Religion & Liberty Online

Blonde at Its Best Highlights What’s Worst

(Image credit: Netflix)

This overlong film’s best moments are the simple and the universally understandable. Too bad they were few and far between.

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Director Andrew Dominik’s Blonde, now available on Netflix and starring Ana de Armas as “blonde bombshell” Marilyn Monroe, is a long film. Not merely because of its almost three-hour run time but also because it feels long when you’re watching it. The latest attempt to explore Monroe’s complex life of stardom, abuse, and mental illness attempts to do a lot with its long takes and drawn-out plot devices, but still leaves the viewer with a poignant question: Is that it?

The first approximately two hours comprise most of the film’s “longness.” Blonde opens with a long establishing shot of Norma Jean Mortenson (Monroe was a stage name) being driven into the middle of a fire in California’s Hollywood Hills by her mentally unstable mother, Gladys. Shortly after the two are directed to leave, Gladys attempts to drown the seven-year-old Norma Jean in a bathtub as offscreen narration explains Gladys’ belief that her daughter caused her husband to leave. The child is then sent to an orphanage. Things don’t get better from there.

From the minute Norma Jean begins a career as a pin-up girl named Marilyn Monroe, the film begins its graphic depiction of the exploitative nature of Hollywood. Monroe is raped by Darryl Zanuck, the producer of scores of Hollywood classics ranging from The Grapes of Wrath to The Longest Day and reputedly the inventor of “the casting couch.” Shortly after, she gets a role in a film as a result of yet another casting director’s being more interested in ogling her body than her acting abilities. The sexualization continues with Monroe’s polyamorous relationship with Charles Chaplin (the famous Chaplin’s son) and Edward G. Robinson Jr., even as her stardom beginning to skyrocket, the lines between her real self and the persona she displays in front of the cameras beginning to blur.

It’s as Norma Jean grows into the Marilyn Monroe we all know (or think we know) that we get to see the brilliance of actress Ana de Armas, the true highlight of the film. Criticisms of de Armas’ Spanish accent fall by the wayside—her accent is perceptible but not to the point that it detracts from the plot, especially when one considers the complicated cinematic principle that it’s not actually Marilyn Monroe talking. De Armas absolutely disappears into the role, painting a moving picture of the two “sides” of Monroe’s character—both the mentally unstable, trauma-laden Norma Jean and the primped, polished film star. The audience can easily tell not only which persona is in the room but also the extent to which de Armas blends the two personas later in the movie as a way of showing Monroe’s heightened instability. De Armas fulfils any good film’s primary goal—show, don’t tell—with nuance and artistic grace throughout the runtime.

Unfortunately, not everyone involved in the making of the film expressed de Armas’ ability to show not tell, and the main culprits in that regard are the writers. Blonde is not a particularly well-written film: The plot feels unbalanced and routinely devolves into dialogue and interactions that fail to orient the viewer as to what’s actually happening. The first sex scene, with Chaplin, resembles a cross between a fever dream and a Salvador Dali painting. While there may be no truly non-awkward way to shoot a sex scene, Monroe’s bed suddenly turning into a waterfall (the scene happens in the lead up to her role in Niagara) definitely highlights her mental instability, but not in a way that evokes pity or reflection.

This gets to another persistent problem with Blonde: The attempts to create some kind of moral core to the character result in the viewer’s being treated to too-on-the-nose dialogue. After the persistence-of-Niagara sex scene, Monroe realizes she’s pregnant with Chaplin’s child and elects to have an abortion out of worry that the child will inherit her mother’s mental instability. Although she changes her mind while on the table for the abortion, it’s too late to stop the procedure and the baby dies.

Much press attention has been drawn to Blonde’s problematic portrayal of abortion. Again, the heavy-handedness of the dialogue is one issue. At a film premiere after the abortion, Marilyn looks out at a sea of reporters and admirers and asks herself, tears streaming down her face, “For this you killed your baby?” This doesn’t make the movie an anti-abortion fever dream as Vanity Fair claims, but something much worse: confusing. If, as director Dominik claims, Blonde isn’t a pro-life film, then this self-doubt over the morality of the act feels weirdly misplaced. If it is in fact a pro-life film, the rhetorical question feels eye-rollingly unsubtle, more suited to a Pureflix film than something that premiered at the Venice Film Festival.

