This year marked the sixtieth anniversary of Marilyn Monroe’s death, and because it is still shrouded in mystery, there has always been a ghoulish interest in the events that may have led to that fatal overdose. Soon after Emma Cooper’s Netflix The Mystery Of Marilyn Monroe: The Unheard Tapes, comes Blonde by Andrew Dominik, based on the Joyce Carol Oates book (that came out in 2000). There have been dozens of books and films about her life, more because of the tragedies dotting her existence, than her success as a Hollywood icon—nobody is interested in a happy star, it would seem.
Dominik’s film is even more morbid and exploitative than the others. What has been recorded about Marilyn Monroe’s woes (played by Ana de Armas) is a tabloid dream and all that misery is picked up and highlighted, along with the imagined melodrama of her desperation to have a child, which leads to shots of fetuses, blood, and inexplicably a shot from inside her birth canal. Dominik does not spare any unsavoury excess, and the woman who was then Hollywood’s biggest star and sex symbol, is constantly seen weeping, screaming, puking, falling down doped or drunk and having nightmares. There is even a humiliating sexual encounter with then US president, John F. Kennedy, which she gets through by imagining it is just a scene from a film and will soon be over.
Dominik starts from her traumatic childhood, as Norma Jeane Baker (played by Lily Fisher), when her mentally unstable mother (Julianne Nicholson) points to a photo of a handsome man and tells the little girl that he is her father. She grew up in an orphanage and foster homes, where she reportedly suffered abuse. In a bit of pop psychology, she is seen to have major daddy issues, and calls her husbands “Daddy” in the breathless little girl voice she developed, along with the fake blonde hair and waifish persona.
After a stint as a pin-up model and nude calendar girl, Monroe came into Hollywood at a time when women were treated as meat by studio heads, and she suffers the indignity of the casting couch—which was just a jokey term (like eve teasing) for rape and sexual harassment. However, all actresses must have been through the same grind to varying degrees—there is no attempt to understand why it led to her unraveling. When she appears for an audition, and speaks knowledgeably about Dostoevsky, she is sneered at by the men, and the director is more interested in her ass. With typical hypocrisy, Dominik is disapproving of the way Monroe’s body was exposed in her films, but exploits his actress by shooting many scenes of her in the nude.
Her first marriage to James Dougherty is skipped; an inordinate amount of time is spent on her hedonistic threesome with Charlie Chaplin Jr. and Edward Robinson Jr. What effect this had on her psyche is not clear, but her marriage to the retired sports legend Joe DiMaggio (Bobby Cannivale), ends when he cannot take the attention showered on her by the media, particularly after the skirt-flying scene (from The Seven Year Itch), which Dominik shoots from several angles with voyeuristic glee. The men around her scream with delight, she smiles through it all.
Her short marriage to playwright Arthur Miller (Adrien Brody) gave her some joy, though with his intellectual snobbery, he is surprised when she talks of Chekov and explains his own poem to him. Her image is too overpowering for him too– he disparaged her in his writing, and in chats with his friends called her a “whore.”
Ana de Armas is brilliant, as she enters the soul of the character– or rather the continuing perception of her. To pass off this almost three-hour, relentlessly masochistic picture of Monroe as art, Dominik experiments with aspect ratios and random shifts from colour to black and white giving so many frames a hallucinatory edge. The cinematography, production design, costumes and music enhance the period look and feel, but watching the film is still difficult and ultimately unrewarding, because there are absolutely no new insights.
If Monroe managed a successful career for so many years, and even started a production company she must have had some reserves of strength and a sense of power. This comes across in just one scene in which she protests about another actress being paid more than her; most of the time she is portrayed as a self-pitying victim.
For all the problems she had, Monroe had friends and a support system, but she is always seen as a cautionary tale of how the pressures of celebrity could destroy a fragile mind. But after 60 years, the one-sided mythologizing must stop. If there is to be another film about Marilyn Monroe, it must show the other side of a woman who rose above her suffering and became a huge star.
(This piece first appeared in rediff.com)