Director Peter Bogdanovich was famously angry with his friend and colleague Bob Fosse for making “Star 80”, the film that told the life and tragic death of Bogdanovich’s then girlfriend Dorothy Stratton. One can only imagine the level of disgust any members of Marilyn Monroe’s family would hold towards Andrew Dominik for his new film “Blonde”.
Both professionally and personally, many men (in many ways) abused Marilyn Monroe. Already unstable due to a history of child abuse and familial mental illness, Monroe suffered for most of her career. This was a talented woman who wanted to be seen for her instinctive acting abilities (she truly had them) in a Hollywood that wanted only to exploit her sex appeal.
Young Norma Jeane Mortenson (Monroe’s real name) was full of drive and talent but was almost immediately crushed by the predatory men who ruled the kingdom.
Based on Joyce Carol Oates’ novel of the same name, “Blonde” tells Monroe’s story in fragments. Straying far from a standard biopic (a smart move to be sure), the film plays out in moments, each one brutal and ugly and sad.
Dominik plays with aspect ratio and goes from black and white to color to enhance the effect of Norma Jean/ Marilyn’s fractured identity. Cinematographer Chayse Irvin does excellent work, giving the film a mix of dreamlike aura and old-school Hollywood gloss. Visually, the film works well as CGI and rear projection blend together with real sets and locations, achieving an undeniably impressive look.
As the film (and history) tells us, Marilyn Monroe was the construct; the manufactured smile hiding a personal Hell. Norma Jean was the victim; a child abused by a mentally unstable mother who grew up under the predatory grip of powerful men.
While the events of Monroe’s short life are well-known, Oates’ novel was not an actual biography, but a fictional imagining of true incidents, as is Andrew Dominik’s film.
The evidence of the relentless abuse held within this film is mostly rumor. We know she was abused by her mother and that her relationships were all bad, but regarding the way Monroe is treated here, we just cannot ever know the truth, which makes the film aggressively and offensively exploitive.
Ana de Armas is really put through the ringer as an actress. Her dedication is to be commended, as the transformation is stunning, and the performance is raw. There are moments where de Armas completely disappears, and we are witness to a rebirth of Marilyn Monroe. The way the actress captures Monroe’s movement and speech patterns is incredible and (with just a bit of help from the makeup department) for most of the running time, she looks exactly like her.
While the performance is beyond committed and works most of the time, there are a few scenes of dialogue where de Armas drops Monroe’s breathy way of speaking and purposely uses her own voice, which is undeniably Cuban. It is puzzling why the director allowed (wanted?) this to happen and it ruins the film’s one genuine moment of real emotion.
Adrian Brody is the savior of the supporting cast as Arthur Miller, Monroe’s second and final husband. Their first scene together is magical and moving, as Miller is first disgusted at “sexpot” Marilyn Monroe reading for his play based on his lost love.
The two bond over Monroe’s innate perception of the character. Miller is deeply moved, and Brody does his best work since his Oscar-winning role in Roman Polanski’s “The Pianist”.
As they sit, smiling and tearing up, the film finds its one moment of peace and achieves something genuine. Halfway through the scene, de Armas drops the accent and Dominik loses the moment’s potency.
Bobby Cannavale plays Joe DiMaggio, as both he and Miller are symbolic of the opposite emotional weights that ultimately led to Monroe’s final days.
DiMaggio is shown as possessive and brutishly abusive. Miller is more caring and understanding, yet the actress does not know how to navigate the waters of a good relationship. Feeling good about herself seemed to be an almost unattainable goal and Dominik fetishizes this to the extreme and beyond.
A major problem is how, in a film that argues how talented an actress Monroe was, it fails to take her work seriously. Dominik’s screenplay glosses over her important experiences at The Actors Studio (Lee Strasberg claimed she was as good as Brando), reducing her desire to act as merely a way to bury her childhood traumas.
This type of dramatic slight is a slap in the face to an actress who respected the craft of acting and wanted so badly to be taken seriously.
Yet this is far from the film’s greatest sin.
In his attempt to show the parade of men who relentlessly used her for their own perverse gains, Andrew Dominik becomes, perhaps, her most vicious abuser.
For nearly three hours (and without a reprieve) the director drags Monroe though a sexual and emotional degradation one cannot imagine.
There is no dramatic punch in watching Monroe vomit onto the camera lens not once, but three times while the director holds on it with an almost perverse glee.
To see a lengthy moment of 7-year-old Norma Jean naked and being drowned in a bathtub by her topless mother (Julianne Nicholson) is more than disturbing in its execution. The way the director shoots it is excessive and the fact that it may not have happened at all renders the sequence completely depraved.
Along with these moments, the film is filled with nonstop scenes of rape, mental and physical abuse, and an extended scene of oral sex that defames the character of JFK while completely demeaning both Marilyn Monroe and Ana de Armas.
The most disgusting and pathetically desperate moment comes when Dominik films a forced abortion (one of two the audience is subject to) from the inside looking out at the doctors, as their instruments are inserted. There is a line between Art and exploitation. During this scenes, Andrew Dominik goes far beyond human decency and presents us something quite sick.
It is clear the desire of “Blonde” is to generate sympathy for Marilyn Monroe, but the director chooses to revel in her abuse so relentlessly that it all becomes overwhelming.
While the film is technically sharp and the electronic score from Nick Cave and Warren Ellis is very good (although out of place), Andrew Dominik’s vision for this one is disturbing. While he is certainly one of the most interesting filmmakers of his generation (“Chopper”, “Killing Them Softly”, and especially “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford” are some of the best films of their respective years), this time out the filmmaker created nothing more than an aggressively disrespectful fetishization of a beloved icon. While I dislike the term “Torture Porn”, it fits this picture like a glove.
It saddens me that 60 years after her tragic death, Marilyn Monroe continues to be exploited and abused.
Whatever Dominik’s intentions may have been, “Blonde” is a cruel film and an ugly cinematic rape of the actress’s legacy.
Written and Directed by Andrew Dominik (Based on the novel by Joyce Carol Oates)
Starring Ana de Armas, Adrien Brody, Bobby Cannavale, Julianne Nicholson
NC-17, 166 Minutes, Plan B Entertainment/ Netflix