Blonde seems to have run the gamut of reactions, from decrying it as indulgent and sadistic misery-porn to venerating it as a masterfully observed character study. I can’t say either of those extremes are wholly right or wholly wrong. It’s certainly more interested in its subject than the year’s other twentieth-century-icon flick, Elvis, but that one’s featherlight biography was expressly keyed to Baz Luhrmann’s gaudily superficial DNA. Where Andrew Dominik especially flounders is convincing me he had anything distinctive or fresh to say about his subject, regardless of how artfully/explicitly he has dressed her up (or undressed her) and how closely he veers to suggesting she was simply a variably functioning, programmed sex slave.
I suspect there’s an essential problem with the subject. Unless you can cast new light on Marilyn, suggest she wasn’t, in fact, none-too-bright, overeager to please and serially unlucky with men, you’re on a hiding to nothing. Dominik’s only available avenue is to double down on her victim status, such that the occasional bouquet – Adrien Brody’s Arthur Miller is amazed she has read and comprehended Chekov, as a way to say “Look, she can be smart too”; yeah, in contrast to everything else we see and hear from her – seems out-of-place, if not to downright absurd.
Brody gives a good Miller. The playwright’s relative genteelness has to be balanced against an essentially shallow and superficial attraction; he asks to call her “my Magda” (his lost love), and she, ever pliant, agrees to whatever he wants (she, habitually, will call her partner “daddy”). Essentially, Miller is given to intellectualising his treatment of her (“Where do you go when you disappear?” he asks, drifting into Malick territory; the picture, in terms of subjective lens and voiceover, has a tendency to ape his style, but in a showier-still fashion – see also last year’s fizzler Spencer). However, he’s as unrefined as any other male in her orbit when it comes to being led by his basic instincts.
Dominik doesn’t seem to have much to say about Marilyn that isn’t a rolling cliché. He etches these out in frequently affecting/distressing but nevertheless broad strokes. All the assembled tropes of abusive/mental mother, absent/haunting father, repeated failed pregnancies (artificially or accidentally so) abusive/ uncomprehending/ superficial/ using boyfriends or husbands, and the inconsolable divide between star and person, are familiar, regardless of how germane/invented they are here. Consequently, I found myself progressively less and less engaged as each hour passed.
It’s curious Dominik has spent so long trying to get Blonde made, and yet his adaptation of Joyce Carol Oates’ 2000 novel is so unrevealing at its core. Let’s say the movie he has made is accurate to the individual, that this is the sum total of Marilyn. Would that make it a valid exercise? I don’t think so, as the purpose then becomes, by a process of elimination, simply one to diminish her.
Blonde’s early stages do at least carry a semblance of narrative bite, before we tread into the well-covered arena of stardom, rehearsed movie scenes and successive marital partners and/or extra-marital ones. Both Julianne Nicholson and Lily Fisher are strong as Gladys Mortensen and young Norma Jean respectively, even if the relentlessly grim scene is set with the former attempting to drown the latter before ending up consigned to the looney bin. Soon enough, Zanuck is applying less the casting couch than desk and her Hollywood rise begins.
Dominik offers a brief idyll of a largely-fabricated (at least, per the record) threesome with Charlie Chaplin Jr (Xavier Samuel) and Edward G Robinson Jr (Evan Williams). Perhaps because this is off-script, it suggests a degree of emotional fulfilment much of the tawdriness elsewhere lacks. On the debit side, however, it introduces an utterly banal subplot of Marilyn receiving letters from her fantasy daddy (these epistles are, we discover, right at the end, from Charlie, now deceased; I’d actually assumed them to be in her head, so split the difference).
Bobby Canavale is serviceable as Joe DiMaggio but hardly casting against type, while Toby Huss makes a peripheral impression as devoted makeup artist Whitey. There’s also Caspar Phillipson as a particularly unforgiving JFK. Dominik generally presents his titular subject as caught in a state of arrested development, fully grown but confused and coquettish, so prey to no more or less than the classic Monroe portrait.
