Based on Joyce Carol Oates’ Pulitzer Prize finalist novel of the same name, Blonde uses a work of biographical fiction to presumably seek deeper truths about the life of Marilyn Monroe. Unfortunately, director Andrew Dominik (The Assassination Of Jesse James) mistakes depicting the cruel and relentless ways that the world mistreated Monroe for humanizing her—and while that CVS receipt length list of atrocities certainly tells a version of her story, at 166 minutes the film also subjects viewers to a slog that’s more likely to make them tune out. That said, Ana de Armas (Knives Out) delivers a truly extraordinary performance as the platinum superstar and icon, while Dominik and his collaborators discover endlessly inventive ways to recreate highlights from Monroe’s iconography.
Played by de Armas as an adult and Lily Fisher as a child, Norma Jeane Mortenson grows up a ward of the state after her mother Gladys (Julianne Nicholson) is institutionalized for mental health issues. Believing her absent father is a power player in Hollywood, Norma Jeane pursues a career as a model and actor, and lands small roles with the dubious help of Darryl F. Zanuck (David Warshofsky), who essentially pimps her out to other studio decision-makers. Despite studying her craft with absolute sincerity, the opportunities Norma Jeane receives largely trade upon her alter ego’s bombshell sexuality, and she takes solace from the attention by falling into a comforting three-way relationship with fellow performers and low-level celebrities Charles “Cass” Chaplin Jr. (Xavier Samuel) and Edward “Eddy” G. Robinson Jr. (Evan Williams).
Two husbands, retired baseball player Joe DiMaggio (Bobby Cannavale) and playwright Arthur Miller (Adrien Brody), come and go, as do two pregnancies. But as she experiences more success with films like The Seven Year Itch and Some Like It Hot, an infrastructure of doctors and makeup artists assembles (or gets assembled) around her to ensure she looks like Monroe, and when she needs painkillers, feels like her too. Now a bigger star than ever, she receives more opportunities and attention than ever before, leading to a liaison with President John Kennedy (Caspar Phillipson), who perhaps unsurprisingly fails to treat her any more tenderly than her previous lovers. But years of physical mistreatment and the coping mechanism of substance abuse take their toll, sending her down a dark path of addiction, loneliness, and ruin.
To say that Ana de Armas is everything in this film is not hyperbole: without her soulful, controlled performance, Dominik’s conception of Monroe could easily slide into disastrous histrionics. Oates’ book revisits but intentionally does not purport to accurately depict who Monroe was and what she went through. But this adaptation—the second, after a TV version made right after the novel’s 2000 publication—seems likely to become definitive, precisely because of the way that de Armas manages to create a real and believable Norma Jeane, whose adult life became a wrestling match between the way the world identified her and the way she saw herself.
It’s not uncommon for women to feel obligated to put a better public face on their behavior than they do in private, but for Norma Jeane, Monroe was that face—tender, unimposing, cheerfully accepting of the indignities to which she is subjected. That her blonde alter ego becomes so beloved, so obsessed over by the media, that she feels no one sees anything of the real person behind it becomes a painfully relatable struggle. And despite Dominik’s endless catalogue of suffering, which includes sexual assault, near-constant control and abuse from her romantic partners, and two abortions from the point of view of her fetus, de Armas injects depth and dimension into the few scenes where the audience gets to see Norma Jeane as a person with complex thoughts and feelings unrestrained by the world’s perception of her as a plaything and object.
In one early scene, she pours her heart into an audition for the film Don’t Bother To Knock, only for the auditioning filmmakers to virtually ignore the pain from her own life that she clearly projects through the role of an unwell babysitter. In another, she makes a suggestion about one of Arthur Miller’s plays that brings Miller (and us) to tears as it highlights her perceptiveness as an artistic collaborator, for once not being seen only for her beauty. Whether or not the rest of the film resonates, with Norma Jeane, de Armas establishes her place among the most promising actresses of her generation, so good that the occasional creeping accent of her Cuban heritage becomes immaterial to the authenticity of her emotions.
It also helps tremendously that Dominik, working with cinematographer Chayse Irvin (BlackKklansman, Beyonce’s Lemonade special), recreates moments so specifically and accurately from the actress’ catalog of films and images that it’s easy to forget de Armas isn’t actually Monroe. During the shooting of Some Like It Hot, for example, the filmmaker splices his star into a scene opposite Tony Curtis, and then cuts to a wider angle, lit exactly the same way, to make it feel like Monroe is stepping right out of Billy Wilder’s film.
Costume design by Jennifer Johnson (I, Tonya) and a phalanx of makeup artists further transform de Armas for shots where it’s almost impossible to distinguish from the originals, which have become the boilerplate of our collective memories of Monroe. Meanwhile, a score by longtime Dominik collaborators Nick Cave and Warren Ellis finds a mesmerizing middle ground between the dreamlike, futuristic work of Vangelis and the haunting, skeletal nightmares of Angelo Badalamenti, holding together the disparate parts of this odyssey, expose, and character study rolled uneasily into one.
Ultimately, Dominik assembles a film in which there’s much to admire, but not quite enough that works to bring Marilyn Monroe, much less lost, little Norma Jeane, fully into focus. Like, say, David Lynch’s Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, Dominik clearly hoped to show the world what his tragic heroine endured before her demise—the person who suffered before her polished visage became immortal. Instead, he reenacts what Monroe went through, blames us for subjecting her to it, and then leaves us without a clear picture of what we should have been better paying attention to, much less an overall sense of who she was.
What Ana de Armas does in Blonde is nothing short of transformative, but unfortunately, the film will likely do little to change the way people see Marilyn Monroe—once again, a victim of people doing what they think is best for her, perhaps with consent but certainly not enough consideration.