★★★ out of 5 -- Rated: NC-17 -- Run time: 2 hours, 46 minutes
Marilyn Monroe died 60 years ago last month, and the fascination about her tragic life seems to only have grown. Rumors, innuendo and gossip followed the actress both in life and in death.
In 2000, author Joyce Carol Oates wrote a 752-page “fictional novel” titled “Blonde” about the actress, stressing that it wasn’t meant to be autobiographical. “Blonde” quickly became a two-part TV movie that aired in 2001, but now it’s getting the bigger-budget treatment from writer/director Andrew Dominik (“The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford”). Filming began back in 2019 and after COVID and other delays, the much-anticipated 2-hour-and-46-minute movie has finally hit theaters in a limited run, with a wide release on Netflix on Sept. 28.
The film begins with a look at the childhood of a young Norma Jeane, which thanks to her unbalanced mother -- played by Julianne Nicholson (“Mare of Easttown”) -- is not a happy one and foreshadows the daddy issues that will come up later. Norma Jeane is soon dumped at an orphanage and the story then jolts forward a few years where the adult Marilyn (exceptionally well-played by Ana de Armas) is introduced in a montage of wonderfully re-created publicity photos from her early acting days.
The Cuban-born de Armas doesn’t seem like an obvious choice to play Monroe (both Naomi Watts & Jessica Chastain were supposed to star) but the actress who showcased her talents in the wonderful “Knives Out” and stole her scenes as a CIA agent in “No Time to Die” is a perfect fit to portray the screen icon. The actress delivers an awards-worthy performance as she runs the emotional gamut of a woman who is abused, taken advantage of, needy, underestimated and also adored. One of the better scenes (and I wish there were more of them) is when Monroe demonstrates her strength during a phone call with her agent where she objects after finding out that her co-star in “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes” is getting a much higher salary.
The superb supporting cast includes the actors playing two of Monroe’s husbands: Bobby Cannavale (“Boardwalk Empire”) as a darker version of baseball legend Joe DiMaggio and Adrien Brody (“The Pianist”) as the more sympathetic playwright Arthur Miller.
Writer/director Dominik goes back and forth between black-and-white and color throughout the film, which plays well with many of the re-creations of famous Monroe movie scenes, newsreel footage and press photos. One of his more interesting shots is an extended take looking out the window of Monroe’s limousine at the faces of people lined up for one of her premieres.
The filmmaker gets very graphic in telling the darker side of Monroe’s life, with a very explicit oral sex scene involving Monroe and JFK (Caspar Phillipson) that goes a long way to justify the NC-17 rating this movie received. There’s another brutal sequence where the aspiring starlet is sexually taken advantage of by a studio boss. The dark tone of the film continues with multiple abortion scenes, one of which gets very bizarre by featuring a talking fetus. Perhaps the director should have considered dialing back some of those scenes.
Despite some great performances and memorable images, “Blonde” overall feels dark, bloated and long. Marilyn Monroe led a fascinating and tragic life and it feels unnecessary that the story mixes in sensational, fictional events. (The film details Monroe’s extended, sexual relationship & close friendship with the sons of Edward G. Robinson and Charlie Chaplain, although there’s only a record of her having briefly dated one of them.)
My takeaway is that de Armas is an incredible actress, but to find out more about Monroe’s real story, I’d rather see a good documentary that details her actual life.