I hadn’t noticed that Joyce Carol Oates’ novel – a fictionalised biography of Marilyn Monroe – had already been made as a two-part miniseries in 2001 (with a running time a minute or so shorter than this Network feature), directed by Joyce Chopra (Smooth Talk ought to have landed her a much bigger career). I’d be interested to see that, and whether its take on the material is less open to critiques of male exploitation of female suffering than writer-director Andrew Dominik’s (Chopra’s film was scripted by Joyce Eliason). As it is, this Blonde is a tough watch and feels a lot like piling on the agony in the hope of Oscar reward. It feels like those uncomfortable moments when campaigners for some cause latch on to a complicated, messy true-life case and someone who’s suffered enough is paraded as if their ordeal was purely of use as propaganda. It’s also strangely incoherent in a way that may be a barrier to people who haven’t researched a book about Monroe (which I did once). So many key names are never mentioned or key facts taken as common knowledge even though, like Baz Luhrmann’s Elvis, this comes along a decade or so after a long-lived icon finally slipped out of the pop culture mainstream. Elvis and Marilyn were both fifties figures, and these new stabs at would-be definitive biopics come after many, many previous versions – with even tiny anecdotes from their lives yielding the likes of Marilyn and Me and Elvis & Nixon.
It also feels like a compressed miniseries: a miserable, nightmare childhood where young Norma Jeane (Lily Fisher) is terrorised by a mad mother (Julianne Nicholson) who feeds her tales about an absent father represented by a battered photograph … a rise-to-stardom stretch which is mostly about getting fucked to get parts, and pretty much skips Monroe’s ascent to icon status by becoming popular (the thesis of this film downplays any power which came with that – though the real Monroe wielded quite a lot of it) and a weird three-way affair with a couple of sons of (Cass Chaplin/Xavier Samuel, Eddy Robinson Jr/Evan Williams) that leads to the first of several abortions/miscarriages (this is as committed to the notion that a childless woman will go crazy as Dr Strange and the Multiverse of Madness, though in this take NJ’s Mom went crackers because she was husbandless but had a daughter) … marriages to the baseball player (Bobby Cannavale), who turns abusive after being appalled by that scene from The Seven-Year Itch (this seems to be spun out of Norman Mailer’s book), and the playwright (Adrien Brody), which founders after another dead child … and a sorry spell as a drugged-out sex slave to a girdled, spiteful JFK that leads to an overdose.
Only a few films are even mentioned – Ana de Armas is spliced into All About Eve next to George Sanders … Don’t Bother to Knock is referenced mostly because it’s the only Monroe film where she plays a character who’s mental illness jibes with Blonde’s idea of her real state of mind … we glimpse ‘Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend’ and hear bitching about Jane Russell getting paid much more … and see her turning nasty during the making of Some Like It Hot as she yells ‘don’t you think I know the joke’s on me’ at Billy Wilder (here, I incline to agree with Oates/Dominik – I’ve always found this much-loved movie has a nasty edge in its treatment of Monroe’s character). Even at nearly three hours, it skips important relationships, a marriage, movies, cultural trends, setbacks and achievements Chopra evidently found room for. A sort of spine comes in letters purporting to be from Monroe’s mysterious missing Dad, with a punchline that reminded me a bit of the solution to a historical mystery put forward in Immortal Beloved.
De Armas is startlingly good as a limited version of MM – down to body language and shape, but without doing too much of a caricature (NJ admits she isn’t even blonde really) – and a few scenes, like a key exchange where she surprises Arthur Miller with her insight into his work (and life), take fire like Oscar clips. Dominik puts in a lot of work with varied aspect rations, colour (or monochrome) schemes, gradations of grain and cutting style – a beach holiday with Miller has exactly the feel of the candid photos taken of the couple at the time (an oddity – Monroe often looks terrible in those brassy Fox films but it was impossible to take a bad still image of her) and one of the horrific hospital trips is staged as a perfect reproduction of the climax of John Frankenheimer’s Seconds.
For all its length and scope, Blonde still sometimes feels cheap and reductive – Norma Jeane’s habit of calling all the men in her life ‘Daddy’ makes Rosebud seem like a penetrating insight. It harps endlessly on how badly its heroine was treated, but – unlike Marilyn and Me, for instance, doesn’t acknowledge that the real-life Marilyn could be callous, heartless and vicious as often as she was loving, kind, inspired and saintly. A key moment, almost evocative of ‘all work and no play’ from The Shining, has NJ/MM in her brief spell of contentment with Miller prowl his office looking at his papers and coming across a typed page of dialogue (I assume from After the Fall – the play Miller wrote drawing on his experience of life with Marilyn, which he didn’t actually get to till after their divorce and her death) we take to be a verbatim record of a conversation we haven’t heard in which Marilyn expresses fear that she’ll become material for Miller and the playwright hypocritically assures her he won’t do that while obviously intending to. It takes a moment to remember that this isn’t something Monroe and Miller said and did – it’s something that’s been made up by people at several removes from the real people and which is now presented as a frisson of horror, though it invites us to speculate how either of them would feel about Blonde, which obviously comes a long way after After the Fall.