Marilyn Monroe is such a well-covered tragic figure, especially for the obvious dichotomy between her sex goddesshood and purer Norma Jeane Mortenson persona, that I had little interest in seeing the latest fictionalization of her, Blonde, until my girlfriend said I would appreciate its shockingly — for Hollywoke — pro-life message. A quick scan of the usual media suspects going berserk supported Cindy and piqued my curiosity. “Is the New Marilyn Monroe Movie an Antiabortion Fever Dream?”, inquired a Vanity Fair headline. The Hollywood Reporter cited a Planned Parenthood wail: “It is a shame that the creators of Blonde chose to contribute to anti-abortion propaganda and stigmatize people’s health care decisions instead.”
If a righteous message were enough to make a good film, Blonde would rank high in the pantheon. Unfortunately, writer-director Andrew Dominik falls short on the rest of his task — though certainly not his casting. Unlike the previous Marilyn Monroe biographical picture, 2011’s My Week with Marilyn, starring the plain Michelle Williams as the ultimate screen siren, Cuban ex-Bond girl Ana de Armas (totally wasted in the Daniel Craig 007 embarrassment No Time to Die) does Marilyn full justice with both her physical beauty and performance. De Armas imbues Marilyn with inner pathos, making you feel for her over the numerous bumps in the filmmaking, like an extremely overlong running time — even for many scenes — and pretentious black-and-white cinematography.
What is it about Hollywood history that inspires such filmmaking self-indulgences (see David Fincher’s Mank)? It’s as if the auteurs distrust the epic value of the industry’s past and feel they must give it an artificial dark veneer. The irony is that this Monroe story includes some of the greatest, most economical film geniuses of all time: Joseph L. Mankiewicz (All About Eve), Howard Hawks (Gentlemen Prefer Blondes), and Billy Wilder (The Seven Year Itch, Some Like it Hot), all of whom would be repelled by Dominik’s self-indulgence on their star.
Nowhere is this more annoying than in shots featuring the excellent actor Bobby Cannavale (also Cuban) as Joe DiMaggio, shown always in shadow like a menacing figure. DiMaggio was by all accounts a good man who loved, respected, and married Marilyn, and, at the time, was more famous and beloved than she. Perhaps because Dominik chose to depict him in a less flattering light.
It’s a real shame because the most powerful scenes in Blonde are in color and effectively brief. The first is a brutal early audition in which Marilyn emotionally reads from the script. The producer wordlessly moves behind her and unzips her dress — and she silently takes it, knowing it is the price for the part. The others are the glorious views of Marilyn’s unborn babies in the womb and her radiant joy as a result. This makes the termination of her first child all the more painful, hence the triggering of the woke critics.
But before the Hollywood portion, we must endure an interminably slow, stylized, and, yes, black-and-white nightmare of Marilyn’s mother — effectively played by Julianne Nicholson — tormenting, and ultimately threatening to kill, young Marilyn, an equally fine Lily Fisher. Her reason is that Marilyn’s biological father left her when the child was born, for which she blames Marilyn. Dominik maintains this psychology 101 cliche for Marilyn for the rest of the film, first with a “talking” photograph of her dad, then by her calling her lovers “daddy,” and later by her getting mysterious letters from someone claiming to be him.
She has even worse luck with her men, like bisexual weirdo Cass Chaplin, son of Charlie, pedestrianly played by Xavier Samuel. Here again, the most riveting bit comes not in an artsy lovemaking sequence but in the trailer for Niagara, substituting de Armas for the real Marilyn against spectacular shots of Niagara Falls and brilliant wording: “A raging torrent of emotion — And that even nature can’t control. PASSIONS that can sweep a man to the top of the world! Or send him crashing to rock bottom! NIAGARA AND MARILYN MONROE! THE TWO MOST ELECTRIFYING SITES IN THE WORLD!”
In one non-sequitur, DiMaggio strikes Marilyn after he comes across pornographic photos of her. He then insists that she demand better roles — even though the pictures were taken before she became a star. Marilyn soon lands the key role in The Seven Year Itch, a prestigious film based on a Broadway hit, adapted by one of the greatest directors in the business — and DiMaggio loses it because of the street grate skirt-lifting scene that became one of the most iconic of all time.
Arthur Miller, well played by Adrien Brody, fares better than DiMaggio. But his falling for Marilyn is so contrived, Miller would never have written it, unlike Dominik. Over dinner, Marilyn tells Miller how the protagonist of his new play, Magda, inspired by his lost love, reminds her of Masha in Chekhov’s Three Sisters. She suggests that the play’s Magda can’t read. This comes as a staggering revelation to Miller, as if that little deficiency of his old flame would have escaped a writer like him.
Then there’s John F. Kennedy. In a transparently repulsive, almost surreal sequence, Marilyn is flown to Washington basically to service the president — absurdly on the phone with J. Edgar Hoover, warning him about his womanizing — then gets shipped back to Los Angeles. Less time with her mother and father and more on how she got into that mess would have greatly helped the movie. Marilyn Monroe deserves better. At least with Ana de Armas, she got it.