Kim Kardashian stirred up controversy for the gown she chose to wear to the Met Gala earlier this year, although not because of the look itself. The buzz came, rather, courtesy of the gown’s origins: it was the same nude-colored, beaded dress worn by Marilyn Monroe in 1962, when she famously sang “Happy Birthday, Mr. President” to John F. Kennedy. Even though Kardashian only actually wore the dress for about five minutes, and reports as to whether or not the dress sustained damage in the interim conflict, that was more than enough to instigate outrage at seeing a historical artifact handled in a such a manner. Moreover, the incident served as another reminder of how Monroe—her image, her life, her relationships, and her sudden death at the age of 36– has been exploited over and over again in the 60 years since her passing. To this day she’s still recognizable to just about everyone, her image as a glamorous sex symbol still a prominent piece in American pop culture, her face adorning merch, posters and artwork, her iconic looks both on and off screen still a source of style inspiration today. It’s likely this Marilyn—Marilyn, the symbol of old-school Hollywood glamour and excess—that Kardashian was thinking of when she decided to don one of her most famous fashions herself, not Marilyn, the person. All of those things fail to consider her work, her talent, and the kind of person she was beyond the tragic bullet points that most people are familiar with.
The film industry overall is guilty of this too, however. Hollywood studios will happily greenlight vanity projects based around films and figures from its past, while keeping those actual films made by those actual figures locked away from view. Netflix has consistently maintained its status as the mainstream streaming service with the most abysmal library of classic films available, but they are also home of “Mank,” David Fincher’s 2020 drama about “Citizen Kane” screenwriter Herman Mankiewicz. They are the home of “The Mystery of Marilyn Monroe: The Unheard Tapes,” a true crime documentary released earlier this year. And they are now the home of “Blonde,” Andrew Dominik’s fictionalized account of Monroe based on the novel by Joyce Carol Oates. What can’t you find streaming on Netflix? An actual Marilyn Monroe movie.
Ana de Armas plays Marilyn Monroe, born Norma Jeane Baker, in Dominik’s nearly three-hour cringe-fest which meanders from her fraught childhood (where she’s played by Lily Fisher) living with her single mother, Gladys (Julianne Nicholson), who suffered from paranoid schizophrenia, to her death from a barbiturate overdose in 1962, ruled a probable suicide. Oates and Dominik, however, firmly believe that Monroe killed herself, with Dominik even stating in a recent interview with Sight and Sound’s Christina Newland that that was the most interesting thing about her. That callous regard for Monroe is manifested in his film, where every incident and every relationship she has is calibrated to lead toward an inevitable end (one that is dwelled on in “Blonde,” for too long, taking on shades of a horror movie as Monroe wanders her room, naked and afraid). She navigates two tumultuous, high-profile marriages to baseball player Joe DiMaggio and playwright Arthur Miller, who are played by Bobby Cannavale and Adrien Brody and credited as Ex-Athlete and The Playwright, respectively (the film skips over her first, pre-celebrity marriage to factory worker James Dougherty). An aside: her honeymoon with Miller and an imagined throuple she was party to with Charlie Chaplin’s son Cass and Edward G. Robinson’s son Eddy Jr. are about the only parts of the movie where Dominik portrays Monroe as content and at ease with herself. She looks for the face of the father she never knew in every man she sees, referring to all of her romantic partners as “daddy” in what is surely one of the severest and most shallow renderings of daddy issues in cinema history. Dominik is peculiarly most obsessed with Monroe’s desire to have a child, but he frames this, as he does everything else in the movie, as an obsession that contributes to her break-down. Her first abortion is portrayed as a forced one, with her writhing on a hospital bed as the camera peers out from her cervix. Surreal shots of floating fetuses are sprinkled in throughout the movie, and—in what is surely the most hideous segment of “Blonde,”—during her later pregnancy while married to Miller, one talks to her, begging her not to do to it what she did before, like one of those pro-life “if babies could vote they’d vote against abortion” billboards put into motion.
Dominik’s film clearly criticizes the way Monroe’s contemporaries exploited her for her beauty and vulnerability—her fame framed as a horrific fairy tale, the crowds of leering paparazzi that push in on her at every opportunity with their blinding flashbulbs at the ready resembling a terrifying mob, the men in her life all opportunistic monsters—but in the process, he contributes to the exploitation of her that has reigned in the decades since her passing. This is perhaps best summed up in the film’s status as the first NC-17 rated movie to premiere on a streaming service, a fact that automatically lends the movie a provocative shade in the minds of audiences. Dominik and Oates, whose novel is where the rottenness of “Blonde” the movie is rooted, possess a clearly skewed perspective of who Monroe was. Women in this move are portrayed as hysterical victims, first Gladys— whose illness is massively ramped up for dramatic effect—and then Monroe, whose trauma is initially seen as stemming from her family history, and later, the fact that she is given virtually no agency almost seems to be her own fault, for getting into complicated affairs, for being clumsy, for being too pretty, for getting addicted to drugs. Throughout “Blonde,” we watch Monroe be beaten, raped, and demeaned, and facts are sacrificed in favor of making a woman who did suffer a lot in reality suffer even more. The film references her movies with recreations of shots from them, but those do little more than mark the passing of the decade. The only real commentary on her works comes from a couple of scenes: her audition for the 1952 thriller “Don’t Bother to Knock,” following which the executives testing her knock her supposedly terrible performance while praising her physical assets, and when she has a run-in with an irritated Billy Wilder while filming the 1959 comedy “Some Like It Hot.” But there’s no appreciation for her sharp comedic skills or scintillating dramatic talent to be found. Scenes of her as a method acting student serve as pseudo-therapy sessions for her trauma, not an indication of her dedication to her craft.
“Blonde,” with its haunting score by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis and cinematography by Chayse Irvin, does possess an enticing look and sound. But the reasoning, or lack thereof, behind the over-stylized imagery makes it all just empty spectacle. In addition to meticulously recreating shots from Monroe’s movies, Dominik tells her story through staging well-known photographs of her. But how can “Blonde” break through the barrier to examine Monroe’s interior life when it is brought to life through public-facing images? The film flips between black-and-white and color and changes aspect ratios for no other reason than vanity (Dominik confirms this approach to recreating photos of Monroe in the aforementioned interview with Newland).
De Armas is also never guided to a performance that allows her to capture Monroe’s spark or intelligence; she’s instead like a tearful child in a woman’s body. If “Blonde” accomplishes anything, I hope it inspires viewers to seek out Monroe’s movies, and to learn more about her beyond her affairs, her drug problems, and her untimely death. “Blonde” has reaped some praise for being an untraditional biopic, but due to its heavily fictionalized nature I hesitate to assign it to that genre. It’s more an exercise in how to cruelly dredge up a figure from the past and use her as a prop for one’s own perverse study of the dark side of celebrity. Maybe “Blonde” would have benefited somewhat from being helmed by a man who didn’t clearly hate women; probably not. This isn’t the first time Marilyn Monroe has been thrown under the bus for the sake of others’ entertainment and gratification, and it won’t be the last.
“Blonde” is now streaming on Netflix and playing in select theaters. Runtime: 166 minutes. Rated NC-17.