Sitting down to watch Blonde, it’s somewhat hard to believe that the film even exists, considering how long it took director Andrew Dominik to make it. While not as anticipated as other Netflix productions like Orson Welles’ The Other Side of the Wind or Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman, the excitement is palpable. Dominik’s adaptation of Joyce Carol Oates’ highly fictionalized novel started taking form a decade ago and featured both Naomi Watts and Jessica Chastain as Marilyn Monroe at different points in development. Now Ana de Armas takes a bow as the woman formerly named Norma Jeane Baker.
To understand the Monroe we see later in the film, Blonde opens in Los Angeles in 1933. Norma Jeane Baker is seven and constantly abused by her schizophrenic mother, Gladys (Julianne Nicholson). Child abuse is a common trope in origin stories, but the horrors that Gladys put Norma Jeane through are shocking. Bathtub drownings, manipulation about her absentee father, etc. Yet it is not until Gladys and Norma drive through a wildfire, where the Hollywood sign sits untouched on the horizon, that young Norma finds her escape route. Later, after her tearful arrival at an orphanage, the emptiness she will spend her whole life battling takes hold.
Netflix leaves filmmakers lots of leeway, and they continue to support them here by sticking with Dominik’s preferred NC-17 version of the film. Blonde runs just short of 3 hours, and in that time, serves up several disturbing and sickening moments onscreen. Despite its intentions to be a feminist telling of the actress’s story, the camera’s gaze lingers on de Armas’ nudity. It lingers longer on the trauma of lost pregnancies, and even longer on the violence men are capable of. There is a thin line to walk in portraying exploitation without revelling in the violence and misery itself. Whether Dominik avoids that remains to be seen.
Like Spencer, a fictionalized look at Princess Diana, Blonde cares less about factually recreating Marilyn Monroe’s life than throwing the viewer into her whirlwind existence. Exposing them to the most brutal aspects of her life and the dismissal she dealt with daily. The uphill climb to getting into the business depicts sexual assault. The fame that eventually comes leaves its own scars. Dominik clues the audience in to how each crowd traumatized her—substituting the sound of flashbulbs with gunshots that jerk Monroe out of her comfort zone. Subsequent abortions and miscarriages later in the film are far less tactful.
Marilyn Monroe existed to most as a symbol, a cultural commodity, rather than a living, breathing person. Through executives, hangers-on, and a legion of fans, she existed only for the pleasure of others. As a result of the constant trauma, she disassociates from her own body as a safety mechanism. Terrible things aren’t happening to her, she says, watching from the safety of the cheap seats. If Dominik wants anything from Blonde to stick, it’s the haunting experience of becoming a bystander in your own life. A reminder of the all-too-present danger of celebrity during Hollywood’s Golden Age.
Hollywood sunk its claws into her and never let go, but Blonde falsely asserts that Monroe was never in control. Monroe knew the power she had on camera. The flighty, child-voice ditz onscreen was her creation. While not respected as an actor, she was regularly the biggest grosser in Hollywood. And masters of celluloid like Billy Wilder, while initially hostile, grew to recognize her talent. Yet the men in her life never stop trying to take her away from the career she built.
Joe DiMaggio’s (Bobby Cannavale) proposal to Monroe includes whisking her away to the suburbs when it was stardom that she craved. Being married to a sex symbol seems outstanding on the surface, yet Joe didn’t anticipate men drooling over the sight of her atop a subway grate. That was not part of the deal for him. Cannavale plays both sides of DiMaggio convincingly, the man who dotes on Monroe, putting her on a pedestal, and the abusive monster who decides he married a whore. Adrien Brody’s Arthur Miller is a much softer presence, but even he constantly rewrites her dialogue and walks her through acting as if she were a novice. They always know what’s best for Marilyn. Only when Monroe is alone and reading her books does she appear happy.
Despite the many disturbing incidents that mark Monroe’s life, Dominik finds time to depict Monroe’s glory days. Even going as far as recreating the scenes from Seven Year Itch and Gentlemen Prefer Blondes shot at the original locations with similar film stock. One of many instances where the film shifts from black and white to technicolor, with aspect ratios stretching and shrinking. Cinematographer Chayse Irvin uses the iconography of Marilyn to explore the woman we never knew. These moments find new meaning as they’re presented from different vantages and expanded on with stories from behind the curtain.
While Ana de Armas might not be a dead ringer for the actress, her eyes suspend disbelief. They convince us she is Monroe. From the light that explodes in exultation and the wounded expression when her carefully curated life sours, the reality of the situation always plays behind Monroe’s facade for the public. Where Armas truly excels is capturing the voice. Monroe’s voice is perhaps the most calculated part of the actress’s fame, simultaneously teasing men with its innocence while winking at other women: how dumb are they for falling for this? She deployed her sexuality, giving America exactly what it asked for, even when she was vilified for it.
Viewers will be mixed in their reaction to Blonde, but there is no doubt how good de Armas is in the film. The Academy loves when actors play celebrities in biopics, though de Armas earns the acclaim for her studied performance. As Monroe, de Armas lives in the space between the life she abandoned as Norma and the cultivated image known as Marilyn. A performance like this requires vulnerability, but the defiance in de Armas’s eyes never extinguishes.
This brings us to the conclusion of Blonde. We all know Monroe died at 36 and how it happened, which makes the last bit of Dominik’s film a bit of a slog. The swirling, woozy stylistic beats of addiction are fairly routine, and when they show up, we know it’s over. Since #MeToo began, people previously unaware of the crisis looked closer at the meat grinder that is Hollywood. Dominik wants viewers to know that it’s always been this way. No one could accuse Blonde of being a subtle film, but the director doesn’t care about subtlety. Dominik portrays Monroe as a divine woman who excelled at being whatever anyone needed her to be. Her reward was being destroyed by a system that still feeds on women today. Blonde is a calculating look at Monroe, but it feels far more cynical to preserve her romanticized origin.
I feel odd comparing this to The Last Temptation of Christ, but its harrowing journey is the closest thing Blonde resembles. The grace of Nick Cave and Warren Ellis’s score is the easiest part of Blonde to digest. Everything else requires more from the viewer than they are accustomed to.