We make people’s lives into dreams or nightmares for a reason. We pluck them out to become a part of our stories, to fulfill a role or embody a message the same as any fictional character does. Because the person, once they’ve entered this cultural realm, isn’t the person at all but the character we’ve created from them, this dichotomy being a key bit of intrigue in our overall fascination with celebrity.
Look at the biography section of a bookstore, how chock full it is, and how you can find books with a variety of perspectives on a single person. Some lionize them, others engage with their mythology, and still others claim to peel back the layers to find truth. However, truth no longer exists outside a few rote facts (birth date, death date, etc.), because a person, who they really are, is hard enough to pin down when they’re standing directly in front of you. The brutal combination of time and the artifice of biography-level fame makes knowing any long-dead famous person nearly impossible, and yet time and again we pluck the characters we’ve created out of our culture, either to take a stab at understanding the person behind them or to engage with the mythology itself.
Marilyn Monroe never existed as a person, and the distance between the character and the person who played her, Norma Jeane, forms the core of the lurid novel Blonde by Joyce Carol Oates, on which this movie is based. This makes book and film firmly concerned with mythology, and both admirably own their disengagement with reality and plunge headfirst into a world of hazy (i.e. perhaps imagined) moments plucked from a short but very full life.
The book proved an uninteresting read to me (I’m apparently in the minority) because it only engages with the most surface-level ideas of her mythology. The Monroe myth is surprisingly layered, at once a blonde bombshell who oozed uncomplicated sex (hence the enduring image of her skirts lifting while standing on a subway grate) and also the quintessential Hollywood moth who flew too close to the flames, a tragic figure as worthy of a stirring eulogy as Mr. Maine in A Star is Born. Most people hold both ideas of Monroe in their heads, but a few mix in a third, more nuanced take. This is a more knowing and human spin on the Hollywood moth, a person who knew the game and thought she could play only to find herself unable to wrench power into her own hands. We would perhaps have a more widespread conception of this Monroe if she had been cast as Holly Golightly as Truman Capote wished, and also if the film adaptation of Breakfast at Tiffany’s had adhered more closely to the intelligent but wayward Holly of the novella.
Blonde, the novel, mostly engaged with the first two ideas of Monroe, casting her as a woman defined by sexual encounters who was ultimately fed to the wolves. Worry that paring down the explicit novel would leave the movie nothing but a feverish sequence of sex scene after sex scene bears fruit in the early goings of writer/director Andrew Dominik’s adaptation, which runs viewers through “highlights” of Monroe/Norma Jeane’s childhood with her mentally ill mother. The content is punishing enough without needing to acclimate to Dominik’s dreamlike approach, and quickly the fever pitch of Julianne Nicholson’s committed but entirely absurd portrayal of a troubled woman unloading trauma after trauma on young Norma Jeane makes the movie feel doomed to be the two-and-a-half hour exploitation fest some feared.
But quickly the movie moves on to an adult Monroe, with wispy glimpses of Ana de Armas doing a strong impersonation of the icon during predominantly private moments of her life (brief recreations of her biggest films give the story vague linearity). The moments plucked from the source material are still mostly sexual or traumatic, but the suffocating, nightmarish style mercifully gets in the way of any cohesive idea of Norma Jeane, the person, leaving one emotionally and substatntively adrift for the majority of the film.
To deal with the mythology you must have some concept of the person, otherwise the differentiation (and hence the exploration) can’t exist. Dominik did this masterfully in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, making the man behind the myth (Jesse James) a fleshy bag of wounds and bones. When the titular assassination occurs, his body crumples inelegantly just like anyone’s would. This fact doesn’t deflate the mythology but, in fact, gives it the weight of careful construction. The humanity of Norma Jeane is never captured in Blonde, and without it any concept of her mythology, whether as a sex symbol, a doomed moth, or a woman clinging to an ill-advised scheme, never forms.
Perhaps this is for the best. Blonde, the novel, made me feel gross while reading it. The parts Blonde, the movie, portrays makes me feel gross while thinking about them. But the film itself is so lost in artifice that its Marilyn is even more adrift within it than she is within our culture. The horrifying moments it whittles her down to achieves neither exploitation nor an examination of the way we have and continue to exploit her. It is a garish waste of talented people throwing themselves wholeheartedly into a boring, visionless film, but it’s more likely to be forgotten than to do Norma Jeane any further harm. And from what I can tell of the film’s aims, that’s getting off easy.
Release: streaming on Netflix worldwide September 28th
Director: Andrew Dominik
Writers: Andrew Dominik
Cast: Ana de Armas, Adrien Brody, Julianne Nicholson, Bobby Cannavale, Xavier Samuel, Evan Williams, Toby Huss