Writing a decade after the tragic death of Norma Jeane Mortenson – better known as Marilyn Monroe – Elton John hit on a stark and terrible truth in the lyrics of his torch-song tribute ‘Candle in the Wind’: ‘Hollywood created a superstar, and pain was the price you paid. Even when you died, oh, the press still hounded you. All the papers had to say was that Marilyn was found in the nude.’
Jump-cut forward half a century and the price of Monroe’s pain continues to be banked in countless films, TV shows, books, podcasts and more. Australian-based, New Zealand-born director Andrew Dominik’s line-blurring biopic Blonde is the latest to cash in.
Let’s be clear: no biopic is ever entirely faithful to the truth, partly because the ‘truth’ is almost always unknowable. But the Chopper filmmaker’s reckoning is a particularly bitter pill to swallow.
There’s an unrelentingly grim focus on the collapse of Monroe’s too-short life and an almost pathological refusal to embrace even a moment of her successes. But let’s also be abundantly clear that whatever you make of the movie, his is not the original sin.
Author Joyce Carol Oates is the one who saw fit to forge a grotesquely salacious ‘reimagining’ of Monroe’s truth in her best-selling novel of the same name.
And so streaming giant Netflix has delivered a strange and unnerving chimera that splices real people in Monroe’s glittering orbit with heightened, often sordid details that are almost certainly untrue. As if somehow her trauma wasn’t dramatic enough?
It’s a twisted inversion of Ryan Murphy’s crimes in the equally off-putting Netflix show Hollywood. There Murphy waved a magic wand, transforming the fortunes of stars infamously dulled by the nastiest forces of Tinsel Town, in so doing demeaning the real struggles of actors Hattie McDaniel, Anna May Wong and Rock Hudson.
Blonde isn’t interested in happy endings. Only in exacerbating pain. Opening on a flashbulb strobe-lit recreation of the subway updraft dress scene from Billy Wilder’s The Seven Year Itch, it’s clear from the off that original thought will be at a bare minimum. While De Armas’ performance features flashes of brilliance, it’s mostly reduced to mimicry.
An imperfect vocal personification hampers, but it’s primarily down to Dominik’s interpretation of Oates’ novel. The screenplay allows Monroe infinitesimal agency and precious few interactions with other women.
When we are privy to her innermost thoughts, it’s usually via heinously clunky narration, as when the drunk and drugged star performs oral sex on the President under duress. Caspar Phillipson reprises his turn as JFK from Pablo Larraín’s infinitely superior Jackie.
If this scene wasn’t blunt enough, a TV in the background shows news footage of a phallic rocket launch and, for good measure, the destruction of the edifices of American democracy depicted in the 1956 B-movie Earth vs. the Flying Saucers. Just in case you missed the SUBTEXT here, Kennedy is hectored over the phone for his infidelities by a disembodied Hoover.
As with Oates’s novel, real people are rebadged with not-even-trying to be subtle codenames, including Monroe’s second and third husbands Joe DiMaggio and Arthur Miller as the Ex-Athlete and the Playwright.
An oddly subdued Bobby Cannavale plays the former as a pawn in a particularly porny subplot involving Australian Xavier Samuel and Canadian actor Evan Williams as Charlie Chaplin and Eddy Robinson. Mainlining scurrilous rumour, they’re depicted as a queer couple who have their merry way with Monroe and then dump her once she falls pregnant, only to blackmail Di Maggio with an envelope of incriminating pictures.
It may well be intended commentary on how Hollywood crushes outsiders and the period’s obsession with moustache twirlingly camp villains, but it’s far-fetched in the extreme and also throws them under the bus.
Adrien Brody is fine enough as Death of a Salesman writer Miller, but a sequence set on the beach with a pregnant-once-more Monroe is the nadir in a film that constantly bottom scrapes. It invents a horrendous miscarriage that’s an air of ugly farce thanks to a pratfall hammered home with a shoehorned segue to Monroe’s clumsy/careless speech from Some Like it Hot.
It’s both perverse and perplexing how the blame circles incessantly back to Monroe, with Dominik’s confused narrative swaying into the eddies of America’s current The Handmaid’s Tale made real moralising.
Blonde opens with heavy-handed flashbacks featuring Julianne Nicholson as Monroe’s mother Gladys. Painted as a danger to all around her, she first drives her young daughter (Lily Fisher) into an inferno consuming the Hollywood Hills and then attempts to drown her in the bath.
An almost Lynchian loop that continually drags us back to the chest of drawers we’re told doubled as a cot for the infant Monroe is one of the film’s few intriguing visual flourishes. At face value, it looks as if cinematographer Chayse Irvin offers an arrestingly impressive visual style. But it soon becomes apparent he’s simply fencing facsimiles of actual footage and photography, slavishly switching from black and white to grainy colour and playing with the aspect ratio to plagiarise reality, bringing new meaning to the term deep fake.
It’s particularly groansome when he deploys the distorted mouth effect from avowed Monroe fan Madonna’s ‘Drowned World / Substitute for Love’ video.
Beyond a beautiful score by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis and inspired, unsettling sound design from Leslie Shatz, everything here has had the nuance railroaded out of it. What Monroe endured was appalling, and monsters continue to proliferate in Hollywood, so it’s not beyond the pale to shine a light in these dark places, however much it makes us flinch. But Blonde offers only macabre titillation.
Perhaps the greatest sin of Dominik’s dirge is that it is insufferably dull. As Elton John understood, Monroe’s legend deserves far better.
US, 2022, R18+, 166 mins
Director: Andrew Dominik
Writer: Andrew Dominik
Producers: Dede Gardner, Jeremy Kleiner, Tracey Landon, Brad Pitt, Scott Robertson
Blonde is currently streaming on Netflix.