Movies

The Operatic Fiction Of ‘Blonde’ Explains Marilyn Monroe Better Than Any Standard Biopic Could

I remember watching Chopper, Andrew Dominik’s debut feature about the Australian cult figure Chopper Read, around the time it came out, trying to understand how this person became so beloved in his home country, and what his cult celebrity status said about that country’s people. I remember it as hypnotic and captivating, anchored by Eric Bana’s wild-eyed performance in the title role, but also partly inscrutable, like I’d never be able to quite understand Chopper’s appeal without being Australian.

A lot of directors lose their powers the further their stories get from their homelands (this is my current theory for why In Bruges can be so good while all of Martin McDonagh’s American-set movies are so bad). Yet Dominik only seemed to get sharper when he turned his focus to the USA. Which he did first in the meditative western, The Assassination Of Jesse James… (etc.) and then in Killing Them Softly, a jagged little pill of a movie that had the audacity to end on the line “America’s not a country, it’s a business.” This at the outset of Obama’s second term. That unrelenting cynicism earned it meager box office and a rare “F” from Cinemascore’s audience poll, but in hindsight it was probably warranted. These days people would probably agree that Dominik was onto something and that Killing Them Softly is an underappreciated masterpiece, but I think Dominik partly knew what he was doing all along. He likes to thumb the audience in the eye a little bit. Maybe he can’t help it.

Blonde seems to a large extent an attempt to do for America what Chopper did for Australia. To explore who this character is, what she means to America, and what her celebrity and what happened to her says about us all. As always, Dominik’s movies are more poetry than prose, and he attempts to do this not through a traditional biopic, but in an adaptation of Joyce Carol Oates’ 775-page novel, about a semi-fictionalized Marilyn Monroe. Dominik in turn depicts the book’s story through a series of impressionistic, somewhat disjointed vignettes. Blonde stars Ana De Armas, whose Cuban accent is never fully disguised, is rated NC-17, meaning many theaters won’t even screen it (it hits Netflix two weeks later anyway), and is almost three hours long (for what it’s worth, I don’t quite understand the rating, there are many R-rated movies, including De Armas’s last one, Deep Water that seemed more sexually explicit). Again, thumb, meet eye. Though hopefully now there enough sickos among us who know Dominik well enough to seek him out.

They say fiction can get at deeper truths by making stuff up. In that way, this adaptation of a fictionalized biography of Marilyn Monroe, written by a titan of American letters who never met her, in turn pastiched into an exploitation movie by an Australian director and starring a Cuban actress, conveyed what it is about Marilyn Monroe that so captivates better than anything I’ve seen or read about her before, even after an adolescence spent listening to Glenn Danzig bellow about her, the date of her disputed death forever singed into my memory.

So who is Marilyn Monroe? Partly it seems she’s our Mona Lisa, a fascinating mix of sexually attainable and mentally inscrutable (Mona Lisa herself being a prostitute or a “promiscuous courtesan,” depending on your rumor). As always, Dominik delights in torturing his lead character, first as the child of a mentally unstable mother (played by the fabulous Julianne Nicholson) and the abandoned daughter of an absent father; later as the plaything of various powerful men. Always with the tension of whether Marilyn is exploiting the public or the public is exploiting her.

Norma Jean Baker always maintains a distance from Marilyn Monroe, a creation meant to give 1950s America exactly what they wanted: a gorgeous, glamorous sexpot who always looked fabulous, who smiled and blew kisses while being objectified by any and all. That she would eventually be subsumed by her own canny creation isn’t a unique phenomenon (and was Marilyn really Norma Jean’s creation, or one that clever agents foisted upon on her?). Irony poisoning, we’d probably call it today. Agency is always the central question. Was Marilyn trolling America by giving us this parody of sexuality, or were we destroying her by devouring it?

In Blonde, there’s not only the blurring of Norma Jean and Marilyn, but also the fracturing of the Marilyn persona itself, splintered by attempting to cater to 1950s America’s fucked up and inherently contradictory sexuality — simultaneously desiring an always-available sex doll and an unattainable chaste glamor goddess in one. The Madonna-Whore complex, if you will. I think a few people may have written about that. The men who attempt to take Marilyn for their own (almost always Marilyn, it becomes impossible to see Norma Jean once Marilyn becomes a superstar) essentially become the old Groucho Marx bit — “I refuse to join any club that would have me as a member.”

