America, since its inception, has been in a perpetual state of identity crisis, and 2022 appears to be no exception. I won’t get into any contemporary politics, but it is no coincidence the main theme of the new Netflix film Blonde (released September 28) is identity. And it’s no coincidence the subject of the film –Marylin Monroe— is quintessentially American.
The movie is based on the Joyce Carol Oates novel of the same name, and I’m not sure how accurate any of it is. I’ll confess: even though a film writer, I know as much about Marilyn Monroe as the casual movie goer. Born Norma Jean Baker. Was a ‘blonde bombshell’ starlet. Elton John wrote a song about her. She married Joe DiMaggio and Arthur Miller. Had an affair with President Kennedy and maybe his brother. Died tragically of an overdose, intentional or not it’s unclear.
I don’t believe this movie’s intention is to get anything right in terms of facts (and maybe the novel had no such intention either). Blonde is a means to an end, a vessel to tell the tale of a life doomed, perhaps, from its beginning. Marilyn Monroe is the vehicle because she is instantly recognizable, as well as irresistible, but the concept of an identity crisis is something anyone can understand (and probably has undergone), so the larger dramatic purpose makes the film relatable to anyone.
This notion is rooted even before we fade up. The title of the movie is Blonde. It’s generic, disembodied, a generally pejorative cultural term. Norma Jeane Baker or Marilyn Monroe doesn’t even have a name: she’s a hair color.
The majority of the movie deals with Monroe’s search for identity. She never knew her father. Her mother was mentally unstable and had to be institutionalized when Monroe was a child, leaving her a ward of the state. Once older and a going concern, she adopted a stage name, but people never seemed to know what to call her. Norma Jeane or Marilyn? In turn, she calls the men she’s married ‘daddy,’ and the credits go so far as to list DiMaggio, Miller, and President Kennedy as ‘the ballplayer,’ ‘the playwright,’ and ‘the President.’ Talk about taking de-naming to the bitter end.
Back to Monroe; she’s perpetually discounted and objectified, especially by men. She’s always being handled, ordered, injected, assaulted and molested—physically and sexually. She is a plaything, a commodity.
The strength of Blonde lies here, along with its production design and visual style, which reinforces the theme of identity. It switches often from black and white to color, to traditional camera set ups and movement to a more Steadi-cam aesthetic. It’s not just the cameras of the paparazzi that flash and spin; it’s Monroe’s whole world that over illuminates and overwhelms her.
Blonde is a little weaker when it comes to understanding Monroe’s strengths and what made her so successful. The film leads us to believe she doesn’t want any of it, but no one seeks out the camera and rises to the top of Hollywood who isn’t ambitious. Beyond a search for a father whether in reality or through relationships with men that might provide some paternal sustenance, what drove Monroe to succeed? Blonde doesn’t really give us any glimpse of that.
In fact, it denies her agency. There are a few moments where she defies expectations. For instance, she tells a producer she’s read Dostoevsky and he scoffs. In another scene, she fights for a better contract. Mostly, however, she seems to be a pushover, just trying to please people.
If Blonde wishes to bust through the myth of Monroe, it doesn’t seem to work. The movie suggests the denial of a father so hobbled her, the winning of fame and fortune took nothing to achieve and meant nothing to her when she arrived. It’s a life that doesn’t make sense, but I’m not sure the film is trying to state that or tell us all Monroe wanted was an off ramp.
All subtextual guesswork aside, the part of Monroe is played by Ana de Armas. There are a few other familiar names in the cast, but the sun around which this film orbits is Armas. Armas is Cuban and Spanish and is mostly able to keep her native accent from slipping into Monroe’s speech. It helps that Monroe spoke in a wispy, childlike voice (according to the film, on and off screen), which masques any lapses, but that is nitpicking.
Blonde is an Oscar vehicle for Armas, as well as many other categories. The film knows this and so does Armas, and the Academy will be unable to resist a glimpse behind its own curtain—at the traumatic unspooling of one its own. I’m not predicting it will win Oscars, but I’m confident it will be nominated in multiple categories. Acting, direction, editing, cinematography and more.
It’s a technically wonderful film, the height of craft and artistry. But there is also artistry in filming a car chase or a grand battle. I wanted Blonde to be more than its mise en scene.
Indeed, it mugs for attention too much and becomes cloying. There is an unneeded twenty minutes of screams, dizziness, alcohol, pills, and bad dreams. Despite this, Blonde’s ethereality and structure helps it to avoid any flavor of book report, which is typical of many so-called ‘biopics.’ Blonde is a cul de sac of moments in Monroe’s life more than a story with a through line.
A final word on identity. Blonde was made by and released on Netflix. It will appear in a few art house movie theaters, but most viewers will stream it. The film industry is undergoing its own identity crisis. Covid accelerated that, but who would have imagined at the dawn of cinema and even pre-2020 the ‘best’ pictures of the year would mainly be seen in the home?
Are blockbusters such as Top Gun: Maverick and kids fare like Minions to be sequestered from the more serious and award-fodder films? Time was that films screening at prestigious festivals such as Cannes and Sundance would also be seen by the general public in the theater. In 2022, popcorn movies are the only reason to visit the cineplex and buy a bag of popcorn.
The Marilyn Monroe of Blonde and the motion picture business (and America) seem to share a crisis of identity. A coincidence? I think not.
BLAST RATING: 3 OUT OF 4 STARS