Joyce Carol Oates’s contentious 2000 novel Blonde, an imagined biography of Marilyn Monroe, has inspired a potentially contentious movie by Andrew Dominik. Blonde, which is out on Netflix, matches Oates’s flushed prose with fever-dream imagery from an all-too-familiar Hollywood nightmare.
Monroe continues to be the subject of study and speculation decades after she died of an accidental overdose of barbiturates in 1962. With her peroxide blonde hair, hypersexual persona, buzz of scandals and premature death at the age of 36, Monroe is one of the enduring examples of the Hollywood supernova.
Blonde, in telling the story of the actor born as Norma Jean Baker, is an attempted study of personhood. Marilyn Monroe was objectified from the start of her career despite acclaimed performances in some of her films.
A recurring theme in Blonde is voyeurism. The human eye morphs into the camera lens and later, something far worse.
Buffeted by predatory men, unrelenting media attention and unrealistic expectations, Marilyn (Ana de Armas) splits into two selves: Norma, who’s sitting in front of the mirror, and the actor in the reflection named Marilyn Monroe whom the world wants to see.
Dominik’s screenplay provides a hurried tour of Marilyn’s dismal childhood – the father whom she never meets, the mentally unstable mother who abuses her and is later institutionalised. The film skips any mention of Marilyn’s first marriage and jumps straight to her years in Los Angeles, where she goes from pin-up model to national sex symbol.
The freewheeling early years include a threesome with Charles Chaplin Jr (Xavier Samuel) and Edward Robinson Jr (Evan Williams). Marilyn finds that the “dumb blonde” image insisted upon by producers makes it difficult for her to be taken seriously. Frozen as a symbol of stereotyped female desire, Marilyn learns that men are interested in her for one and only thing.
The revolving door of husbands and lovers included baseball champion Joe DiMaggio (Bobby Canavale), playwright Arthur Miller (Adrien Brody) and “The President of the Free World”. (The film doesn’t name John F Kennedy, played by Caspar Phillipson, but the reference is obvious.)
The only man shown to treat Marilyn with fairness is her make-up artist Whitey (Toby Huss). Marilyn’s interactions with Whitey are the closest Blonde comes to portraying the actor as a full-blooded woman with a personality to match, rather than a puppet to be yanked this way and that.
She’s ultimately just a girl, standing in front of a photograph of her lost father, asking him to find her. She’s also desperate to be a mother, a desire that leads to some of the film’s most risible scenes.
Blonde has emerged in the middle of a fierce debate over abortion rights in the United States. In the film, abortion is treated as a trigger for Marilyn’s dependency on alcohol and drugs. There are repeated graphic representations of the foetuses that Marilyn is unable to keep. One of the foetuses even talks to Marilyn from inside the womb. So much for “My body, my choice.”
Marilyn’s physical form is exploited in other ways. Blonde not only has copious nudity and graphic sex scenes but also an overly length sequence shot from all possible angles of Marilyn’s dress flying upwards for a scene in The Seven Year Itch (1955).
This moment made it to a Hindi film – Jo Jeeta Wohi Sikandar (1992), featuring Pooja Bedi.
If Oates mined horror from Monroe’s relationship with her body, Dominik goes further in imagining the impact of endless lechery. The director even conceptualises a point-of-view shot of a doctor peering into Monroe’s innards – a pointless, not to mention deeply exploitative moment. By this juncture, Blonde has lost whatever fleeting interest it had in Monroe’s brain and soul and become one of those tawdry tabloid accounts of fallen movie stars.
The 167-minute film is singularly incurious about Marilyn’s involvement in her choices. By reducing her to a perpetual victim of both uncaring men and the cult of celebrity, Blonde denies her the agency that she might have asserted.
Vividly shot in both black-and-white and colour by Chayse Irvin, Blonde features an ethereal score by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis that foreshadows Monroe’s fate. (Dominik has directed two documentaries about Cave, both of which are available on MUBI.)
Monroe’s descent is best captured in a wrenching montage of men, their faces distorted with lust. The film is suffused with gorgeous and sometimes surreal imagery, but at this stage, perhaps Monroe needed an intellectual approach, rather than a stylistic one.
The single-most powerful element of Blonde, which sustains it through banality, dime-store psychology and increasingly discomfiting moments of suffering, is its fearless lead actor. Placed in scenes that often require her to be unclothed and in positions of humiliation, the impeccably styled and costumed Ana de Armas lives and breathes the role of Marilyn Monroe.
Monroe’s fans came to gawk at her, regardless of what she was trying to do in her roles. In Blonde, we gaze de Armas in wonderment rather than with lasciviousness, and forget the movie she is in.