"Blonde" movie review 23/12/22
(Warning: spoilers ahead!)
It has been 3 months since Andrew Dominik’s film “Blonde” graced our streaming platforms and before watching it, I had a pretty good idea what to expect based on other people’s opinions. Inspired by Joyce Carol Oates’s Opus (where I managed to read all 737 pages despite nearly getting RSI in my wrists), the movie tracks Marilyn Monroe’s ill-fated life. From her abusive childhood from her mentally impaired mother (Gladys Mortensen), to being “exploited” (or lack of a better word) by Hollywood executives, to her failed marriages and her alleged affair with JFK, all while hoping to live a normal life, despite being trapped in her movie star persona that eventually destroyed her, it is hard to believe this is based on a real person’s life, although Oates has repeatedly mentioned that “Blonde” is on all accounts a work of fiction.
I was prepared to watch the movie with my eyes wide open, despite the negative press, and at first, there were parts at the start where I thought, “surely it’s not that bad” however as the film meandered on, I started asking myself “why does this movie keep drawing attention to her misery?” Surely a legend like herself did experience some moments of triumph (she was a poet, she was very well-read and even expressed sympathy towards those who were being interrogated during the McCarthy era as the book alluded to, which almost tarnished her career). Instead, Dominik chose to focus only on the negative aspects of Monroe’s career and character, while also taking on a voyeuristic perspective that reduces her as a victim, or at worst, a tramp.
Many times, we see Monroe (or Norma Jeane as she is addressed both in the book as well as the film), naked, complete with repeated close ups and tracking shots of her legs and well sculpted derriere while filming the billowing dress scene from “The seven year itch”, which could explain the continuous “male gaze” that haunted her for most of her life. With that said, it is this male gaze that doesn’t leave any room for Norma Jeane to show aspects of her life where she was more than just a sex symbol. Of course, I defend Dominik’s defence in saying that the film is not a “celebration” about Monroe’s life, and that surely we can all learn from this cautionary tale in the wake of the Me Too movement, however if you want to portray a real life person, you need to show all of that individual’s idiosyncrasies, or at least try to show a well-rounded version that audiences can connect with. But then what do you expect from a director who described the movie “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes” (a movie that catapulted Monroe to stardom) as a film about “Well Dressed Whores” which also begs the question, “how would this movie have carried out if it was directed by a woman?”
In terms of narrative structure, the storyline leaves too many gaps for the viewer to make sense out of Norma Jean’s character arc. The movie jumps straight from where Norma Jeane is dragged to the children’s home after her mother is institutionalised, to when she is posing for magazines, including the infamous “Miss Golden Dreams” pin up. It would have been interesting to see Norma Jeane’s trajectory from living at the orphanage to her first marriage at 15 years old, to her joining the war effort where she originally wanted to be a Nurse rather than a movie star. Now, that would have made some interesting character development!
Dominik also jumps straight from when Norma Jeane filmed “Some like it hot” (showing her various emotional breakdowns while on set) to her being carted around in a drug induced state to her tryst with the President revealing a very uncomfortable scene that doesn’t leave her or JFK’s legacy upstanding, all the while not referencing Monroe’s final film “The Misfits” which is regarded as her most powerful performance. Apparently while filming “The Misfits” Monroe continuously butted heads with director, John Huston, and wanted to portray the character of Roslyn as a more empowered woman (in the scene where Clark Gable’s character releases the horses, she insisted her character help free them) but for some reason, Dominik chooses not to focus on this, and instead diminishes Monroe as a beautiful caricature with daddy issues (don’t get me started on that old chestnut).
Despite what I have said, the film does have some merits. Ana de Armas does a commendable job playing Norma Jeane despite the limitations of the reductive screenplay. Her depiction shows a clear balance between fragility and stoicism while her mannerisms that encapsulates Monroe are very well intact. Some other stand out performances include Julianne Nicholson as Gladys, Lily Fisher as the young Norma Jeane, and Adrian Brody as the Playwright (aka Arthur Miller). Xavier Samuel also delivers a charismatic performance as Norma Jeane’s supposed lover, Cass Chaplain (son of movie legend, Charlie Chaplin) along with her other lover, Eddy Robinson Jnr played by Evan Williams who are referred to as “the Gemini” which the film focuses more than what is necessary. There was a lot of anticipation about the music score composed by Nick Cave (Australian music royalty), yet unfortunately there are parts where the film uses some cheesy 80s keyboard synths (The scene where the Gemini consummate their connection as a “Thropple”) which would have been more suited for a “Stranger Things” scene rather than a movie that is meant to portray the Golden age of Hollywood.
As one of the most highly anticipated films of 2022, unfortunately “Blonde” fails to deliver. In an interview, Oates defends the movie saying that it is “not a movie for everyone” and it certainly wasn’t a movie for me. Yes, Monroe was a tragic figure, but if you want to preserve her legacy then you need to portray her as someone who was more three dimensional, more contradictory and less predictable. She was depicted as the dumb blonde, but she was also very intuitive who wouldn’t finish a scene until it “felt right” because she was determined to be a fully trained actor (tutored by the great Method practitioner, Lee Strasberg) who never settled for second best.
And shouldn’t we have given her our best?
2 and a half stars out of 5