Netflix’s New Marilyn Monroe Biopic, BLONDE, is a Lorazepam Lollipop
And my review of it addresses an even darker subject: us.
Yesterday, The New York Times published the results of a yearlong investigation into the systemic sexual abuse of female athletes in the U.S. Women’s Soccer League. Reading it made me sick to my stomach — a familiar feeling, I find, since the exploitation of women, young women in particular, appears to be an elixir that certain men can’t get enough of.
One coach called in an athlete on the pretense of showing her game footage and played pornography instead, masturbating to it. Every time she made a tactical error, he groped her. Half of the ten-team league’s coaches are now linked to allegations of verbal or sexual abuse.
Soccer officials knew about it and did nothing, of course. Why should they? The majority of them are drawing salaries that eclipse anything the female athletes are making. Hey, those yachts aren’t going to pay for themselves, you know.
If this sounds familiar, that’s because it is. For over two decades, starting in the late nineties, 368 members of USA Gymnastics, our training ground for future Olympians, were sexually abused. Most of them were minors at the time. Longtime team doctor Larry Nassar helped himself to at least 265 of them under the guise of “medical treatment,” and those are just the ones we know about. For every intrepid soul who comes forward, statistics show there are at least two others who refuse. The horrific amount of damage Nassar did to hundreds of women, and by extension, all women, beggars description.
And now we have Netflix’s new Marilyn Monroe biopic, BLONDE, from writer-director Andrew Dominik.
I usually start my movie reviews with a disclaimer. I’m not an industry professional, just another writer with an opinion — in this case, an opinion that happens to be shared by the vast majority of industry professionals who’ve seen BLONDE (on review consolidator Rotten Tomatoes, BLONDE has a 42% “rotten” rating, as of this writing.) But I’m not giving a disclaimer this time. I’m qualified to weigh in here because this is a film about a woman and I’m a woman; moreover, I’m a woman who, like Marilyn Monroe (although never ever at that level) made money a long time ago as a pinup. Hers is a world I know something about, particularly the creepy, unsettling feeling of being trapped within the male gaze.
Never a warm place, that gaze. When you are constantly hunted for sport, you become fey and vulnerable (Monroe) or you become bristly and defensive (me — or at least the me that was; these days, I’m a lot more chill.) Dominik makes that point in BLONDE. We see Monroe’s red carpet movie premier moments as the hearts of darkness they truly were: men leering from behind the velvet stanchions, mouths digitally stretched to appear like sharks’ mouths, ready to devour.
And she was. If you want to destroy someone, make them famous. Marilyn Monroe was eaten alive by predators and her own understandable failure to handle the white-hot spotlight of fame. Director Dominik understands that, but not in a nuanced way. That’s because Dominik is not a nuanced thinker. He’s a guy from Australia whose previous work was a testosterone-poisoned Brad Pitt vehicle called The Assassination of Jesse James (2007), a second, equally tone-deaf Pitt collaboration called Killing Them Softly (2012), some blokey motorcycle movie, and a documentary about his friend Nick Cave.
So you have to ask yourself: how on earth did a guy like that get green-lighted to write and direct a movie about a female movie icon like Norma Jeane Mortensen/Marilyn Monroe? When the brain trusts at Netflix were holding that meeting, did all the talented, experienced female movie directors suddenly go missing from their Rolodex? Because I’m not convinced any man, no matter how perceptive, could understand what it’s like to be young and female, let alone a public commodity like Marilyn Monroe. Dominik was doomed to failure the minute the ink dried on his contract. Only the bro-y kind of hubris I suspect him of having could have made him think tackling BLONDE was a good idea.
That said, here is my review.
At a run time of almost three hours, BLONDE is an hour too long. Dominik likes to think of himself as an art film director, which usually means long movies, but I am not exaggerating when I say that watching his Netflix debut filled me with horror, although not the kind he intended.
BLONDE, which is superficially based on a Joyce Carol Oates’ novel by the same name, is an exercise in unrelenting misery. Cormac McCarthy’s post-apocalyptic The Road is a gay romp by comparison. Starting with Monroe’s schizophrenic mother attempting to drive them into a wildfire (never happened) and then trying to drown little Norma Jeane in a bathtub (also never happened), every scene that should be moving, that should make us feel something, falls completely flat.
That’s because Dominik’s wildly self-conscious artiness (his over-use of black & white film and distorted aspect ratios) manages to trivialize the very real violence Marilyn suffered. Instead of earning our empathy, Dominik tries to squeeze it out of us like toothpaste. When violence is arty and romanticized, it greatly diminishes its horror. Dominik either doesn’t know or doesn’t care, which is why BLONDE feels like yet another violence done to Marilyn specifically, and women generally. This rape is merely done with a camera.
