Based on the novel by Joyce Carol Oates, Blonde is about the tumultuous life of Marilyn Monroe told through elements of fiction, legends, and exaggerations that play into a woman’s struggle with her identity. Written for the screen and directed by Andrew Dominik, the film is an unconventional character study that play into the life of Marilyn Monroe and her struggle to be this persona as well as who she is as she is portrayed by Ana de Armas. Also starring Adrien Brody, Xavier Samuel, Bobby Cannavale, and Julianne Nicholson. Blonde is a haunting and provocative film from Andrew Dominik.
The life and career of Marilyn Monroe is a story that’s been told through many films, documentaries, and in books that ponder how a woman who was one of the biggest film stars in the 1950s die so tragically in 1962 through an overdose of barbiturates. There have been a lot of stories about Monroe that wonder a woman who had entertained millions of people yet was also insecure about her skills as an actress as well as having to please people through three failed marriages as well as many rumors about her life. What Andrew Dominik does with this story of Monroe is take Joyce Carol Oates’ largely fictional novel about the film star and turn it into this unsettling and discomforting film that is mainly the anti-bio-pic. Notably as the film is more about the woman who inhabits the role of Marilyn Monroe in Norma Jeane Baker who would find success as Monroe but would have trouble trying to balance in being Baker and Monroe.
Dominik’s screenplay is straightforward in its narrative as it goes from Baker as a child (Lily Fisher) living with a mentally-ill mother in Gladys (Julianne Nicholson) to her final years being all alone and searching for her father (Tygh Runyan) whom she had never met yet would receive letters from him during her period of stardom as it becomes an obsession she has in trying to find him. The first is about Baker’s life as a child and then a pinup model who also did nude photos as she aspires to be an actress where she would get early film roles and attention as well as be in a polyamorous relationship with Cass Chaplin (Xavier Samuel) and Eddy Robinson (Evan Williams) who are the sons of famous actors. Yet, Baker’s desire to have a normal life and a family would often be pushed aside for her career as its second act is about her relationship with a former baseball player, in this fictionalized version of Joe DiMaggio (Bobby Cannavale), who would later be angered by the attention she gets as a sex symbol. The third act begins in New York 1955 when she met a playwright (Adrien Brody) who would treat her kindly and give her a life away from the glitz and glamour but tragedy and addiction would lead to her downward spiral.
Dominik’s direction is definitely stylish in not just the overall presentation with the usage of different aspect ratios with the 1:33:1 and 1:66:1 aspect ratios used commonly throughout the film. Shot largely on location in Los Angeles and areas in Southern California, Dominik creates a film that play into a woman being caught in the middle of this idea of fantasy and reality as one notable sequence in the first act is when the 7-year old Baker is woken up by her mother to see the Hollywood Hills being burned where Gladys claims that Baker’s father lives there. Yet, it is this scene that do play into a world that Baker is going into where she would later describe as Hell as it would be followed by Gladys having a mental breakdown. There are some usage of the 1:85:1 and 2:39:1 aspect ratios in a few scenes that play into Baker’s own ascent but also her own desires to have some freedom as she becomes an adult. Dominik’s usage of close-ups and medium shots do help play into Monroe not only interacting with people but also showcase a woman whose desire for stardom also would have her in some degrading moments. Notably as she meets a studio boss who pulls down her panties and fucks her up in the ass in an act of rape.
The film’s sexual content isn’t exactly explicit except for a scene late in the third act involving an American president (Caspar Phillipson) that doesn’t exactly show anything but it is clear what Monroe is doing as it is later followed by an unseen act. Dominik doesn’t shy away from the fact that Monroe is seen as an object of desire that men want but there are also moments that are surreal where there’s a shot of the playwright’s face being blurred along with men’s jaws getting larger during a film premiere. It is among some of the surreal elements that includes an image of a womb in Baker’s stomach that play into her desire to have a family but the specter of Monroe overtakes Baker’s first chance while there is a more gruesome depiction of abortion late in the film that is also surreal yet terrifying as it add to Baker’s own declining mental state.
