Movies

What Netflix’s Marilyn Monroe Biopic Misses About the Movie Star

The NC-17 Blonde, starring Ana de Armas, spends so much time pitying the actress that it fails to capture what made us care about her.

De Armas looks so much like Monroe that you have to look closely to realize it's De Armas. In her platinum-blonde hair and some underclothes in a black-and-white still, she leans forward to get zipped up as an older and stouter woman puts her back into it behind her.
Ana de Armas as Marilyn Monroe in Blonde. Netflix

Even in 2022, 60 years out from Marilyn Monroe’s death from a barbiturate overdose, it seems no one can resist trying to buy her, to be her, to use whatever means they can to grab a piece of her for themselves. Earlier this year, in an act of breathtaking crassness, Kim Kardashian insisted on wearing (and allegedly damaging) the historic dress Monroe wore while singing “Happy Birthday” to President Kennedy in 1962. When Playboy publisher Hugh Hefner died in 2017, he ghoulishly arranged to buy a graveyard plot next to Monroe’s, presumably so he could lech on her for eternity. Even among the non-famous, the global trade in Monroe memorabilia—the keychains, calendars, posters, and Pinterest pages that circulate the star’s familiar yet somehow infinitely rewatchable image—ensures that she is a commodity before she is a person, or rather, that we can only experience her personhood through her commodification.

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The irony built into this dynamic—the more Monroe’s fans try to reach the “real” Marilyn behind the image, the further they push her away—is hardly news. Even during her own life, the tragedy of her isolation within the fortress of her own fame and beauty made up a key part of her myth. She, or a troubled figure based closely on her, was the subject of a 1958 quasi-biopic called The Goddess and, later, the inspiration for the character she played in The Misfits, written by her then-husband Arthur Miller. Since her death a whole cottage industry of Marilynian re-imaginings has sprung up: Miller’s semi-autobiographical 1964 play After the Fall, Norman Mailer’s and Gloria Steinem’s book-length essays on the enduring power of the Monroe legend, and more not-quite-biopic movie versions of her life. In Nicolas Roeg’s 1985 drama Insignificance, Theresa Russell played an intellectually curious Monroe in an all-night hotel-room conversation with Joe DiMaggio, Senator Joseph McCarthy, and Albert Einstein. In 2011’s My Week with Marilyn, based on the memoirs by a young production assistant who worked with Monroe on the set of The Prince and the Showgirl, Michelle Williams brought her considerable talent and intellect to embodying a frustratingly slight version of the actress.

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Now, in perhaps the closest thing Monroe has gotten to a full biographical screen treatment—albeit one based on a Joyce Carol Oates bestseller that the production notes redundantly qualify as a “fictional novel”—Andrew Dominik, director of the Australian action classic Chopper and the arthouse Western The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, gives us Blonde, with the Cuban-born Spanish star Ana de Armas in the role of a transfixingly hyperreal Monroe. (The movie opens in select theaters this weekend before streaming on Netflix on Sept. 28.) Blonde’s most lasting impression is the transformation of de Armas into a note-perfect facsimile of the actress: the high, breathy voice; the mobile, childlike features; the simultaneous impression of vulnerable openness and near-dissociative detachment. Working with state-of-the-art makeup and costume designers—no prosthetics or digital effects were used—de Armas gives us what amounts to a kind of Marilyn Monroe deepfake, bringing moments we’re used to seeing only as still images into three-dimensional life. It’s an astonishing feat of performance that, sadly, feels set adrift in a hollow and dramatically inert movie that disserves both the actor and the character she plays.

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“Where does dreaming end and madness begin?” asks de Armas’ Monroe in one of the fragments of voiceover that tie together Blonde’s series of episodic vignettes. Who knows, but I can tell you where me getting mad at this movie began: about 10 minutes in, when it became clear that all of the protagonist’s myriad mental-health issues as an adult were going to be attributed to one formative traumatic event in her childhood. In Blonde’s telling, this is the abandonment of the young Norma Jeane Baker by her father and the subsequent insistence on the part of her delusional mother (Julianne Nicholson) that her father, glimpsed only once in the form of a portrait hanging on a cracked wall, is a Hollywood bigwig who will one day come back to claim his beloved daughter. For the rest of the movie, Monroe’s lost-father complex is hammered home as if with a cartoon mallet: She calls both the husbands we meet in the course of the movie “Daddy,” and up to her dying moment continues to envision the portrait coming alive to gaze on her with love. It may well be true that daddy issues were a huge driver of Monroe’s lifelong struggles with self-worth, but there is limited dramatic payoff in watching a parade of thinly developed, often nameless male characters line up to abuse and exploit her.

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The real Norma Jeane grew up in a series of households, first bounced around among various female relatives, including a grandmother who was also mentally ill, and later cycled through a series of foster homes where she was sometimes beaten and molested. It was an awful childhood, to be sure, but one formed by a multiplicity of disappointing relationships with both male and female parental figures. This movie’s opening section, with the seven-year-old Norma (Lily Fisher) being terrorized and at one point nearly drowned by an alcoholic and frighteningly unstable mother, accomplishes its aims on a visceral level: It’s impossible not to feel sorry and frightened for the confused, affection-starved little girl. But this first chapter also establishes a pattern that by midway through the movie becomes suffocating: From her Norma Jeane days onward, Monroe is seen as little more than a victim, a hapless rag doll deprived of any real agency. Blonde captures her suffering, yes, but rarely her keen observational intelligence and almost never the sense of humor that was one of her defining traits onscreen. The persona the actress often referred to in private in the third person as “her” was not only glamorous, fascinating, and sexy—she was all those things to a degree that was absurd, a fact nearly all of Monroe’s best performances playfully emphasized. De Armas’ performance is certainly nuanced enough to have encompassed this self-amused quality, but the script seldom gives her the opportunity.

