What does the world owe Marilyn Monroe?
Some people might say “nothing.” They’ll argue that Monroe was a rich and famous movie star adored by millions, and that’s enough. Her comedic and dramatic skills, clever use of her beauty on screen, and business acumen will be discounted. They’ll shrug at her life’s difficulties and their role in her untimely death in 1962. For some, Monroe was nothing more than an image to lust after and criticize. Given the enduring legacy of said image and our expanded cultural language and context, now seems like the right time to critically and thoughtfully reconsider Monroe and her life.
Blonde is not that kind of film.
Directed and written by Andrew Dominik, Blonde adapts Joyce Carol Oates’ novel, a dense and fictionalized account of Marilyn Monroe’s life. With Ana de Armas as the titular blonde, the film covers important moments in her life, framed mainly by her intimate relationships with men. We see her fictional polyamorous relationship with the sons of Edward G. Robinson and Charlie Chaplin and her marriages to baseball legend Joe DiMaggio (Bobby Cannavale) and prolific playwright Arthur Miller (Adrien Brody). And then, of course, there is her infamous dalliance with President John F. Kennedy (Caspar Phillipson). With Oates’ book and Monroe’s indelible imagery as guides, Dominik imagines the path that ended with Monroe naked and lifeless in her bedroom at age 36.
Dominik’s imagination is limited by one word: “trauma.” Blonde is a story of a perpetually abused woman at the expense of everything else. Dominik’s narrow scope finds everyone harming Marilyn Monroe: her mentally ill mother, lovers, husbands, film studio executives, and the leader of the free world. Even the mailman unintentionally hurts her. There is little narrative space for anything that isn’t pain.
Whatever its mode – betrayals of confidence, physical assault, rape – the pain is constant and excessive. In a twisted bit of irony, Blonde’s abuses aren’t as explicit as its NC-17 rating suggests. (The scene that likely pushed the film past the line depicts a sexual assault by the president turned into a vulgar display for an imaginary theater audience.) There is lots of nudity, but Dominik doesn’t portray the actual violence. You might think it is an example of his restraint if the rest of the film didn’t immediately undercut that theory.
Even without explicit violence, Blonde finds several other ways to debase Monroe. The film has a disturbing, egregious fixation on her womb. It also grounds itself in her pregnancy struggles, depicting three pregnancies, two of which end in abortion and one in miscarriage. Dominik stages Monroe’s abortions as hysterical fever dreams, graphically depicting both procedures. He also haunts Monroe with a literal unborn fetus in vitro that chastises her for aborting their sibling. (Pointedly, Dominik omits Monroe’s struggles with endometriosis, a significant point in the novel.)
The insinuated and graphic violations against Marilyn Monroe achieve their intended effect. They are deeply uncomfortable and devastating to watch. However, the protracted barrage leaves you numb as it repeatedly hammers home the point. What it refuses to do is engage Monroe’s identity outside of her trauma. The film has a stunning and frankly disqualifying lack of interest in her: her thoughts, feelings, or reactions to her abuses. It doesn’t answer the questions or theories it presents, like her desire to be a mother or the ambition behind her studies at the Actor’s Studio. Dominik’s key insight is that “Marilyn Monroe” is a studio creation. It’s laughable because every star of that time was a studio creation. Even if it weren’t, the film doesn’t provide a baseline of who Norma Jeane might’ve been in the first place.
Dominik’s lack of curiosity is frustrating because he occasionally stumbles on potentially compelling points about Monroe. Blonde’s most redeeming narrative thread is Monroe’s fictional affair with Edward G. Robinson Jr. and Cass Chaplin. It is a fascinating, sexy, and intriguingly modern connection that offers moments of genuine joy and signals Monroe’s forward-thinking stance on love and identity.
Tangentially connected to that union is a woefully brief look at the negotiations behind Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. In full movie businesswoman mode, Monroe pushes back on the studio’s attempts to underpay her. Her pregnancy adds dimension to her fight, as if her child inspired her to advocate for herself. Her relationship with Arthur Miller highlights her intellectual interests, with the two connecting over her deep reading of his play. Any fuller exploration of those stories would’ve added emotional heft and resonance to Monroe’s victimization. Every time the film gets close, it re-centers the narrative around exploitative trauma.
Blonde is about image above all else, from its depiction of Monroe to its visual style. Dominik painstakingly recreates Monroe’s iconic filmography and photography, from All About Eve to The Seven-Year Itch. The scenes are faithfully well-done, nearly indistinguishable from the original. His directorial choices also take cues from the Old Hollywood flair, with a highly stylized, sometimes dream-like visual language and sound. He toys with perspective and atmosphere, switching between full color, sepia, and black-and-white tones to emphasize Monroe as a modern fable.
It is striking on the surface but doesn’t hold up to scrutiny. The recreated scenes have little behind them, no peek behind the scenes or if and how Monroe’s abuses impacted her work (save for one scene where she goes on a self-harming tirade). Dominik’s directorial choices don’t follow a clear, consistent logic either. In some cases, they further infantilize and victimize Monroe.
Given what Blonde puts her through, Ana de Armas deserves much praise for what she accomplishes. She certainly looks the part, and exudes a comparably sensual, intriguing, and thoughtful screen presence. (Hers is one of the recent Hollywood biopic castings that makes sense.) In Blonde, she fully commits to Dominik’s interpretation. De Armas captures Monroe’s child-like innocence and adult mania with physical abandon and fully realizes the breathy, sexually charged persona many are familiar with. Unfortunately, Dominik leaves her with few notes to play. She is largely stuck as the traumatized victim, with a sorrowful stare adorned with fresh, beautiful tears. Her strengths, which would’ve served a Marilyn Monroe performance well, like her spirit and deep emotional intelligence, are buried beneath heaps of darkness. When she gets to act beyond the pain, like in the recreated scenes and the glimpses of contentment, de Armas truly sparkles.
To be clear, Blonde is a work of fiction, and, as such, proximity to reality isn’t required. The film isn’t obligated to show everything Marilyn Monroe did or was in real life. It is a waste, however, for this film to offer nothing insightful about Monroe, even a fictionalized one. Blonde being fiction should be a freedom for Dominik to craft a fully-formed person of any kind. His Monroe didn’t need to be a saint or demon or something in between, but she needed to be someone. The Marilyn Monroe in Blonde is just a collection of moving images stripped of basic humanity and empathy. In the film, she exists merely as a cipher for Hollywood’s worst cruelties.
But here is where reality rears its ugly head. Everyone is intimately familiar with Hollywood’s worst cruelties, done to Marilyn Monroe and countless other women in the industry. Marilyn Monroe as a cipher is only helpful and compelling if you haven’t been paying attention for the last 60 years. Otherwise, Blonde is just more exploitation of an endlessly exploited woman, this time under the guise of fiction. It’s not only reductive, but pointless.
Even if you believe that the world doesn’t owe Marilyn Monroe anything, she deserves at least more than that.