Nevertheless, Blonde could be considered a kind of pro-life film, but it’s not making a particularly cogent case in its treatment of the abortion issue. Showing the real effects of miscarriages (Monroe had several throughout her life, which the movie addresses) on the psyche is important and effective. Inserting an abortive procedure into the life of a celebrity who quite possibly never had one, however, feels like a cheap, manufactured controversy that serves to further confine Monroe’s full personhood to her reproductive capabilities.

Monroe’s spouses only worsen the fleeting nature of the actress’ emotional connections. While her first and little-known marriage to her next-door neighbor Jim Dougherty doesn’t show up in Blonde, her marriage to Yankee star Joe DiMaggio does—a sincere and mature relationship occurring after Monroe’s early flings with Chaplin and Robinson. Bobby Cannavale turns in a solid performance as DiMaggio in the depiction of a marriage that starts well but ends in divorce after the athlete indulges in a string of drunken attacks instigated by everything from a blackmail attempt by Chaplin and Robinson juniors to the famous subway-grate scene in The Seven Year Itch. After leaving DiMaggio, Monroe falls into the arms of her third and last husband—playwright Arthur Miller, a kind and seemingly good-hearted man played by Adrien Brody.

Past the midpoint of the film, when Monroe gets pregnant by Miller, her fetus asks her, “You won’t hurt me this time, will you?” When Marilyn explains her regret over her previous abortion, the baby tells her: “Yes, you meant to. It was your decision.” The talking fetus is yet another reminder of the biggest issue with Blonde—the movie simply can’t show not tell the moral lessons it wants the audience to take away, whether it’s her fling with Chaplin or her rape at the hands of John F. Kennedy, leaving us with nothing more compelling than a talking fetus berating its mother as a cheap CGI substitute for moral depth.

The movie wants to humanize Marilyn Monroe and make her inner life the subject of our own reflection, but it can’t provide any meaningful points of reference for the audience beyond Monroe’s body, which is portrayed in typically exploitative fashion. Her mind is constantly shifting focus, the sign of her intensifying mental instability, leaving us unable to grasp any sense of a real her. This is an issue that could perhaps have been resolved by giving more life context to the various supporting characters Monroe interacts with, but the only consistently-referenced side character throughout the movie is Monroe’s father, whom we never meet or get the chance to care about as a real person.

In addition to de Armas’ exceptional performance, the movie has one other big positive—with the exception of that aforementioned waterfall sex scene, the cinematography is extremely well done. As the movie nears its end, the dialogue dwindles, allowing the audience to find meaning in the excellent camera work that highlights the loneliness of Monroe’s later days. One particular scene, where Monroe is looking for a tip to give a delivery man, searching in vain throughout her house in a desire to do one singular good deed, is perhaps the most well-crafted bit of direction in the movie. The scene contains zero dialogue and simply shows us the tragedy of a woman who had money and fame but never truly wanted anything more than to do the right thing by herself and others. By the time she arrives with the money, the delivery man is long gone. It’s a brilliant shot, and the only downside is that it’s the most meaningful scene in a movie that runs almost three hours and was budgeted at $22 million. The scene depicting her death from barbiturates is similarly impactful, containing almost no words and concluding the film with a long fade to black, looking up at her body from the floor of her bedroom.

Blonde’s greatest assets are de Armas and the fanciful camera work, and for the few times when that’s all that’s onscreen, in near silence, the movie’s potential for greatness shines through. Overly literal and at times hackneyed storytelling and the attempt to manufacture controversy for its own sake relegate this movie to just that: potential. The filmmakers take much of the Joyce Carol Oates novel upon which it’s based as mere fact. Perhaps if they had been more skeptical, a more gracious depiction of Monroe’s life and trials would have been forthcoming.

In a twist of irony in a biopic of a megastar, the only meaningful moments in the film are the simple and the universally understandable—the dark moments that showcase the hopelessness of a tormented woman who was victimized by so many, from her mother to her coworkers to her lovers. It would have been nice if Blonde hadn’t added to the victimization.

Isaac Willour

Isaac Willour is a journalist currently reporting on American politics and higher education. His work has been published in a plethora of outlets, including the Christian Post, The Dispatch, the Wall Street Journal, and National Review, as well as interviews for New York Times Opinion and the American Enterprise Institute. He studies political science at Grove City College. He can be found on Twitter @IsaacWillour.