“Marilyn doesn’t exist. When I come out of my dressing room, I’m Norma Jeane. I’m still her when the camera is rolling. Marilyn Monroe only exists on the screen.”
My knowledge of Marilyn Monroe is scarce at best, but I’d like to say that I know a bit more about the once talented actress than your average viewer. It’s not hard to share this sentiment among other fans as Monroe lived her life spread across tabloid columns for others to tear apart—always included in one scandal or dealing with a challenging circumstance—though not because she wanted her personal life to be the front page. Maybe it’s more of my admiration for the actress, or maybe it’s the fact that we as a society just can’t take our eyes away from the stories of tortured souls, but the trailers for Andrew Dominik’s, Blonde drew me in like a moth to a flame. Sadly, like that moth to a flame, I was taken in by that light only to be greeted by an electric zapper.
Let’s begin at the beginning. Blonde, based on a fictionalized biography of Monroe by Joyce Carol Oates, takes an unyielding, almost blasphemous approach to the actress’ life beginning at her childhood. Monroe’s mother, Gladys (Julianne Nicholson), who in reality was later diagnosed with schizophrenia, tells the young girl that a man watches over her. The man is Monroe’s father. This dark, brooding individual, watches over her from a picture placed directly centered over a bed. This somehow gives her hope that she’s not alone. But her world begins to crumble as her mother soon breaks with reality, resulting in an attempt to kill the young Monroe. A quick placement in a foster home separates Monroe from her mother, and furthers what we can only believe as her incredibly bitter childhood.
Flash-forward, and we are in the throes of Monroe’s up and coming, which starts with the infamous “casting couch.” Insert Ana de Armas who, I’ll give credit, embodies Monroe to the best of her ability, and quite well, in fact. This is de Armas’ first real serious role—one you could possibly even deem Oscar bait. But for me, had she evoked the same emotion in another performance, I believe this would have done wonders for her career. The story that plays throughout Blonde is a traumatic one. And though we’ve all seen traumatic stories unfold onscreen before, this one has no respect for our main character.
Blonde gives us nothing but an unwrapping of constant physical or emotional abuse towards Monroe from a plethora of people in her life. She tries to find solace in various forms, whether it be the friendships with Cass Chaplin (Xavier Samuel) and Eddy Robinson jr. (Evan Williams), or her marriages to famous men like Joe DiMaggio (Bobby Cannavale) and Arthur Miller (Adrien Brody). In the documentaries I’ve seen about Monroe it’s odd to see how favorable the film leaned toward the playwright when real accounts have said otherwise. As you can tell, the film leaned heavily into the “lost father” aspect, which only becomes harder to watch as it’s seen through the “male gaze.”
When it comes to the overall quality of Blonde, it is something to look at. Dominik, along with cinematographer Chayse Irvin both create something incredibly special when developing these classic environments. It’s not just a modern black and white film—with the occasional use of color for added emotional context. No, the black and white has something grittier. But that’s about all that shines throughout Blonde. In a way, all that glitters, isn’t gold. Dominik, who had another go at a famous fictionalized tale, that go around with the story of Jesse James in The Assassination of Jesse James By the Coward Robert Ford, can often have a skewed view when representing his main characters. Who is right and who is wrong? Does he romanticize Jesse James too much in that film? Does he shame Monroe in this film? While both films are astonishing to the eyes, they may not be the most digestible.
During the Venice Film Festival de Armas stated that she took this role, not for anyone else, but to push herself further as an actress. I felt sorry for her as the tears began to well up in her eyes. Like so many actresses, they want to push the envelope and take the role that challenges them. I get it. But to be completely honest, it took me three watches to get through Blonde. It made me nauseous from beginning to end. I can only compare it to another actress who went down the same path while trying to push herself. Every time I watch Network I continue to be blown away by Faye Dunaway’s performance in that film. Heck, she even won an Oscar. But even as I watch it, I still get flashes of Dunaway in Mommy Dearest, a role that portrays Joan Crawford in the most cruelest of lights. Dunaway never fully recovered after the “wire hanger” performance, and to this day refuses to be interviewed about that infamous film. And while I don’t think the same will happen to de Armas, sometimes roles as disrespectful as these, should be left alone.
Directed by: Andrew Dominik
Starring: Ana de Armas, Bobby Cannavale, Julianne Nicholson, Xavier Samuel, Evan Williams, and Adrien Brody