Genre: Drama Running Time: 2 hrs. 46 min.
Release Date: September 28th, 2022 MPAA Rating: NC-17
Director: Andrew Dominik Actors: Ana de Armas, Adrien Brody, Bobby Cannavale, Scoot McNairy, Toby Huss, Xavier Samuel, Evan Williams, Julianne Nicholson
lamed for the desertion of her father by a dreadfully abusive mother, Norma Jeane Mortenson (Ana de Armas) scarcely escapes one horror after another during her tragic childhood. Defying the odds, the young girl grows up to become a successful model and actress – but not without first suffering further debasement from salacious casting agents and studio executives. Norma finds a moment of peace when she falls in love with Cass (Xavier Samuel) and Eddy (Evan Williams), but her happiness is soon shattered by the loss of her child. As the years pass, her movie star counterpart – stage name Marilyn Monroe – skyrockets in fame and fortune, while her personal life oscillates from momentary bliss to crushing heartbreak and back again. Relationships with a baseball giant (Bobby Cannavale), a renowned playwright (Adrien Brody), and even a President (Caspar Phillipson) provide scant reprieve from the cruel alliance between the demons of her past and her all-consuming onscreen persona that conspire to destroy her.
Right from the start, Norma Jeane’s life is far from a fairy tale. If poverty, an absent father, and betrayal by adults weren’t bad enough, the physical abuse at the hands of an unstable mother makes her situation even more uncomfortable, every so often resembling the insanity depicted in horror movies. The tagline “Watched by all, seen by none” really grasps what director Andrew Dominik (adapting the Joyce Carol Oates novel) is trying to do, as this fictionalized interpretation of Marilyn Monroe’s career draws back the curtain to unveil a traumatized, tormented soul.
“If you weren’t Marilyn, who’d you be?” From the abandonment and familial tragedies come stardom, but the plot here completely skips over large chunks of her story. Despite the considerable running time, this is quite distant from a comprehensive biography; Monroe’s rise to nationwide fame is depicted as a sexual assault, some magazine covers, and a few screen tests, with movie casting limited to around four productions. With various historical elements translated authentically (to supplement the ample amounts of artistic license), but with star Ana de Armas substituted into photographs and film footage (the first of which is “All About Eve,” preserving the original George Sanders lines, as he has no corresponding actor here to portray him), “Blonde” represents a very loose, very brief history lesson about the inimitable celebrity – even if, as in the source material, names and places are rarely specified. The intention, clearly, is that audiences bring their own knowledge about Marilyn’s accomplishments and entanglements with them.
With de Armas appearing in virtually every scene, and with her as the focus (oftentimes the literal center of the frame, or being entirely engulfed by the lens), she’s a one-woman army of a performer. Any dramatic connection with viewers is wholly dependent on her turn, particularly with the picture’s intimate, narrow concentration. Fortunately, she’s spectacular as an impersonator, even if she’s never able to become altogether lost in the role; a convincing voice, mannerisms, costuming, makeup, and hairstyling certainly allow her to look the part.
As something of a behind-the-scenes biopic, “Blonde” dwells extensively on the ugly parts, reveling in a dark and depressing version of what Monroe’s existence might have been like. Here, the details are frequently ghastly, made more nightmarish with cinematographic choices that range from slow-motion and blurred shots, to various camera angles (including a speculum-cam of sorts), to colors and lighting (the use of black-and-white sequences is at first artistic, but eventually trifling), to music selections (some employed for harsh contrasts, others for modern eeriness, both aided by strident sound effects). There are a handful of typical biographical proceedings, but the bulk of the premise is Norma’s discomfort and disassociation from her alter ego, punctuated by sex and nudity and mistreatment. Some moments are powerful and profound, yet Dominik’s insistence on reiterating themes and repeating imagery only work to diminish their impact; for every thought-provoking observation, two or three additional ones suffocate the effectiveness.
In its efforts to abolish the glamorous myth of the world’s most iconic sex symbol, “Blonde” crafts a decidedly morbid vision. At times it’s eye-opening, but it’s hardly enjoyable. As it highlights the horrors of the Hollywood system (including its overwhelming control and its power imbalance) and the sickening downsides to celebrity, it rarely bothers with entertainment value, aside from de Armas’ engrossing performance. Several of the more engaging topics – from strained relationships to coerced abortions to salary disparities – are touched upon but discarded abruptly, interested only in cementing the notion that Monroe’s life was a perpetual hell, and not in presenting the whole story (or even minimal resolutions). Her various successes, though occasionally appearing in the background, are never prominent; even the brunt of the final act is essentially a drug-addled haze, muddying reality in a coincidental similarity to “Don’t Worry Darling.” Ultimately, a respectable movie exists somewhere within all the repetition and dawdling artistry (a nearly three-hour runtime is terribly unnecessary), but Dominik’s cut can’t manage to single that out, instead leaving a prolonged, unsatisfying fictionalization of all of Marilyn Monroe’s most unattractive details – and of the most unpleasant rumors. “I’ve been happy all my life.”
– The Massie Twins