How much do you know about Marilyn Monroe? There are, of course, the undeniable greatest hits: the hair, the lipstick, the billowing white dress. But maybe you also believe that she had an affair with JFK, or an affair with his brother RFK, or that the CIA killed her. Or was it the Mafia? Or a Kennedy?
The point is, it’s very easy to know a lot about Monroe without knowing anything at all. She’s familiar enough for us to feel like we should have an opinion on her, and sufficiently unknowable for that opinion to be just about anything. And so we come to Blonde, the latest production to take on Monroe, who, as the film poster notes, was “watched by all, seen by none.”
Blonde has certainly drummed up a level of controversy befitting its subject, even if it’s mostly courtesy of director Andrew Dominik. “There’s something in it to offend everyone,” he told Vulture, apparently both a warning and boast. Meanwhile the film's star, Ana de Armas, visited Monroe’s grave to seek permission to play her. The source material – Joyce Carol Oates’ novel of the same name – encourages scandalous creative freedom. Oates’ book doesn’t just blur the truth, it distorts it, imagining Monroe caught in throuples with Hollywood nepo babies and sordid hotel affairs.
But despite all that fanfare and, more appealing, the prospect of saying something new about the overexposed Monroe, Blonde is curiously traditional. Biopic tropes abound, and the shock factor – drugs! nudity! violence! – is played out.
Instead Blonde is a beautiful and harrowing tour of Monroe’s personal life, with a lot of what (might have) happened and not much why. Joe DiMaggio? He thought she was hot, but hated other people seeing her naked! Arthur Miller? He thought she was hot, but treated her like a kid! JFK? He thought she was hot, and actually that’s all there is to this one. Choosing to focus on any one of these relationships would have been more effective, and more likely to have resulted in something fresh. The film’s rather simplistic explanation is that Monroe is searching for a father figure; Monroe repeatedly calls her partners “daddy” in a bit which becomes tedious as soon as it begins.
It makes perfect sense that Blonde, after a weeklong cinematic release, has arrived on Netflix, where it will be watched in the comfort of people’s own homes, for this is the ultimate Wikipedia film. Was she actually in a three-way relationship with Charlie Chaplin Jr. and Edward Robinson Jr.? Was she really into Chekhov? Having a phone nearby is almost required to check whether a plot point is a true story, Oates’ fiction or a rumour. Often, it blurs all three. (Streaming also allows for intermittent relief: with almost three hours of gratuitous nudity and violence, Blonde will likely be paused, picked up again, or left unwatched.)
Like a late-night Wikipedia rabbit hole, Blonde is instantly gratifying, plainly salacious, but doesn’t leave much to the imagination. The film is interesting because Monroe’s life is interesting; most things involving film stars, famous athletes and presidents are. And while there are some striking images – contorted paparazzi faces, distorted sex scenes – it doesn’t delve much deeper than that.
Luckily Blonde has an exceedingly charming tour guide. While very bad things happen around Monroe, the camera is never far away from de Armas, alternately beaming and weeping. Her performance is a life raft. It’s a shame she’s let down by flat script. You’d think for a film so obsessed with iconic images – Marilyn reading, Marilyn gardening in a blue polka dot dress – there might be a few iconic one-liners. Monroe does at least get one. When she’s being sleazily ushered into JFK’s hotel room, she announces to the president’s heavies: “Am I meant to be delivered? Is that what this is? Room service?”
These moments offer glimpses of a better, brighter, fresher film. When Monroe is negotiating a higher rate for her role in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes – as she points out, she is the blonde being preferred – we see another personality, one which demonstrates a shrewdness and humour that must have been necessary for her to endure as long as she did at the level she was at. Those scenes, largely when de Armas is alone or staring herself down in a mirror, suggest that Monroe actually had three dimensions. Maybe a few biopics down the line, we might learn a bit more about her.
This article was first published on Esquire UK. Blonde is now showing in cinemas, and streaming on Netflix.