Andrew Dominik’s “Blonde,” streaming on Netflix on Sept. 28, is meant to be a tough sit, endured, more than a harsh, often miserable life, examined. Wrong mission. But mission accomplished.
Any halfway-serious exploration of the Marilyn Monroe story must reconcile the endurance test of her 36 years ― so much abuse, humiliation, infantilization, addiction and ultimate ruination — with the public-facing legend. Under the same skin, she was many things. A human being; an honest, often affecting actor; a deft, warmhearted comedian; and an undeniable star, struggling for respect and for deliverance from a maze of unforgiving celebrity. There’s an old song (and movie), “Flirtation Walk,” from the early ‘30s. The Monroe story as handled here, artfully, soullessly, by a grievously miscast filmmaker settling for pity where the insight should be, stays on a different and narrow path: Exploitation Walk.
Ana de Armas is very good, and I wish that mattered more. She goes all in as Norma Jeane/Marilyn, the preyed-upon young girl and the miracle of strategic, studio-molded allure she became. It’s not a dual role, exactly, but it’s not quite a before-and-after, either. The little girl, lost, is never absent in the adult Marilyn here. De Armas delivers the sort of performance straight male critics typically describe as “fearless” or “brave,” i.e., lots of nudity and, in one instance, a scene of presidential fellatio that garnered “Blonde” a rare NC-17 rating.
The performance at the center of “Blonde” works, just as Austin Butler’s Elvis does the job in “Elvis,” though in a very different, less clinical, more funsy context. Compressing Joyce Carol Oates’ long novel down to two hours and 45 minutes, Dominik maintains strict, even suffocating visual and rhythmic control of this fictional/factual Marilyn tragedy. Practically every scene works toward the same goal, to the same lugubrious, narcoticized rhythm. Marilyn, defending herself against a proven or potential exploiter or abuser. First it’s her mother (the excellent Julianne Nicholson); then it’s agents, managers, moguls and blackmailers. Then it’s a famous abusive retired baseball star husband (Bobby Cannavale in the Joe DiMaggio role) and a couple of Kennedys, here unnamed. Hopes raised, hopes destroyed. In both senses of the word, “Blonde” operates on miserable dramaturgy at a crawl.
As did Oates’ 2000 novel, “Blonde” deploys leaps and jerks out of one reality into another. After pregnancies either wanted or unwanted, we’re shown Marilyn communicating with her unborn babies, and there are more than trace elements of pity and scorn in the way Dominik handles this. Adrien Brody plays Arthur Miller, depicted here as the least of Monroe’s male nightmares. He too, though, according to the historical record and as imagined by “Blonde,” is a patronizing force in her pitiable life.
There’s a long early scene between de Armas and Brody, an intriguing one, set in a restaurant. Marilyn has gone back to New York and the Actors Studio to work; Miller is trying out new material, and cannot quite believe the most famous movie star in the world is sitting there, jittery, insecure but eager to learn. Miller sneers at her feedback regarding the role he’s written, and that she has recently rehearsed in class. Then he realizes she’s on target regarding what’s missing from the role. Eight seconds later, he’s over his disdain and he’s a goner.
This is one of the too few scenes that starts one place and goes to another. Chronologically, “Blonde” runs from 1933 to 1962, flitting back and forth, here and there. Dominik manipulates images and changes frames to suit the psychic claustrophobia at hand, adjusting the screen size and aspect ratio depending on the impulse. He and cinematographer Chayse Irvin favor high-contrast black-and-white, clashing deliberately with the too-sunny Kodachrome color glare of Monroe’s final years.
Some of the visual transitions are striking, as when de Armas’s Monroe — eternally in search of the father she never knew, and the “daddy” replacements she married — is superimposed, clutching blinding white sheets in bed, against a raging waterfall from her 1953 drama “Niagara.” Dominik’s second and quite remarkable feature, “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford,” imagined a very different American past and American celebrity, in extraordinarily supple ways. See that film if you haven’t. Dominik’s filmmaking wiles are likely why Netflix, with Plan B’s Brad Pitt (who played Jesse James), eventually OK’d this project for this filmmaker.
But Oates’ novel does not adapt easily. And all “Blonde” is, really, is pain, pity and pretty pictures. The recycling of the Monroe image — all that breathy, nobody’s-fool-but-everybody’s-sex-toy allure, may never end. How many thousands of Chicago tourists and residents peered up that famous “The Seven Year Itch” skirt when the 40,000-pound, 26-foot-tall stainless steel and aluminum “Forever Marilyn” statue set up shop outside the Tribune Tower a few years ago? “Blonde” is scarcely more enlightening than that Seward Johnson statue.
Dominik drains the complication and, saddest of all, the screen wiles, from a plainly complicated legend. Like David Fincher’s “Mank,” “Blonde” creates some plush visual ideas of Old Hollywood, without quite capturing how movies looked and moved then. And in its relentlessness of punishment and purpose, it hearkens back to, of all things, Bob Fosse’s “Star 80.” It’s a clinical cry for help on behalf of the blonde at the center, circling the drain, victimized to the last. And in the end, this sleek hypocrite of a picture is just another user.
‘Blonde’ — 1.5 stars (out of 4)
MPAA rating: NC-17 (for some sexual content)
Running time: 2:46
How to watch: In Chicago theaters Sept. 23; Netflix streaming premiereSept. 28.
Michael Phillips is a Tribune critic.