated baby speaks to her in utero and asks if she’s going to abort it too. “That wasn’t my fault,” she protests, “And that wasn’t you.” “They’re all me,” it answers. For the record, while Monroe did suffer multiple miscarriages (including an ectopic pregnancy), there is no proof of her having had a voluntary abortion. So to highlight it in this lurid way is doubly distasteful.

Other than de Armas, most of Blonde’s cast seem wooden and two-dimensional. Drawn from Monroe’s real-life, but unnamed here as they were in Oates’s book, they include two of her husbands “the Ex-Athlete” (Joe DiMaggio), a brutish Bobby Cannavale, and “the Playwright” (Arthur Miller), a whiny Adrian Brody. She’s in a (again, fictitious) “throuple” with celebrity sons Cass Chaplin (Xavier Samuel) and Eddy Robinson Jr. (Evan Williams), who seem to love her but later sell incriminating photos to her husband. Her other encounters, violent and difficult to watch, involve “The President” (JFK) and a studio head “Mr. Z.” It’s a shame that Blonde’s Marilyn lived and died before the #MeToo movement. She had stories to tell.

Aside from the jarring directorial choices and overall bleakness of Blonde, what bothered me the most is that while individual predators and the Hollywood machine are condemned for exploiting Marilyn, Blonde feels just as exploitive. De Armas is naked for a good part of the film (and I would argue that many of her bare-breasted scenes would be just as effective if she were clothed). Dominik’s script pays lip service to the conflict between the real Norma Jeane and the fabricated Marilyn Monroe, but he never gives his subject any agency. She is a victim and then a victim and then a victim once more.

In an interview with the British Film Institute’s magazine Sight and Sound, Dominik explains his narrow point of view, “It’s not looking at her lasting legacy … If you look at Marilyn Monroe, she’s got everything that society tells us is desirable. She’s famous. She’s beautiful. She’s rich. If you look at the Instagram version of her life, she’s got it all. And she killed herself. Now, to me, that’s the most important thing. It’s not the rest. It’s not the moments of strength.”

Dominik, can argue that the film is fiction, as Oates has about her novel, but I worry that people will watch Blondewithout any other references and assume that it’s fact. Lured by its NC-17 rating, a whole generation may think there’s nothing more to her than what they find here. And, that just adds another sad chapter to Norma Jeane’s story.

So, since the film certainly, doesn’t allow Marilyn to have “moments of strength” (or much intelligence or insight), I’ll let her have it here:

“Trust me, I’ve never fooled anyone. I’ve let people fool themselves. They didn’t bother to find out who and what I was. Instead, they would invent a character for me. I wouldn’t argue with them. They were obviously loving somebody I wasn’t.”

Blonde is currently playing in select movie theatres and on Netflix on-demand.

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