“I wish they’d let her die.” So said film critic Pauline Kael about the great Marilyn Monroe.
And that’s exactly how I felt watching writer-director Andrew Dominik’s one-note adaptation of the Joyce Carol Oates novel “Blonde.” While Oates’s novel was expansive, Dominik’s film is reductive. Reductive to the point that all we have here is Marilyn, the abused and exploited. From the moment she is born as Norma Jean Mortenson in 1926 to her premature death of apparent suicide in 1962 (age 36), the list of indignities that Dominik forces on us include:
- Norma Jean (Lily Fisher) was abused as a child by her schizophrenic mother, a superb Julianne Nicholson.
- Her rape by a studio boss on the floor of his office.
- The condescension and contempt with which she is looked on by the Industry.
- The alcohol and the pills.
- Her servicing of JFK while he watches rockets on television.
- Her marriage to Joe Di Maggio beats her and wants her to stay home.
- Her marriage to Arthur Miller uses her as inspiration for the “Marilyn” character in “After the Fall” and, of course, “The Misfits.”
- Her stream of miscarriages and abortions.
Immersing herself completely in the role of Norma Jean/Marilyn Monroe, Ana de Armas is sensational. Dominik seamlessly weaves her into several of Marilyn’s movies, from “All About Eve” (1950) to “Niagara” (1953) to “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes” (1953) to “Some Like It Hot” (1959) and, as he glides back and forth from color to monochrome, you are reminded that this is the same director who, together with cinematographer Roger Deakins, gave us one of the most visually striking of Westerns”; “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford”.
Unfortunately, at three hours, “Blond” overruns its welcome. It becomes the Passion Play of Marilyn Monroe. As time slowly crept along, I began to think of another Passion Play, this time from 1974: the great Gena Rowlands in “A Woman Under the Influence”. There are several similarities:
- Both films are painfully overlong.
- Both films were directed by dictatorial auteurs (Rowlands by her writer-directed husband John Cassavetes).
- Both films view a troubled woman through the lens of a male gaze giving absolutely no thought to the inner workings of the woman herself.
- Both Rowlands and de Armas give performances worthy of whole rows of Oscars, but their tales of woe become exhausting.
Did anyone stop to think about the phenomenon that was Marilyn Monroe? That sublime natural talent. From her first moment on screen with Louis Calhern in “The Asphalt Jungle,” you fell under her spell. What an absolute delight she was singing “Diamonds” in “Gentlemen Prefer Blonds.” And giving one of the greatest comedic performances of all time in “Some Like It Hot.” What was that? That was a joy! A joy that is completely, artificially, and destructively absent from “Blonde.”