Indeed, on the one hand, his best flourish is Norma’s vocalised distinction between herself and Marilyn, referring to the latter in the third person. On the other, that difference as depicted is little more than face paint (which anyway is irrelevant as de Armas looks like de Armas in any situation; this isn’t like the disparity between early Norma Jean snaps and stardom Marilyn Monroe). “Why does Marilyn do these things? What does Marilyn want?” wonders Norma, and Dominik has no answers beyond the pedestrian. This failing is even more glaring, given this is a “fictionalised” take and so has, in theory, greater licence to kindle depth and resonance.
He also employs distracting devices, besides the letters. There’s Marilyn and her talking foetus, or baby, berating her for disposing of the previous incarnation. The picture is certainly to be congratulated – Dominik denied the charge – if eugenics operation Planned Parenthood took issue with its sympathy for the unborn, but the conceit illustrates that, in his own way, the director is as prey to the kind of bells and whistles Luhrmann employed for the King. Indeed, there’s nothing quite as crass in Elvis as JFK forcing Marilyn to fellate him (prior to raping her) while his suite’s TV shows footage of phallic artillery, guns and rockets (and, perhaps as a nod to those suggesting Marilyn was offed because she was going to spill the alien secrets the President told her, footage from Earth Vs. The Flying Saucers).
Marilyn: It’s just a dream. It’s just a dream.
Taken in isolation, this portrait of JFK might have seemed quite incendiary, given he’s generally venerated, despite his peccadilloes, but even Marilyn being grabbed in the middle of the night and subjected to another abortion (the President’s the daddy), complete with gratuitous interior vagina shot, seems like just another in the endless list of assaults on her person, and nothing to get further worked up about. This also seems to be as close to the outright conspiratorial as Dominik is willing to get: the allusion that the Marilyn persona has been engineered to answer the beck and call of the President. Less a sexpot (as Charlie calls her) than a sexbot.
Brice Taylor mentioned Marilyn in her MKUltra victim memoir Thanks for the Memories: “Most people are now familiar with Marilyn Monroe’s connection to the Kennedy family and her use with the President. It has been said by insiders that Marilyn was one of the first programmed Presidential models, created under mind control for sex with the President and use in Hollywood connections”. In Brice’s account, she herself was plied to JFK when she was eleven or twelve, her functions curtailed when he was assassinated. Albeit, she has no first-hand knowledge this was his fate. Rather, the leading comment from Kissinger that “You won’t be servicing him much longer. The higher ups have some alternate plans for him“. You know, such as faking his death.
Talking of which, they wouldn’t be a dead celebrity (or politician) if Miles Mathis wasn’t on hand to set us right. Marilyn’s death was, of course, faked: “If you want to know where Marilyn was after 1962, look where Joe DiMaggio was after 1962. She probably wanted to have kids in peace, and—being only 36—she probably did”. Thanks Miles. His essay is the usual half-baked soufflé of genealogy, “obviously fake” photos and “obviously telling” tales about the circumstances of expiration – with an added sprinkling of Rockefeller – but also quite threadbare, even by his standards. Norman Mailer was hired to provide “misdirection”. As for Norma Jean/e, Miles suggests a staged Mandela Effect in effect. If it is, it’s incredibly substandard, since you can usually expect some degree of checking oneself.
Less in the Mathis vein of things, but closer to the Taylor, it’s also curious that, in Blonde, Gladys should tell the cop who stops them during the fires that they have been “invited to a very private residence at the top of Laurel Canyon”. This belonging Marilyn’s actual father. But given how the Canyon is often earmarked – see Dave McGowan’s Weird Scenes Inside the Canyon – as a hotbed of all sorts of societal engineering projects, from the Moon landings to counter culture, I wonder if Dominik was hinting that Norma had been selected from an early age.
Even allowing that Blonde may have been expressly intending such subtexts, the question remains whether this could in any way be construed as presenting those ideas successfully to the public. Still, one must ask: is it a coincidence that movies on the lives of two of the last century’s most enduring icons have both foregrounded less their stature and achievement than the manner in which they were methodically used, abused and victimised? To a degree, that’s commendable, but Like Elvis, Blonde leaves one with the impression there are no depths to probe because there isn’t much there. De Armas conveys Norma/Marilyn with admirable dedication, but Dominik’s film makes for a rather dubious achievement when all is said and done.
Addendum 09/11/22: My understanding is that Mathis is right, kind of. Marilyn’s death was faked, but she didn’t go to live with DiMaggio (thanks for that, Miles). She went to live in the basement with JFK.