During the summer, we had Baz Luhrmann’s Elvis, a two-and-a-half-hour music video that tried to tell everything in the life of the King of Rock and Roll while allowing its director to go unhinged with his visual flair. No doubt, the initial worry of anyone trying to dramatize Elvis Presley is not only in exploring his legacy but also portraying him, so that doesn’t feel as caricatured, considering the many Elvis impersonators there are. This is a similar problem with Marilyn Monroe in the film Blonde, an icon in her own right, despite having a life that was tragic and ultimately short-lived, as well as having her group of impersonators.
In terms of how Hollywood has dramatized Monroe, they do not negate the tragedy, but Andrew Dominik’s Blonde takes it to a new level. Based on the 2000 novel of the same name by Joyce Carol Oates, the film is a fictionalized take on the life and career of Norma Jeane Mortenson (Ana de Armas), who became an actress in the Hollywood of the 1950s and early 1960s. Becoming world famous under the stage name “Marilyn Monroe,” Norma Jean feels trapped by this persona while struggling in her private life of abuse, exploitation and drug addiction.
Given its source material, the idea of “Marilyn Monroe” being another idea isn’t new, as the 1996 made-for-TV biographical film Norma Jean & Marilyn toyed with this, featuring scenes of Monroe and her former self appearing together. Opening with her traumatic childhood – featuring a brilliant performance from child actress Lily Fisher – we see how domestic abuse and Hollywood through her relationship with her emotionally unstable mother (Julianne Nicholson) informs her status as a movie star as well as her love issues.
Sparking some controversy when its NC-17 rating was confirmed, no doubt viewers will feel conflicted over the film’s portrayal of Monroe, which does not hold back from showing mature content such as graphic scenes of sexual abuse as well as a miscarriage. While some have criticized the film for being exploitative, it actually feels appropriate in showing a side to Hollywood that isn’t about glamour. In this current age of the MeToo movement, Blonde feels relevant, no matter how much it fictionalizes Monroe’s life.
When you look at Dominik’s first two films, Chopper and The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford–both of which fictionalized their historical subjects–they also explore the dangers of celebrityism. So Blonde is the perfect territory for the director. Although Dominik can go overboard with what seems like every filmmaking technique in the book for something that feels like a fever dream with a running time of 166 minutes, there are some transcendent sequences that lean closer to David Lynch’s surrealism and even horror, enhanced by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis’ haunting score. With a story that blends fact and fiction, there are incredible recreations of iconic movie scenes and photographs that define the actress’ iconic status, stunningly realized by Chayse Irvin’s cinematography, which is primarily shot in black-and-white.
Despite the initial backlash towards her casting, Ana de Armas is simply extraordinary with a performance that not only showcases the glamour of a woman who certainly appealed to the male eye, but shows a vulnerability of a victim who can’t seem to escape her abuse that damages her physically and mentally. While de Armas will get the recognition in the upcoming awards season, Blonde also has an impressive supporting cast, with notable highlights from Julianne Nicholson to Adrian Brody, the latter of which doesn’t have a lot of screen time but shines as Arthur Miller.
Less of a traditional biopic and more a psychological drama, Blonde presents the life of a movie star that is unglamorous, anchored by an extraordinary central performance by Ana de Armas.
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