Marilyn Monroe has been dead for almost 60 years, but there is still a kind of madness around her that remains. Just look at the frenzied discourse around “Blonde,” an adaptation of Joyce Carol Oates’ fictional portrait of the Hollywood star that has yet to be seen by the general public.
There was intrigue around its NC-17 rating and the reasons for its long delay in release (it was filmed before the pandemic). There was curiosity about its star, Ana de Armas, and her native Cuban accent slipping through in the trailer. Meanwhile, its director Andrew Dominik, who has been trying to make this film for well over a decade, was calling it a masterpiece.
“Blonde” got a rapturous reception at the Venice Film Festival earlier this month, but reactions from film critics have been divided. Some love Dominik’s treatment. Others have wondered if it is exploitative. The New Yorker even called it, “A grave disservice to the woman it purports to honor.” It is not dissimilar to the responses to Oates’ novel in 2000. Or even the discussion around the much-tamer “ My Week With Marilyn,” which got Michelle Williams an Oscar nomination for her performance. But they all invite questions about our own relationship with Monroe, what we owe her and what we still demand from her.
Dominik, for his part, has read many of the reviews. In some ways, he said, both the positive and negative reactions are indicative of its success. Like it or not, “Blonde,” which arrives on Netflix on Sept. 28, does not want you to feel good about what happened to Monroe.
“The film’s a horror film,” Dominik said earlier this week. “It’s supposed to be an absolute onslaught. It’s a howl of pain. It’s expression of rage.”
“Blonde” takes viewers on a surreal journey through the short life of Norma Jeane Baker, from her childhood with a single mother living with schizophrenia (Julianne Nicholson), to her superficial successes in Hollywood, as Marilyn Monroe. It looks at her marriages to baseball star Joe DiMaggio (Bobby Cannavale) and playwright Arthur Miller (Adrien Brody), her addiction, her mistreatment and assaults, her abortions, her miscarriage and her death, at 36, of a barbiturate overdose.
There are stunning recreations of iconic film moments, from “Gentleman Prefer Blondes” and “The Seven Year Itch,” and classic photos brought to life, but all are done with a twist. A glamourous red carpet turns into a lurid phantasmagoria of gaping, gawking jaws. The subway grate moment is a prelude to domestic abuse. Even a seemingly sweet photo of her and DiMaggio takes on a new meaning.
To Dominik, his film is the opposite of exploitation.
Exploitation is happily performing a song like “Diamonds are a Girl’s Best Friend” with a “wink and a nod,” he said. But, he shrugged, “People like to be offended.”
“The primary relationship in the film is between the viewer and her,” Dominik said. “I’ve never made a film that tells me more about the viewer than this one.”
What it is not, he said, is a commentary on Roe v. Wade, or about something as reductive as “daddy” issues, though Norma Jeane calls both of her husbands that. It’s about an unwanted child and a woman going through the industrial filmmaking process. And the real test for Dominik will come when the global Netflix audience gets to watch it.
It’s a moment a lot of people have been waiting for, but perhaps no one more so than de Armas, who finished work on “Blonde” back in 2019. Her raw and vulnerable performance has been widely praised, even in the more negative reviews.
It was a demanding nine-week shoot after a year of preparation, during which she was also working on other films. Her first day on set was in the actual apartment Norma Jeane lived in with her mother — a nightmare sequence in which she rescues a baby from the dresser drawer that she was kept in as an infant, as the place burns around her. Her second day on the set was her visit to her mother in the mental hospital, where she got to speak as Marilyn for the first time on camera. It was quite a way to break the ice, she said.
Though she’s not an actor who stays in character when the day is over, living with the emotions, the character, and filming in the places Marilyn lived, ate, worked and even died, it was “impossible not to feel heavy and sad,” she said. Even so, she counts “Blonde” as one of the best times she’s ever had on a set.
“I do trust what we did,” de Armas said. “I love this film.”
Everyone around her was stunned by the performance as well. Brody said he left the set his first day feeling like he’d actually worked with Monroe.
“She’s so iconic and it’s such a tall order for someone to interpret,” Brody said. “What she gave to be so vulnerable and so brave? It’s not something to be taken lightly.”
The paradox of Monroe is that no seems capable of honoring her in exactly the right way —at least according to everyone else. To worship her beauty and glamour is to deny her person. To take joy in her comedic skills is to ignore her depths and desire to be a serious actor. To ignore her trauma is naïve, but leaning into it is unpleasant. Though most people seem to agree that it was creepy for Hugh Hefner to boast about buying the crypt next to hers.
But the madness has lived on. This spring even saw two major Marilyn moments, first with Kim Kardashian wearing her crystal-embellished nude gown to the Met Gala, and then a week later when someone paid $195 million for Andy Warhol’s “Shot Sage Blue Marilyn, ” making it the most expensive work by a U.S. artist ever sold at auction.
“She’s a kind of rescue fantasy for a lot of people,” Dominik said. “You see that in some of the negative reactions to the film. It’s like they love Ana and they kind of hate the movie for putting Ana, putting the poor character through what she goes through. But I think that is an expression of the film’s success, in a way.”
He continued: “There’s something very challenging about her as a figure because she is a person who had everything that the media is constantly telling us is desirable. She was famous, beautiful. She had an amazing job. She dated the so-called dudes of her generation. And she killed herself. And so what is everybody running towards? Why are they all running towards that? It challenges our ideas of what constitutes a good life, of the American dream.”