- Andrew Dominik
- Run Time
- 2 hours and 47 minutes
VP Content Ratings
- Sex & Nudity
- Star Rating
Again I saw all the oppression that are practiced under the sun. Look, the tears of the oppressed—with no one to comfort them! On the side of their oppressors there was power—with no one to comfort them. And I commended the dead, who have already died, more than the living, who are still alive, but better than both is the one who has not yet been and has not seen the evil deeds that are done under the sun.
After you get over the surprise that the star of an NC-17 rated film should be considered for a Best Actress Oscar, you will realize what a blazing performance Ana de Armas turns in as the ill-fated star Norma Jeane/Marilyn Monroe. And throughout the film’s almost 3 hour length you must remember that this is not intended to be a biopic—after all, it’s based on a work of fiction, Blonde, Joyce Carol Oates’s 2000 novel of the same name. Neither Oates nor director/screenwriter Andrew Dominik are interested in a straight biography, but a myth and how this myth is shaped by and affects a misogynist culture. Thus we might regard the story as that of a terribly dark fairy tale–Cinderella without a fairy godmother to protect her, and definitely minus a happy ending.
In a prologue we see the shaping of the adult Norma Jean by a series of scenes between the 7-year-old girl (Lily Fisher) and her single mother Gladys (Julianne Nicholson). The mother plants the seed of the adult Norma Jean’s obsession with her unknown father by showing the girl the picture she has hung above her bed, telling her that this is her daddy who is a famous person living in the Hollywood Hills—but she must never tell anyone. During a fire in the Hills Gladys endangers her daughter’s life by trying to drive through the flames to get to the home of the man, only to be turned back by the police. Descending into madness, the mother almost drowns the girl in the bathtub, and is taken away to an spend her life in a mental institution. Neighbors provide the little girl only temporary sanctuary, soon placing Norma Jeane in an orphanage where she believes her daddy will come for her.
Although the film jumps to her early days as a Hollywood starlet, widely used as a pinup girl on calendars and magazine covers, we see that Norma Jeane never really grows up, that she is always at her core the 7-year-old longing for her daddy. Her audition for her first major role, she discovers, is the casting couch with the studio boss identified only as as Mr. Z, and not the scheduled screen test—years later she will think of this when her husband-to-be, called in the film credits “the Ex-Athlete” (Bobby Cannavale, playing Joe DiMaggio), asks her how did she get her start, and she replies vaguely, “I guess I was discovered.”
She becomes involved with the aimless sons of two Hollywood greats, Charles “Cassie” Chaplin Jr. (Xavier Samuel) and Edward G. Robinson Jr. (Evan Williams), forming a ménage à trois. After she leaves that relationship, we see brief scenes of her various films. Marilyn moves from her marital interlude with DiMaggio, with whose family she is ill at ease, to her marriage to the Playwright. The former physically abuses her, and Arthur Miller, she discovers after a short happy relationship, was using her in his writing without her knowledge or permission. Her obsession for her missing father is shown by her calling each of the men in her life “Daddy.”
Throughout the film Norma Jean is shown as victimized by men and the press and a public that could not get enough of her. Worst of all is her treatment by the promiscuous President of the United States—though some may dispute this,arguing that her accepting to undergo an abortion because Cass Chaplin did not want her to proceed with the birth is a more severe case of victimization.
The scene of her performing oral sex on JFK no doubt caused the MPAA to give the film the rating bound to discourage theaters from booking it. Kennedy himself is depicted as so cold and callous that he divides his attention between getting his sexual kicks and talking on the phone with someone chiding him for his sexual adventures. The woman with his penis in her mouth could have been any of his paramours, for all the attention he was paying to her. By this time in her life Norma is almost comatose, so hooked on alcohol and pills that the Secret Service agents haul her around as if she were a piece of meat, a term used a couple of times in the film. Her miscarriages also fills her with a sense of failure.
Throughout the film Norma Jeane separates herself from the male-imposed sex symbol known as Marilyn Monroe. She declares, “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.” She surprises a man in Hollywood when she reveals that she has read Dostoevsky. Dumb blonds just don’t read such books.In New York where she hopes to develop her acting talents at Actors Studio, she discusses with Arthur Miller his characterization of the woman Magda in his play as like a character from Chekhov. Not believing that such a sex symbol could have come up with such an insight, the playwright asks her who gave her that idea. Her insights assure him that she has read the Russian author herself. These are examples of what she means when she says halfway through the movie, ““In the movies, they chop you all to bits, It’s like a jigsaw puzzle, but you’re not the one to put it together.” She is not talking just about film editing, but about herself, even the name everyone calls her being imposed upon her.
Some films try to add a positive spin to a tragic story, but filmmaker Andrew Dominik will have none of that in his dark tale, other than showing that she had a brain as well as physical beauty. Whether he is attacking our misogynist culture whose epitome of female exploitation is Hollywood, or merely lamenting the snuffing out of the life of a talented actress about to come into her own in the city on the other side of the continent that takes acting seriously, the film offers little hope. Blonde is like Singing in the Rain in that it deals with movie making, but if there were a song in it, it would be a dirge, not a love song. (There is, come to think of it, one from one of her movies, “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend,” but it is a cynical one that trades in romantic love for material security.)
The director changes the screen aspect several times and also switches frequently from color to black and white. Just why is a puzzle to me. His over use of nudity is a little less of one possibly because he wants to emphasize how the studio saw her as a sex symbol. It might seem ironic that in doing so Dominik has not only re-enforced that image, but also is exploiting his Cuban star Ana de Armas as well. She is too talented an actress to be thus pigeon holed; I hope she fares better in her next film. Her portrayal of the tormented Norma Jeane is so impressive that the Academy members could not ignore her, despite the film’s rating. But I doubt that many will vote to give the golden statue to her.
I was intrigued that the cast list uses “Ex-Athlete” and “The Playwright” rather than the actual names, Joe DiMaggio and Arthur Miller. This reminds me of the unforgettable 1985 film directed by Nicolas Roeg and adapted by Try Johnson from his play, Insignificance. It imagines Marilyn Monroe, Albert Einstein, Joe DiMaggio, and Rabid anti-Communist Senator Joseph McCarthy coming together in New York City while Marilyn is filming the famous skirt whirling scene from The Seven Year Itch. It too does not use actual names, but lists the four main characters as “Actress,” Professor,” “The Ball Player,” and “Senator.” And it presents the side of the sex goddess, overlooked by the world, as possessing an intelligent mind—in that film she explains Einstein’s Theory of Relativity using a collection of toys.
Andrew Dominik’s dark film is difficult to sit through. If you plan to watch it, I would suggest that you follow it by watching the 2022 film She Said so as to maintain your sense of hope and belief in social progress. Dominik shows the debilitating affects of misogynism—the author of the above quote from Ecclesiastes could well have directed this film had he lived today—whereas the recent film depicts the taking down of the ultimate Hollywood female abuser, Harvey Weinstein, a successor to the misogynistic studio head in Blonde identified as Mr. Z. Best of all, the agents of this take down were two women–good at their craft (and persistence) of reporting. That movie becomes even more enjoyable after enduring Blonde!
This review will be in the March issue of VP along with a set of questions for reflection and/or discussion. If you have found reviews on this site helpful, please consider purchasing a subscription or individual issue in The Store.