A few moths ago, my neighbours’ children came over to bake some cookies with me. While the cookies were in the oven, the older one noticed my coffee table book about the legends of Hollywood. She flipped it open and started asking me what I knew about each of the people on the pages. When she got to Marilyn Monroe, I said that Marilyn was beautiful, smart though she played dumb, and talented but that she died very young. The kids wanted to know more about her so I played them the YouTube clip of Marilyn singing “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend” from GENTLEMEN PREFER BLONDES. They were mesmerized and they wanted to watch it again and again. Such was the star power of Marilyn Monroe. A new generation of fans was born.
The new movie, BLONDE, looks at Marilyn’s (played by Ana de Armas, NO TIME TO DIE; KNIVES OUT), or perhaps Norma Jeane Baker’s would be more accurate, brief life, from the time she was a young girl living with her unwed mother, Gladys (Julianne Nicholson, I, TONYA; AUGUST: OSAGE COUNTY) on the fringes of Hollywood to her tragic death at age 36. Told through a series of vignettes, BLONDE plays like a fever dream, much like last year’s SPENCER is, except this one is far darker, especially as Norma Jeane’s mental health goes into a tailspin while her dependency on painkillers grows.
Based on the 2000 novel of the same name by Joyce Carol Oates, the story mixes fact with speculation, centering around Norma Jeane’s lifelong desire to find and seek approval from her father, a man she only knew from a photograph her mother showed her. (Whether that was indeed her father or just a random actor’s headshot is still up for debate.) While Marilyn’s singing of “Happy Birthday” to then president John F. Kennedy is now legendary and the nature of their relationship is still tabloid fodder even today, BLONDE posits that JFK wasn’t all that different from the studio moguls and many other men in Marilyn’s life in how they treated her. Also speculatory, is her relationship with Hollywood royalty, Charles “Cass” Chaplin Jr. (Xavier Samuel, ELVIS) and Edward “Eddy” Robinson Jr. (Evan Williams). The pair, whom Oates implies were bisexual, seemed to truly love and care for her but Hollywood would not accept Marilyn being in such a non-traditional relationship and she was forced to end it. Too bad there is no evidence to support this position save for a reference in Chaplin’s book that he knew her because the men have fascinating stories and I’m amazed that no one has ever covered them in film before. Like Marilyn, both were abandoned by their fathers, both married multiple times and both died very young.
While the film covers Norma Jeane’s seminal moments, such as her short-lived marriage to baseball legend Joe DiMaggio (played by Bobby Cannavale, the ANT-MAN films) and her subsequent marriage to Arthur Miller (Adrien Brody, THE FRENCH DISPATCH, THE PIANIST), who are only referred to here as “The Ex-Athlete” and “The Playwright” respectively, director-screenwriter Andrew Dominik (THE ASSASSINATION OF JESSE JAMES BY THE COWARD ROBERT FORD) also recreates some of Marilyn’s most memorable scenes from GENTLEMEN PREFER BLONDES, THE SEVEN YEAR ITCH and SOME LIKE IT HOT except this is Norma’s nightmare on the screen and it’s like nothing we’ve seen before. It makes for some challenging and, dare I say, uncomfortable, viewing, and that is the big problem with this film. BLONDE is hard work and many people will find it a 2-3/4 hour joyless slog.
Fortunately, de Armas saves the project from going off the rails. Forget all that Internet chatter you may have heard about the actress’ voice not sounding like Marilyn’s. De Armas is fabulous and deserving of an Oscar nomination. When she turns on the megawatt smile, de Armas becomes Marilyn. The actress also bares quite a bit of skin and more here, making BLONDE’s NC-17 rating — a first for Netflix — well-earned. It’s worth noting that the costumes by Jennifer Johnson (I, TONYA) are impeccable as she deftly recreates some of Marilyn’s iconic wardrobe from both on- and off-screen.
Many people have taken the film to task for its reinterpretation of events but BLONDE is not supposed to be a straight-up biopic. If you can accept that this is historical fiction, BLONDE offers a fascinating though difficult look at the woman who, 60 years after her death, still has millions of fans around the world… including two young ones in Hong Kong.
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