She’s been dead for 60 years, and we still won’t let her rest in peace.
Long after the end of her short and troubled life, our obsession with Marilyn Monroe continues, filling stores with merchandise from T-shirts to merlot. Filling bookshops and theaters, too. A quick and doubtless incomplete check shows more than 75 biographies to date and at least three dozen biopics. “Blonde,” the latest, opens Sept. 16 at Manhattan’s Paris Theater before streaming on Netflix beginning Sept. 28.
And despite this portrait’s nearly three-hour length, it’s also one of the sketchiest.
Technically, it isn’t a biopic but an adaptation of the novel by Joyce Carol Oates (already adapted once before for TV, as a 2001 miniseries). Most of the famous names are omitted or blurred (the rapacious mogul Darryl F. Zanuck becomes “Mr. Z”). But Marilyn Monroe is simply Marilyn Monroe, and this is clearly her story.
As if she were ever simply anything, or her story were ever clear.
Directed by Andrew Dominik, the film was controversial even before its release for casting Ana de Armas as the iconic actress and getting an NC-17 rating for its content. Some easily angered people mocked the idea of a Latina star playing the blond bombshell. Other quick-to-outrage observers clutched their pearls at the rating, a rare one that usually signals explicit content.
Both controversies turn out to be non-starters.
Bigots who assumed the Cuban actress would play Marilyn with some Ricky Ricardo accent may be disappointed to discover she’s perfectly capable of performing in unaccented English and with a decent approximation of the legend’s famously breathless delivery. (And, really, why did this choice bother them if generations of English actors playing Roman emperors and Egyptian pharaohs never did?)
And while de Armas is regularly topless in the film and there’s a fair amount of sex — itself shocking in this prudish movie age — none of it comes close to the unabashed pornography readily available on the internet. The one ménage-à-trois scene ends with artily blurred images and over-the-top visual metaphors (the edge of a bed turning into Niagara Falls). There’s a brief scene of presidential oral sex but de Armas’ hand and hair hide everything.
So why the NC-17? Well, there are two bizarrely graphic shots, closeups from inside the character’s vagina — certainly a first for me in 60 years of moviegoing. But they’re brief, and occur when Marilyn is undergoing abortions, and anyone who would find that even remotely erotic already has problems far deeper than anything this movie could cause.
No, my difficulties with “Blonde” aren’t really issues with de Armas, who is excellent, or with the film’s supposed assaults on decency. It was with its disregard for the truth, and disrespect for Marilyn herself.
Again, this an adaptation of a novel, not of a biography; annoying trivialities such as verified dates and details matter even less here than they do in those “inspired by a true story” fictions. But it’s not just that little facts — such as when a particular photo shoot was done, or what movie Marilyn was making while pregnant — are fudged. It’s that entire sequences are invented, while crucial moments in her life are skipped.
Did she really have wild three-ways with the sons of Charlie Chaplin and Edward G. Robinson (who then tried to blackmail Joe DiMaggio)? Did the White House have her kidnapped to a hospital so they could secretly abort JFK’s child? This is Infowars-level nonsense. (Weirdly, long-time conspiracy theories that may have some validity — about her death, and a possible D.C./Hollywood coverup — is the only gossip the film steers clear of.)
But as little regard as the film has for the plausible, it has less respect for Marilyn herself.
Our childhoods form us, and few people’s childhoods were as malformed as Marilyn Monroe’s. She was born in 1926 to Gladys Pearl Baker, an emotionally unstable single mother; although she tried to care for her daughter, whom she named Norma Jean, Baker eventually had to place her in a foster home.
Baker visited when she could, and mother and child were eventually, briefly reunited. But in 1934 Baker had a breakdown. She would spend the rest of her life in mental hospitals; her daughter would spend nearly 10 years in and out of orphanages and other people’s homes. She grew seriously withdrawn, and was sexually abused. She finally got married, just to escape. She was 16.
The marriage didn’t last. By 1945, she was working as a pin-up model. Small movie parts followed, and eventually a contract at Fox.
But “Blonde” goes directly from Marilyn’s arrival at the orphanage, at age 7, to her arrival at the studio. It does not mention the sexual abuse she suffered as a child. Her first five years in Hollywood, often spent bent over executives’ desks or “entertaining” their friends, are reduced to a single, albeit awful, #MeToo moment with a mogul. She gets her first good part — in 1950’s “All About Eve” — quickly, with her new name in place and her persona fully formed.
And that doesn’t just minimize her struggles. It fails to recognize how rooted her pain was in her abusive childhood, and how it made all the other, later horrors that much worse.
The movie does acknowledge her emotional neediness, but blames it on paternal abandonment (she calls both her husbands, Joe DiMaggio and Arthur Miller, “Daddy” — a detail that would be far more powerful if that childhood abuse by older men was acknowledged). And it dramatizes her long, slow slide into destruction, as she tries to dull her pain at being treated like “a piece of meat” (the apparent justification for that gynecological closeup).
We certainly see the car crash her life became. But we don’t see where things began to swerve out of control, even as the movie itself goes off the rails.
Dominik, whose films include “Killing Them Softly” and the fine “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford,” has a great visual sense and a refusal to compromise. Many of the images here — like the ravenous, movie-monster mouths of men at a premiere — are indelible. The recreations of Monroe’s films are meticulous. The music by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis is haunting. But the slow pace is self-indulgent, and the constant switches from black-and-white film to color are confusing. I’m not even going to discuss the talking fetus.
Far more consistently praiseworthy is de Armas. Yes, she is miscast, physically. Like most actresses who have tried to embody the idol, she doesn’t have the bombshell’s voluptuousness; dressed in the star’s classic, clinging fashions from “Gentleman Prefer Blondes” and “Some Like It Hot,” the disparity becomes even more apparent. But the hair and makeup are perfect. And the passion she brings to the part, the tremulous hesitations, the explosions of anger, are startling.
But where’s the rest of her character? Where’s the depth?
Like the men around her — the ones who snicker when she drops a reference to Dostoevsky — the film underestimates Marilyn, who was never the dumb blonde she played. Her three marriages, though brief and unhappy, were practical and purposeful at the time (her first husband gave her an escape; DiMaggio an understanding of what fame really meant; Miller, intellectual validation). She took control of her own career, and cultivated her own image. Victimized she surely was — but she was never simply a victim.
Then again, perhaps no one movie could contain Marilyn Monroe. Certainly no one movie could explain her. She may have looked like a dessert, with hair as weightless as a meringue and skin as warm and rich as fresh cream, but there was something strong and substantial to her, too. She may have seemed like a helpless child, at first, but her core was really maternal — forgiving, comforting, accepting. Her hold on audiences went far deeper than a whisper and a wink and a wiggle.
And “Blonde” never gets below the surface.
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