The central difficulty is that Marilyn was such a cliché in her own time (certainly by design, whether Norma Jean’s or some svengali’s) that it’s virtually impossible to get at the root of the person without resorting to metaphor. Norma Jean invented (or maybe just accepted!) a pin-up persona with an intentionally cheesy name. When a man points out how corny the name “Marilyn Monroe” is, she points out that she’s Norma Jean, “Marilyn” is just a creation. Which in turn raises the obvious but unspoken question: which one of us is the sucker here?

Through this pin-up persona, Monroe marries first the hero jock, Joe DiMaggio, and later the acclaimed intellectual, playwright Arthur Miller (played perfectly by Bobby Cannavale and Adrien Brody, respectively — the film glosses over Monroe’s first husband James Dougherty, pseudonymized as Bucky Glazer in Oates’ book). After that she dates the president. It’s almost like “Marilyn” is a Barbie doll Norma Jean plays with, and relationships were her way of collecting all the most popular Kens. How dumb could 50s America be to fall so completely for this bullshit? How dumb could Norma Jean be for not realizing this bullshit would eventually destroy her? Always the sado-masochistic push-pull of audience as victim, victimizer, and voyeur. Blonde‘s one JFK scene consists of a forced blowjob, depicted in wide-eyed close-up, with just a smidge of the presidential shaft.

Like Marilyn herself, Blonde is an operatic mix of the hackneyed and the transgressive. It’s not the first movie ever to ply the gulf between person and persona, or even the first movie about Marilyn Monroe to do so (see 1996’s Norma Jean and Marilyn, starring Ashley Judd and Mira Sorvino, for the most obvious example here). Likewise, it ascribes many of Marilyn’s problems to that most roasted of movie chestnuts: daddy issues. Little Norma Jean spends the whole movie hoping the father she never knew will magically show up, to explain who she really is, while breathily calling all her boyfriends “Daddy.”

The other central facet of her true self, only slightly less trodden as a storyline, is Norma Jean/Marilyn’s desire to have a child, an unborn fetus whose voice she hears in her head from time to time, like a judgemental Obi-Wan Kenobi, even as she allows herself to be coerced into abortions. Dominik shoots these abortions, by the way, from inside Marilyn’s womb, the doctors looking directly into the camera while stretching open the mucusy passageway. Probably this is why Blonde got an NC-17 rating more so than the actual nudity.

Nudity, and the promise thereof, was always part and parcel to the Marilyn Monroe persona. To some extent Dominik avoids the big clichés by embracing the small ones. Nothing is cornier, after all, than guys going wild over a buxom blonde’s boobs, and Marilyn partly built her brand on it, exploiting a stupid public until maybe they exploited her. Ana De Armas in 2022 promises sex the same way Marilyn Monroe did in 1955, which is why the casting works. Maybe perfectly, despite the overt dissonance of Ana De Armas being a slender Cuban. I can imagine a depiction of Marilyn that maybe didn’t veer as wildly from victim to mastermind, but it’s easily De Armas’s best work, partly through sheer vibes alone.

Likewise, some of the parts of Blonde that work best are the most obviously invented — like that she was in a three-way relationship with star-crossed showbiz lost souls Charlie Chaplin Jr. (Xavier Samuel) and Edward G. Robinson Jr. (Evan Williams) — both men who really existed, even if the connection didn’t. Their sporadic romance is the heart of the film, and their scenes together crackle, maybe because they’re some of the film’s least stylized.

Marilyn Monroe was a confusing, alluring contradiction, and so, necessarily is Blonde, over reductive when it isn’t inscrutably impressionistic. But it’s also mesmerizing, hard to watch and impossible not to watch almost in equal measure, a somewhat guilty pleasure, compelling in spite of, partly because of, the fact that you don’t quite understand.

‘Blonde’ hits select theaters September 16th, and Netflix September 28th. Vince Mancini is on Twitter. More reviews here.

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