Andrew Dominik’s “Blonde” is a “Phantom of the Opera” whose phantom hides her psychological scars behind the mask of a Hollywood screen goddess. Based on the 2000 novel by Joyce Carol Oates, the beautifully shot, almost three-hour film, which switches back and forth from color to black and white, presents Marilyn Monroe as both a damaged flesh-and-blood human being and a semi-divine, hyper-sexualized product of the 1950s studio system. This creation was fodder for gossip columns, abused and victimized by powerful men and designed to lure audiences, especially men, into movie theaters.
As the blonde of the title, Cuban actor Ana de Armas is genuinely heartbreaking. Her Monroe is, yes, beautiful and sexy, but also delightful, vulnerable, profoundly talented, far more intelligent and knowledgeable than she was ever given credit for and tragic. It is an exciting, star-making performance.
Also brilliant is Medford’s Julianne Nicholson as Gladys, the mother of little fatherless Norma Jeane Baker (a fine Lily Fisher). Following Oates’ Freudian lead, Dominik creates a father myth for Monroe when mentally unstable Gladys gives her daughter a dramatic photo of a dark-haired man, telling her that he is her father, but that she cannot utter his name. The film’s Marilyn calls her male partners, “Daddy,” for the rest of her life. After getting a start in modeling, Marilyn breaks into acting and is assaulted at her first major studio audition. Much of “Blonde” is prefigured in a scene in which Norma Jeane’s mother drives her as a child into the smoke and flame-filled hills of Hollywood. Welcome to the inferno, honey. Marilyn learns to place herself in a “circle of light” from an acting coach. She will need that skill to shield herself from most of the men she meets.
Marilyn gets a break playing the troubled Nell in “Don’t Bother to Knock” (1952). She also gets involved in a scandalous threesome with the sons of Charlie Chaplin and Edward G. Robinson. De Armas is topless in a lot of “Blonde.” We see simulated sex acts. But that NC-17 rating is as over-the-top as some of the dialogue (Dominik adapted the novel). Dominik chooses to distort the image to make it look like the threesome bodies are merging. “Niagara” (1953) makes Monroe a sensation, if not a human waterfall. Daryl F. Zanuck buys “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes” for her. But Jane Russell makes 20 times more. Also, Monroe will be forced to have an abortion to keep the production moving along.
Giant, voluptuous images of Monroe appear over theater marquees. She’s bigger than life, a modern-day sex goddess. We see de Armas recreate the “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend” routine. She is very good. But Monroe was iconic. The film’s Marilyn begins to use pills and booze to self-medicate. She marries Joe DiMaggio (Bobby Cannavale) in part to get out of Hollywood and study acting in New York City. But he is viciously jealous and beats her. Monroe did not invent the “male gaze.” But she turned it into her superpower. She marries celebrated playwright Arthur Miller (Academy Award-winner Adrien Brody) and almost clasps the happiness that has perversely eluded her. In the end, she becomes the cruelly treated plaything of an unnamed JFK. “Am I meat to be delivered?” she wonders. Her life is a wilderness of broken mirrors, ringing phones, talking fetuses, booze, drugs and voice-overs by a probably imaginary, letter-writing father. She needs a doctor on set to complete “Some Like It Hot” (1959). “Blonde” is a spooky, troubling evocation of Hollywood’s most obsessed-over star. If you liked “Mank,” “Blonde” will once again send you to movie heaven … and hell.
MPAA rating: NC-17 (for some sexual content)
Running time: 2:46
How to watch: Now in theaters and streaming on Netflix Sept. 28