So much license is taken with the truth, it’s disorienting. This is Monroe without bones or agency. In Dominik’s hallucinatory, incoherent narrative, we see Marilyn Monroe as Blanche Dubois, timidly clinging to window curtains while biting her nails, staring at the world through bruised, tear-filled eyes. Like every other man in Monroe’s short, tragic life, Dominik has, with his massive vocabulary of film school camera angles, superimposed himself upon her.
This isn’t a movie about Marilyn Monroe. It’s a movie about him.
Thematic to BLONDE is the idea that Monroe suffered from crippling Daddy issues, which may have been true. Two of her failed marriages to older men (baseball legend Joe DiMaggio and tweedy intellectual playwright Arthur Miller) bear this out. Why then does Dominik try to sell us on the idea that Monroe was part of a “throuple” involving Charlie (Cass) Chaplin, Jr. (Xavier Samuel) and Edward “Eddy” G. Robinson, Jr. (Evan Williams), neither of whom, as sons of famous fathers, supports the Daddy narrative? That which does not or cannot reveal character, advance plot, or extend the theme of a story must be dismissed as gratuitous. Which is why these weirdly non-erotic threesome scenes leave you feeling tense and disappointed.
Ana de Armas’s performance is described by many as luminous. If the ability to weep copiously on command is the threshold for “luminous,” perhaps so. Watching her, I felt nothing — and I’m the world’s soggiest empath. De Armas’s Monroe is all affect. She sounds like a Cuban drag queen doing a Marilyn impression. To be fair, the dialogue is so overreaching and pretentious, de Armas didn’t have a lot to work with.
Dominik refers to BLONDE as “a dream,” and on principle, I am always on board with skillful attempts to push artistic boundaries. But the problem with trying to make a movie out of a metaphor (Monroe is a dream figure; BLONDE is a metafictional dream revealing that dream) is that is just doesn’t work. We feel nothing. The script and the acting scream at you like an opera of lunatics.
All the humanity is sucked out of the story when we see the interior walls of Monroe’s vagina while yet another abortion is performed. Or actress Ana de Armas in countless scenes without her top on, but never without makeup. Or in what is widely heralded as thinly veiled anti-abortion propaganda, the talking fetuses that Monroe aborted (at the Gentlemen Prefer Blondes premiere, Monroe mutters to herself, “For this, you killed your baby.”) Or in the now-infamous (and wholly made-up) scene where a drug-addled Monroe is dragged down a hotel corridor by Secret Service members so she can fellate President Kennedy. “Am I meat to be delivered?” she slurs. “Is that what this is — room service?”
Once again, the unnecessarily graphic JFK episode serves no purpose, which is why it comes across as exploitative, disturbing, and gross. Dominik’s Kennedy talks on the phone and watches missiles explode on television while Monroe meekly services him. What are we supposed to take away from that? What does that tell us that Dominik didn’t already try to scream at us a million times before? These are the reasons critics are calling BLONDE a voyeuristic, sado-masochistic piece of third-rate performance art.
Well, I’m calling it that, but I’m not wrong.
Here’s the part that genuinely disturbs me, and it’s not a scene in the movie. Watching a beautiful woman in anguish is itself a form of pornography. It assuages something deep and sadistic inside of us, and it should be what we’re talking about. The same impulse that drove Larry Nassar to molest children and the U.S. Women’s Soccer League coaches to masturbate in front of their female athletes is what compels film industry powerbrokers like Harvey Weinstein, Kevin Spacey, and Louis C.K to abuse women. If it’s sex they want, sex is available on nearly every street corner in America. But it isn’t sex they want. It’s power. These are men who get off on the thrill of coercion. Manipulating women (who, like all women, are socialized to be sexually compliant) into “putting out” is their big O, not the act itself. And this is part of the nuance that Andrew Dominik misses in BLONDE, one that a female director might have intrinsically picked up on.
What happened to Marilyn Monroe didn’t happen because she was an aging sex symbol addicted to bad relationships and barbiturates. It happened because in a society where women are valued primarily for their sexual attractiveness, every woman is expendable after her use-by date. For the same reasons we talk about raped women instead of male rapists and single mothers instead of deadbeat dads, Marilyn Monroe is made a victim of her own fame, beauty and desirability instead of a victim of our collective, quasi-sexual schadenfreude.
When will the camera’s lens finally be pointed in the right direction? Because the sickness wasn’t just in her.
It’s in us.
Copyright © 2022 Stacey Eskelin