In Blonde, Marilyn Monroe is not an actress, “she’s a great ass”

“Willingly or not, director Andrew Dominik aligns himself with Monroe’s many abusers and detractors in a film that fails to say much of anything.”

As Marilyn first makes eye contact with the Playwright (Adrien Brody as Arthur Miller), her eyes are filled with tears. Just a few moments earlier, he laughed at the idea that she could ever step into the role of his beloved Magda, a character in his new play that was inspired by his first love. Then, as their eyes meet, a freeze frame captures her hopeless beauty, impossible openness and the beginning of a new love affair. 

Monroe is often in tears throughout Andrew Dominik’s Blonde, a cinematic interpretation of Joyce Carol Oates’s epic and lyrical novel. She cries as a child when she’s dropped off at an orphanage. She cries after leaving an abusive producer’s office. She cries during an audition for her breakthrough role, Don’t Bother to Knock. Her heavily lined eyes and sweetheart’s mouth seem perpetually stained by sadness. Tears are tied to her big-screen image in Blonde, a world that embraces and rejects the artifice of the “real” Marilyn Monroe image. As even intimate scenes are recreated or inspired by famous photographs of Monroe, it’s as if she exists nowhere except through the lens of a camera.

In real life (which this film is not based on), Monroe rarely cried, at least not where we could see her. There are images of her crying at a press conference announcing the divorce from her husband, Joe DiMaggio. Her eyes glimmer with tears in some of her movies, including Don’t Bother to Knock. In the years when Monroe was working and in the environment she was working in, tears carried a heavy price, a threat to makeup and image. Not many actresses of the 1950s shed real tears, at least not while working in Hollywood. The illusion of crying was far more common. 

In Blonde, this teary-eyed conceit captures a certain miserabilism at work and a contempt for Monroe as a figure worthy of little more than pity. Unintentionally, Dominik captures Monroe’s enduring legacy as part of the sad girl ethos on platforms like Tumblr and Instagram. Yet, unlike certain filmmakers who seek to understand the root cause of the romanticization of Monroe’s perceived sadness, Dominik treats them with a strange disdain. Rather than understanding Monroe’s appeal, the movie treats her derisively. As it acknowledges the tragedy of her upbringing and the abuse she suffered by an industry only interested in her body, it also wags its finger at anyone who dares to argue she was great or talented. 

Monroe’s constant tearfulness reminded me of an iconic scene in Godard’s Vivre sa Vie, where Nana watches Carl Theodor Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc. It’s a scene where a young Parisian sex worker witnesses the power of sainthood as it ties in with the power of cinema. Tears fall from her face, much like the saintly Joan. The scene has many layers and ambiguities. Does Nana cry because she is hungry and unhappy, or does she cry because she is so moved by the ethereal quality of Maria Falconetti’s performance? In Dreyer’s silent film she’s watching, tears also fall from Joan of Arc’s face, perhaps because she fears death, but she also yearns for it.

What do Marilyn’s tears signify, in contrast? It tells little about who she is and even less about her screen image. The tears are phony, just in the same way that Dominik seems to treat everything about Marilyn as phony, too. In the film’s search for a real person, the “Norma Jean,” hidden below the surface, misses out on the poetry of artifice. It fails to capture that Monroe is not a separate entity from Norma Jean but a different facet of her identity. In Oates’s novel, so many hints and allusions to the multiplicity of identity, including the on-the-nose naming of the trio of famous lovers, the Geminis, fail to make it onto the screen. Instead, we’re treated to an adolescent understanding of authenticity that treats artifice or malleability as fake and insincere rather than a powerful tool of personal expression and a nuanced aesthetic style used in Hollywood and beyond.

Blonde Arthur Miller the Playwright Marilyn Monroe Ana de Armas 2022 film review
Adrien Brody and Ana de Armas in Blonde

At the root of it, there’s an overall dismissiveness towards both Monroe and Oates’s complex and infuriating novel that makes the film sit uneasily. While adopting some of the artificial and lyrical dialogue from the book, it also fails to capture the magnificent ambition of Oates’s work; which, integrally, opens with quotes from Stanislavski and Michael Goldman that sanctify the work of an actor as an almost spiritual practice. For all her messy inventiveness, Oates frames Monroe as an actor above all else. She’s an actor before she’s a blonde, a victim or a beauty. For Dominik, Monroe is not an actress, “she’s a great ass” — willingly or not, he aligns himself with her abusers and detractors. 

While stretching out to nearly three hours, Dominik’s film feels strangely rushed. It lacks the strange poetry of Oates’s dreamworld and works through essential plot points that are intent on degrading and violating Monroe’s image. While in certain moments, it’s as if the power of Monroe’s image can silence a room and her face steals up all the light, the obsession with the surfaces of people and things fails to capture any sense of an interior world. It’s not that any celebrity or person is above this treatment, but there is an undeniable meanness to the whole affair. At least when Lars Von Trier was pulling his heroines through the mud, there was occasionally hope for spiritual ascension or an ethereal sacrifice. The world ends up feeling very small as a result. 

Unlike Baz Luhrmann’s lurid Elvis, another treatise on American pain and celebrity, Blonde feels directionless and doesn’t begin to capture the frenzy of Marilyn Monroe’s appeal. As it fails to take pleasure in that surface world, it fails to say much of anything. Through the eyes of Arthur Miller, it’s only briefly that she becomes whole. In the short sojourn in her relationship with the Playwright, Dominik finds his grounding through the sensitive masculine gaze of the writer, but even that ends up ringing false. Dominik’s irony-steeped perspective fails to ring true — it invents a glittery, kitschy and tearful movie star, but to what end? ■

Blonde, directed by Andrew Dominik

Blonde opens in select Montreal theatres on Sept. 23. Blonde will begin streaming on Netflix worldwide on Sept. 28.

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