Marilyn Monroe is one of the most documented movie stars of all time. Her time on earth inspired hundreds of thousands of posthumous column inches, hundreds of books and a slew of biopics and documentaries, the first, narrated by Rock Hudson, coming out less than a year after her 1962 death. There is a Broadway musical and even videos games bearing her likeness.
It begs the question, What is left to learn about this Hollywood icon in 2022?
If a new movie, “Blonde,” with Ana de Armas as the “Some Like It Hot” star, and now playing in theatres before it moves to Netflix, is any indication, not much.
The film begins its 166-minute journey with Norma Jeane Mortenson’s (Lily Fisher) unstable single mother Gladys (Julianne Nicholson) gifting her child with a surprise, a battered photograph of a prosperous looking man in a fedora. That’s your father, the little girl is told. He is a very important man.
Thus begins, according to director Andrew Dominik, a Freudian lifelong search for a father figure, that would see her cycle through famous husbands like Joe DiMaggio (Bobby Cannavale) and Arthur Miller (Adrien Brody), both of whom she calls daddy in an annoying baby-doll voice.
In Hollywood, now known as Marilyn Monroe, she makes a splash working as a model before being sucked into the studio system in a flurry of casting couches, emotional auditions and the creation of her bombshell image, a look that sold movie tickets but didn’t resonate with Norma Jeane. “She is pretty I guess,” she says, “but it isn’t me.” At one point, she yells, “Marilyn is not here,” during a contentious call with her studio boss.
As her life spirals downward, accelerated by alcohol and pills, depression caused by everyone’s inability to look past the blonde dye job to see who she really is and career dissatisfaction, her life and career begin to fall apart. “She is not a well girl,” her make-up artist (Toby Huss) says. “If she could be, she would be.”
“Blonde” is an art house biography. Fragmented and often impressionistic, it attempts to take you, not just inside Marilyn’s life, but also her psyche and body. Dominik’s camera does offer never-before-seen views of Monroe, from the considerable nudity to literally travelling inside her womb.
But to what effect? The insights into Monroe’s life and career, that she was, essentially, two sides of the same coin, Norma Jean on one, Marilyn on the other, aren’t original, even if their daring presentation is. The film’s advertising tagline, “Watched by all, seen by none,” sums up most of the film’s message in a much more powerful, and mercifully succinct, way.
Dominik does create memorable moments, a nightmarish red carpet walk at the “Some Like It Hot” premier, for instance, visually conjures up the horror Marilyn must have felt as a reluctant superstar constantly in demand by people who wanted to use her. Less successful is footage of a missile launch to emulate the goings-on during a sex scene—most definitely not love scene—between Marilyn and JFK (Caspar Phillipson).
Dominik, who adapted the script from the fictionalized and controversial Joyce Carol Oates novel “Blonde,” does craft some interesting dialogue to bring Marilyn’s state-of-mind in focus—”Marilyn doesn’t have any well-being” she says, “she has a career.”—but he also includes some absolute clunkers, like the unintentionally hilarious, “I like to watch myself in the mirror. I like to watch myself on the toilet,” uttered by Edward G. Robinson Jr. (Evan Williams). That is “Mommy Dearest” level writing.
As Marilyn, de Armas is fearless, and does inhabit Monroe’s vulnerability and intellect, and looks enough like her to complete the illusion. My only quibble is that sometimes de Armas sounds like Marilyn and sometimes sounds like Marilyn doing an impression of de Armas.
I’m sure “Blonde” won’t be the last Marilyn Monroe biopic, but it will be the last one I devote three hours to watching. Not because it is definitive, but because I think that everything that needs to be said about the later movie star has already been said.