Blonde: shock snapshots of a star’s martyrdom on the altar of showbiz patriarchy

Andrew Dominik’s quasi-biopic of Marilyn Monroe structures her life and desires around an obsession with an absent father, foregrounding her fragility and victimhood even as it cannily explores ‘Marilyn Monroe’ as showbiz concept.

30 September 2022

By Jonathan Romney

Ana de Armas as Marilyn Monroe in Blonde (2022)
Sight and Sound

Although Andrew Dominik’s Blonde doesn’t actually feature the song ‘My Heart Belongs to Daddy’, that title might have been its tagline. In the first section of this quasi-biopic of Marilyn Monroe – adapted from Joyce Carol Oates’s 2000 novel, which speculatively reimagined the star’s life – young Norma Jeane’s disturbed mother points to the photo of a man whom she says is the child’s father. The obvious resemblance is to Clark Gable, but whoever it is, the image become Norma Jeane’s ‘Rosebud’, structuring her life and her desires as an obsessive absence.

Blonde follows its heroine’s experiences with various inadequate or abusive daddy figures, among them baseball player Joe DiMaggio, playwright Arthur Miller, the Darryl F. Zanuck figure who rapes her, and John F. Kennedy, to whose hotel suite she is dragged to administer businesslike fellatio in the film’s crassest scene.

The much-awaited Blonde doesn’t entirely come as a bolt from the blue; Oates’s novel was previously adapted for TV (Joyce Chopra, 2001). But this stylistically extravagant, boldly confrontational film instantly knocks you out with the sheer intensity of its cinematic language – then requires you to take a few steps back as its problems sink in. The most obvious hits you straight away: a kitsch, purportedly hallucinatory strand of imagery related to Marilyn’s pregnancies, featuring close-ups of a foetus in utero, later heard talking to her. It feels at the very least like a hostage to misreading, given the current assault on abortions rights in the US.

The film is on surer ground in its presentation of ‘Marilyn Monroe’ as an autonomous but not quite real entity, entirely separate from the woman whose body she inhabits. Early on, in a scene not based on fact, Norma Jeane embarks on a ménage à trois with two men who themselves have father issues – the sons of Charlie Chaplin and Edward G. Robinson – and if the relationship works for a while, it’s because these youths aren’t daddies to her but quasi-incestuous siblings. It’s only with them that she is seen enjoying sexual pleasure, as their bodies merge psychedelically and their bed becomes the waterfall of her 1953 movie Niagara. Encouraging Norma Jeane to admire her (or Marilyn’s) body in the mirror, the boys say, “Look… there she is, your magic friend.” Stardom emerges as a matter of neediness and narcissism, associated with emotional orphanhood.

The film is built on meticulous copying. Dominik recreates famous images from the films and still photos, the poses immaculately restaged to the turn of an ankle, the curl of a lock of hair. De Armas is more than virtuosic in capturing both the Marilyn we recognise and one we haven’t often seen: the Actors’ Studio alumna who pushes herself to emotional extremes at audition, the rising star outraged that Jane Russell gets a higher fee on Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953).

‘Marilyn’ sometimes protects and nourishes Norma Jeane, but in the long term devours her. De Armas’s tour de force is uncanny, moving and painful, but it risks being overlooked for two reasons. One is that she could be seen as merely impersonating Marilyn. Yet that’s the point: she’s playing a woman who learned to impersonate herself, who quickly became (as we might say today) her own tribute act. De Armas’s performance may also find itself undervalued because it’s not built around the manifest display of agency that we often expect of female performances today: it may disappoint or offend that she so foregrounds fragility, victimhood.

That emphasis is what makes Blonde so hard to watch. In one sense, the film is a comprehensive unmasking of showbiz patriarchy (or daddyocracy), tending to the grotesque: the crowds of men with cartoonishly distended mouths outside a premiere, the grim JFK scene. Norma Jeane, of course, protests, sometimes only inwardly; but her rage and self-awareness never entirely come across on screen. That’s because the focus is on spectacle rather than the inner life of a beleaguered woman and an extraordinary screen talent. What ultimately emerges from Blonde is a depiction of a martyrdom that admits of no salvation for its subject, other than as enduring image. It leaves its Marilyn only as an icon – in the truly hagiographic sense – doomed forever to fuel idolatry and gossip. You end up concurring with her protest: “What business of yours is my life?”

► Blonde is available to view on Netflix now.

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