Blonde Plays Fast and Loose with the Life of Marilyn Monroe
James Jay Edwards reviews Blonde, a biographical fiction film about Marilyn Monroe based on the Joyce Carol Oates novel, directed by Andrew Dominik and starring Ana de Armas. (Netflix)
Arguably, the two biggest pop culture figures in American history are Elvis Presley and Marilyn Monroe. Earlier this year, movie fans got their Presley biopic with the simply titled Elvis. Now, it’s Monroe’s turn with the slightly-less-simply titled Blonde.
(Blonde, theatrical release poster, courtesy of Netflix)
Blonde stars Ana de Armas (Knives Out, Deep Water) as the blonde bombshell, tracing her entire life from her abused childhood as Norma Jeane Mortenson to her untimely death as a drug-addled superstar. It’s a portrait of a sad, lonely, desperate girl who was always searching for some kind of purpose in a world to which she didn’t really belong.
Blonde was adapted for the screen by writer/director Andrew Dominik (Chopper, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford) from the novel of the same name by Joyce Carol Oates (who also wrote the novels behind Vengeance: A Love Story and Double Lover). By Oates’ own admission, her book is a work of fiction and should not be taken seriously as a biography of Marilyn Monroe, and Dominik leans into that concept by turning it into a surreal and schizophrenic character exploration.
(Blonde, courtesy of Netflix)
And it’s definitely a highly fictionalized account of Monroe’s life. It’s not so much fabricated as it is speculative, sort of like a “this is how it could have happened.” Some moments are clearly absurd, such as when Marilyn imagines a gang of paparazzi rushing out and taking pictures every time anything significant happens in her life—even if she’s in the privacy of her own home. But some of the more personal scenes are more hypothetical, like Oates (and by extension Dominik) is saying “no one was there, so here’s what I say happened.” And a lot of it is pretty shocking.
Of course, Marilyn is the absolute center of the movie, to the point where the other characters, even ones that are well known to have been in her life, are listed in the credits as “The President,” “The Ex-Athlete,” or “The Playwright.” It’s Marilyn’s movie, everyone else, including the audience, is just along for the ride. The dark, twisted, disturbing, depressing ride. And Blonde seems to revel in making Marilyn more and more of a victim as time goes on.
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For his part, Dominik picked a terrific Marilyn in Ana de Armas. de Armas practically becomes Monroe, leading the film by letting it move her through the tragic events of the star’s life. de Armas plays Marilyn with a disconnect that amplifies the movie’s emphasis on there being two main characters—Norma and Marilyn—and the superstar is always trying to determine which one she really is. And the audience is as confused as the main character because the movie lacks a point of view. It’s just casual observance, but that may be Dominik’s point. If Marilyn doesn’t know who she is, how possibly could the audience?
The cinematic choices only serve to cloud the waters of identity. Dominik switches frequently between filmic styles, going from color to black and white and switching up aspect ratios, often within the same scene. And as Marilyn’s life spirals more and more out of control, the camera work (courtesy of cinematographer Chayse Irvin, who also shot BlacKKKlansman and Hannah) gets more and more frenetic. The viewer is not sure if the Marilyn they’re seeing is the Movie Star or the All-American Girl. Or both. Or neither. Or some composite of the two.
(Blonde, courtesy of Netflix)
While, according to the film at least, Marilyn’s whole life was a nightmare, the most effective scenes in Blonde are the actual nightmares. Marilyn’s desire for belonging and affection manifests itself in dreams, specifically ones about pregnancy (of which she had several unsuccessful ones), so she dreams of home invasions or fires that often lead back to anxiety about carrying a child. These dream sequences are creepy, disturbing, and emotional. And mainly because the whole film is surreal and dreamlike, they are the scenes that seem the most honest and genuine.
If you’re looking for an actual biography of Marilyn Monroe, keep looking. If you want a crazy depiction of a troubled young woman, Blonde will fit the bill. It’s an interesting bit of filmmaking, even captivating at times, but mostly it’s just nonsensical. It’s too weird (and, at two hours and forty-some minutes, too long) for comfort. But comfort isn’t the movie’s goal, anyway.
Blonde is now streaming on Netflix.
Check out the podcast Eye On Horror for more with James Jay Edwards, and also features Jonathan Correia and Jacob Davison.