Rated NC-17. At the landmark Kendall Square.
Andrew Dominick’s “Blonde” is a “Phantom of the Opera” whose phantom hides its psychological scars behind the mask of a Hollywood screen goddess. Based on the 2000 novel by Joyce Carol Oates, the beautifully shot, nearly three-hour film, which switches from color to black-and-white, portrays Marilyn Monroe as a damaged flesh-and-blood human being. And a semi-divine, hypersexualized product of the 1950s studio system. The creation was fodder for gossip columns, abused and victimized by powerful men and designed to attract audiences, especially men, to movie theaters. As the blonde of the title, Cuban actor Ana de Armas is truly heartwarming. Her Monroe is, yes, beautiful and sexy, but also delightful, vulnerable, deeply talented, far more intelligent and self-aware than she’s ever been given credit for, and tragic. It’s an exciting, star-making performance.
Medford’s Julianne Nicholson is also excellent as Gladys, the mother of the young orphan Norma Jean Baker (a fine Lily Fisher). Following Oates’s Freudian lead, Dominic creates a father myth for Munro when the mentally unstable Gladys gives her daughter a dramatic image of a dark-haired man, telling her that he is her father, but She cannot speak his name. The film’s Marilyn calls her male companions “Daddy” for the rest of her life. After starting out in modeling, Marilyn began acting and was attacked at her first major studio audition. Much of “Blonde” is featured in a scene in which Norma Jean’s mother takes her as a child to the smoke-and-flame hills of Hollywood. Welcome to hell, honey. Marilyn learns to keep herself in the “circle of light” from an acting coach. She would need this skill to protect herself from most men.
Marlin got his break playing the troubled Neal in “Don’t Bother to Knock” (1952). She also gets involved in a bawdy threesome with the sons of Charlie Chaplin and Edward G. Robinson. D’Armes is topless in a lot of “blonde”. We see simulated sex. But that NC-17 rating is as over-the-top as some of the dialogue (Dominique adapted the novel). Dominique chooses to distort the image to make it appear as if the threesome bodies are merging. “Niagara” (1953) makes Monroe a sensation, if not a human waterfall. Daryl F. Zanuck bought “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes” for her. But Gene Russell makes 20 times more. Also, Monroe would be forced to have an abortion to keep production going.
Giant, imposing images of Monroe appear on theater marquees. She is larger than life, a modern-day sex goddess. We see D’Armes reenacting the “diamonds are a girl’s best friend” routine. She is very nice. But Monroe was famous. The movie’s Marilyn starts using pills and alcohol to self-medicate. She marries Joe DiMaggio (Bobby Cannavale) to get out of Hollywood and study acting in New York City. But he is devilishly jealous and kills her. Monroe did not invent the “male gaze.” But he turned it into his superpower. She marries renowned playwright Arthur Miller (Academy Award winner Adrien Brody) and almost captures the happiness that has turned her perverse. In the end, she becomes a victim of brutal treatment by an unnamed JFK. “Am I the one delivering the meat?” He wonders if his life is a wilderness of broken glass, ringing phones, talking fetuses, drinking, drugs and perhaps the voices of an imaginary, letter-writing father. He needs a doctor on set to complete “Some Like It Hot” (1959). “Blonde” is a haunting, disturbing revelation of Hollywood’s most obsessed star. If you liked “Monk,” “Blonde” will once again send you to movie heaven … and hell.
“Blonde” contains nudity, simulated sex, profanity, drug use and sexual violence.