A few notes on Andrew Dominik’s Blonde: Let’s be frank. Do we really need another retelling of the Marilyn Monroe story? Might as well say: Let’s take another look at Elvis Presley. Or Andy Warhol? Judy Garland? James Brown? Jim Morrison? Hank Williams? Alfred Hitchcock?
Of course, Monroe’s name always comes up first because she, alongside Presley, is arguably the most famous American pop-culture icon of the 20th century. But really, is there anyone even remotely interested in learning the details of Norma Jeane Mortensen’s life and career who doesn’t already know it pretty much by heart at this stage?
That’s what filmmaker Dominik, and the rest of us, are up against with Blonde. The problem is how to come up with a new package, a fresh way of explaining MM’s stranglehold on the American subconscious. Writer-director Dominik—in a fictionalized adaptation based on Joyce Carol Oates’ 2000 novel—solves most, but not all, of the obvious problems with a heavy handful of style.
Monroe is the all-time champ of “troubled” showbiz celebrities. Dominik parades her troubles across the screen with enough “disjointed, distorted, hallucinatory” glee (those are author Oates’ words) to satisfy the most ghoulish film fanatic. Little Norma Jeane’s mother, a vindictive, alcoholic harpy brilliantly portrayed by Julianne Nicholson, dominates the early going, which features a terrifying fire-in-the-hills sequence.
Nothing bothers Norma Jeane more than the specter of her mustachioed missing father, leering down from a framed, smudged photo on the wall. Young actor Lily Fisher is also sadly memorable as the poor kid herself. The most disturbing thing we find out about Norma/Marilyn is her daddy complex, a curse that revisits her constantly, in many different guises, in her 36 years on earth.
The action zips from Monroe’s nightmarish childhood to her sex-symbol starlet period, a trail of tears (too many to count) punctuated by various degrees of rape. We would have been gratified to see the adolescent Norma falling in love with someone her own age and discovering her own sexuality in a relaxed environment, but that’ll never happen.
Through it all, Armas is certifiably gorgeous and her impersonation is spotless. Meanwhile Monroe’s tormentors, notably a pair of Hollywood vultures (Evan Williams, Xavier Samuel), are almost as loathsome as another latter-day sugar daddy, The President (Caspar Phillipson), a JFK-like barbarian who gets hurry-up blow jobs while a Secret Service goon watches.
Life as a world-famous sexual plaything is unbearable. Everyone knows that and yet everyone idolizes Monroe, from the Italian-American housewives in the kitchen of The Ex-Athlete (Bobby Cannavale, channeling Joe DiMaggio) to the crowd of ugly, contorted male faces howling for more skin during the frantic Seven Year Itch subway grate wind-up-the-skirt scene.
Her husband, The Ex-Athlete, disapproves of letting strangers ogle his wife’s private parts, and batters her for not leading “a decent life.” It’s plainly horrible being MM, but Dominik seems content to let it go at that.
One lover who seems to understand Monroe is The Playwright, aka Arthur Miller (Adrien Brody), who like everyone else is astounded that this “dumb blonde” has actually read and analyzed Chekhov—nevertheless he believes in her, despite her inadequacy jitters and pills. As if to console us for witnessing such distress, the music score by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis is absolutely gorgeous, to go along with Chayse Irvin’s cinematography.
Dominik can’t seem to reconcile MM’s effervescent screen personality with her miserable emotional state. That’s the price we pay for following her around. Peace of mind avoids her like the plague.
She exclaims she never wanted to be an actor—unlike The Playwright, we don’t quite believe her. We grow frustrated with the discrepancies.
Blonde is part of the reason why some people distrust movies. Real life never quite measures up to the dream, especially when the dream is wrapped up in the story of the sexiest, most irresistible star of them all. Blame Daddy.