To say that Marilyn Monroe remains one of our most controversial celebrities would be an understatement. One of the truly American symbols of glitz and glam, Monroe’s tragic life was cut short after a drug overdose. Depending on who you ask, there was more to the story and death of the starlet. The questions surrounding her death have long been part of the allure of Monroe. The model, turned actress, turned sex symbol might be a visual icon of America, but that glamour does not excuse the difficult life she led. While director Andrew Dominick had humanized Jesse James and mob hitmen, his take on Monroe in Blonde is not just frustrating but downright offensive. To imagine anyone thought this version of her life was a good idea is simply beyond words.
A true cradle-to-the-grave biopic, Blonde begins with Norma Jean trying to survive her mother. Shortly after her mother goes to an institution, Norma ends up in an orphanage. She believes her father is a famous performer, and thus dreams of a life in Hollywood. When Norma makes it in the industry, she’s quickly dubbed Marilyn Monroe (Ana De Armas). Over the next fifteen years, she engages in high-profile relationships with athletes (Bobby Cannavale), writers (Adrien Brody), performers (Xavier Samuel), and Presidents.
For De Armas, the role offers a chance to showcase a new side of herself. She comes out of Blonde largely blameless. In fact, her pathos and anxiety are palpable, in part because of her hyper-expressive eyes. De Armas brings out the raw emotion present in the screenplay, an admirable touch that attempts to move the story away from the tabloid aesthetic and more towards a Shakespearean tragedy. She paves the way for the aspects of the film that do work. The score from Nick Cave & Warren Ellis stuns, further enhancing the emotional swings De Armas displays. Not to be ignored, Chayse Irvin crafts some stunning compositions with his camera, even as he frames some of the most upsetting sequences.
Why Dominick felt this was the story he wanted to tell will remain a mystery. Based on Joyce Carol Oates‘ novel of the same name, the story’s magical realism and historical fiction flourishes do little to explore new territory. In fact, they seem to vilify and torment Marilyn. These moments occur as we watch Marilyn’s lovers drug and sexualize her. She becomes something of a sex doll, simply positioned within the frame to be used by the next men on screen. She’s raped, graphically, and then forced to walk out in shame. Marilyn exposes the most vulnerable sides of herself, only to become the subject of mockery. She’s thrown around and beaten. She must even suffer emotional destruction at the hands of those she loves most.
None of this information is new, and perhaps that’s the point that Dominick is trying to make. Perhaps we are supposed to reflect on the dangers of celebrity and the upsetting life they lead. Maybe we are supposed to know, deep down, the American people drove this woman into a life of selling herself to please the world. These readings are certainly true, but what does Dominick tell us that we do not already know? While Dominick was away, America reckoned with these very ideas. Those not in power know about these issues and these frustrations. Younger generations are ready to fight back against them and have done so at great peril. Why are we receiving the lecture as if this is some grand new discovery?
This feels like a lecture two decades too late. Dominick surely does not believe these ideas are new, so why create them? The visuals of Marilyn do not provide us some new insight into her life, but instead, they squander a cast ready to deliver. The screenplay stretches out sequences for hours, despite obvious places that could have been slimmed down or outright cut from the film. The controversial sequences of Marilyn speaking to her unborn fetus are downright offensive, especially in a post-Dobbs world. This glaring pro-life subplot running through the film again undermines some of Marilyn’s power.
At the end of the day, its hard to view Blonde as anything other than Dominick looking to demystify Monroe. By stripping her of her fame and her power, he hopes we see someone real underneath all the glitz. Yet that ignores the truth of her life. For all the ways she was used and abused, Marilyn became a beacon of hope for thousands. She was sexual in ways that were not accepted for another decade. She worked in the movies and became the object of fascination by the most famous men in the country. She did all of this without a partner, or when she did have a partner, she was not bound by motherhood.
To many, Marilyn was the iconoclast that made it possible to live a life as an adored, single woman. We all know her life ended in tragedy, but what good does stripping her of her accomplishments do for our culture? Instead, it feels like a hit piece on one of America’s greatest figures. Dominick might be one of the most talented visual filmmakers in history. Yet without the awareness that he can tell stories without embracing pure nihilism, it seems as if he will struggle to regain his stature.