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The most frankly fictional element of Blonde is the ongoing threesome it posits among Monroe and two sons of movie stars, Charlie “Cass” Chaplin Jr. (Xavier Samuel) and Edward G. Robinson, Jr. (Evan Williams). In the movie’s imagining, this pair of charming wastrels were the only men in her life concerned with giving her sexual pleasure and not just taking it from her. The three of them form a defiant polyamorous bond, making out in the audience during screenings of Monroe’s films and tearing around Los Angeles on champagne-fueled joyrides. The scenes with Chaplin and Robinson provide for some of the movie’s best moments, if only because, in their company, we get rare glimpses of the usually miserable Monroe actually seeming to enjoy herself. But like the rest of the shadowy men in the story, neither Chaplin nor Robinson ever emerges as a real character.

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Monroe’s real-life first marriage, to a young Merchant Marine when she was only a teenager, is skipped over, while her subsequent marriages to two famous men, Joe DiMaggio (here called only “the Ex-Athlete” and played by Bobby Cannavale) and Arthur Miller (“the Playwright,” Adrien Brody) each get their own chapter. But Dominik seems more interested in recreating famous photographs from those relationships (Monroe and DiMaggio sitting together in a window seat, Monroe and Miller walking on a beach) than in understanding what she saw in each man and he in her. Instead, each husband is reduced to a single negative trait: the DiMaggio figure is a jealous, abusive Italian-American straight from a mob movie, while Miller is self-centered and intellectually patronizing.

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A maddening moment from the Arthur Miller chapter may serve to illustrate Blonde’s odd lack of curiosity about Monroe as an actor (as opposed to a movie star). When Miller first meets her, she is in an Actors Studio class where a scene from his work is about to be read. After her performance of a monologue from it, the whole group, Miller included, is awestruck—but we, the audience, never get to see Monroe’s reading of the speech. In a stylistic touch repeated later at a showing of Some Like it Hot, the work itself is elided, skipped over in a fast-forward effect. In a movie that’s nearly three hours long, I guess Dominik had to economize somewhere, but I could have done with one less scene of casting-couch degradation in exchange for a peek at what it looked like when Monroe pulled out the stops and acted.

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Blonde’s production design is detailed down to providing exact replicas of Monroe’s preferred makeup products, the hairbrushes she would have had on her bureau, even the numbers that appeared on her license plates. The movie’s surfaces are impeccable: If you love period films and old-Hollywood costume design, it’s worth seeing for those elements alone. (The eerie synth-driven score by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis is another high point.) Yet the portraits it offers of its characters never peer beneath those surfaces. Over and over the movie hits the same emotional note: Poor Marilyn. It’s a legitimate emotional response to what was self-evidently a tragic life, but the grinding sameness also makes for a miserabilist slog.

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Coming out of Blonde, I found myself trying to understand why the film left me not just disappointed but somehow angry. Did I agree with the criticism (often coming from people who have not yet seen it) that the film itself is an example the exploitation it’s attempting to decry? Not really. Though de Armas spends long stretches of the movie in the nude (generally shown only from the waist up), and though many scenes show her being slavered over by large crowds of nightmarishly rendered men, I believe Dominik’s intent is to show us such moments of objectification from Marilyn’s point of view (and by all accounts, the real-life Monroe was a fan of casual nudity). The film’s NC-17 rating probably comes mostly from a scene in which two Secret Service agents hustle Monroe into a hotel room to sexually service John F. Kennedy. The president is one of the most unsavory male characters in a very competitive lineup: Without ever getting off the phone, he orders Marilyn to fellate him while he watches a rocket launch on TV, in a phallic metaphor so obvious the audience forgot about our heroine’s debasement for long enough to snicker at the dick joke.

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If anything, Blonde doesn’t exploit Monroe’s life story enough. There were so many roads not taken, so many angles on her story that were left unexplored. Dominik’s use of visual and auditory trickery—distorted images, disorienting temporal shifts, unexplained switches from color to black-and-white, a couple of ill-advised conversations with about-to-be-miscarried fetuses—certainly produces a subjective effect of being inside the consciousness of a drugged-out, dissociated woman moving through a world she experiences as a hostile blur. But though these techniques make us identify and sympathize with de Armas’ fragile Marilyn, they seldom help us to understand or admire her, as a resilient person who, despite a lifetime of systematic maltreatment, managed to grow into an artist with a deep desire to create meaningful work. Blonde tries to honor the legacy of Marilyn Monroe by serving up a heaping helping of what she already got too much of in life—voyeurism, sexual abuse, audiences who longed to step through the screen and rescue her—while robbing her of the best gifts she gave us: her humor, her vitality, her inextinguishable inner light. Once again, in trying to find our way past the icon to the woman underneath, we have only pushed Norma Jeane further away.

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