It is clear that the film isn’t just about a woman coping with mental illness and misogyny at a time when women didn’t get much say in their role in the entertainment industry. It is really a film that blends genres in not just drama but also horror as it play into this nightmare that Baker had put herself into. Even as Monroe would become this troubled figure that is difficult to work with on film as she struggles to connect with someone who will see her as just Baker. Though there are men such as Cass, Eddy, the playwright, and her assistant Whitey (Toby Huss) who do treat her kindly along with care and love. They were unable to deal with the chaos that is Monroe and her road to self-destruction as well as being used by others who treat her like meat or just another woman they can just fuck and find the next piece of ass they can sodomize. Overall, Dominik crafts a visceral and harrowing film about a woman wrestling with a persona that she created that gave her everything as well as nothing.
Cinematographer Chayse Irvin does incredible work with the film’s cinematography with its usage of black-and-white stock for some scenes in the film to play into the period of the times as well as some colorful work including the Hollywood Hills fire scene as well as some scenes at Monroe’s home in her final days. Editor Adam Robinson does excellent work with its usage of slow-motion shots, jump-cuts, and other stylish cuts to play into the drama. Production designer Florencia Martin, with set decorator Erin Fite and art director Peter Andrus, does amazing work with the look of the apartment that the young Baker and her mother lived in as well as the homes and film sets that Baker/Monroe would be in. Costume designer Jennifer Johnson does fantastic work in creating some of the clothes that Baker/Monroe wear including some of her iconic clothing in the films she’s been in.
Makeup artist Tina Roesler Kerwin does brilliant work with the look of Baker/Monroe from the hair and the look she would having including aspects of her body during her final years. Special effects supervisor Jeremy Hays, along with visual effects supervisors Jindrich Cervenka, Jason Melcher, and Phillip Moses, does terrific work with some of the visual effects including the design of Baker’s womb in her stomach as well as some of the surreal bits in the film. Sound designer Leslie Shatz does superb work with the sound in the way flash bulbs pop and other sparse elements in the sound to play into the drama and horror. The film’s music by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis is phenomenal in this haunting and disconcerting music score that mixes elements of electronic and ambient music that help play into Baker’s own psyche as it is a highlight of the film.
The casting by Victoria Thomas is marvelous as it feature some notable small roles and appearances from Chris Lemmon as his father Jack, Michael Masini as Tony Curtis, Scoot McNairy as Tommy Ewell, Garrett Dillahunt in an un-credited appearance as a film producer, Ravil Isyanov as filmmaker Billy Wilder, Lucy DeVito as the ex-athlete's niece who is one of the few in his family that is kind to her, Eric Matheny as Joseph Cotten, Sara Paxton as Gladys’ neighbor who brief takes the young Baker in, Tygh Runyan as a picture of Baker’s father, Lily Fisher as the young Norma Jeane, Dan Butler as an industry boss of Monroe in I.E. Shinn, and David Warshofsky in a fictionalized version of Darryl F. Zanuck who would rape Baker/Monroe in their first meeting. Toby Huss is terrific as Monroe’s personal assistant Allan “Whitey” Snyder who helps with her makeup as well as doing what he can to help including getting her pills. Caspar Phillipson is superb in his brief role as a fictionalized version of JFK as a man who is trying to run a country but also fuck as many beautiful women as he can as he treats Monroe like shit.
Xavier Samuel and Evan Williams are fantastic in their respective roles as Charles “Cass” Chaplin III and Edward “Eddy” G. Robinson Jr. as the sons of two film icons who become Baker’s lovers as they help her with their acting career but also do what they can to protect her despite their own flirtation with danger. Julianne Nicholson is excellent as Gladys as a woman that feels cursed by being daughter to a young girl as she exhibits serious mental problems while feeling distant when she meets Baker as an adult. Bobby Cannavale and Adrien Brody are brilliant in their respective roles as the fictionalized versions of Joe DiMaggio and Arthur Miller with Cannavale displaying a man that does love Monroe but becomes troubled by her fame as a sex symbol while Brody exhibits a sensitivity as a playwright who cared about her but is pushed away as he is unable to help her.
Finally, there’s Ana de Armas in a phenomenal performance as Norma Jeane Baker/Marilyn Monroe as a woman who is just trying to find love and be accepted as who she is only to go into a tumultuous and chaotic world where she is unable to really be herself. It is a performance that has de Armas take on an American accent as well as display that sense of anguish and longing of a woman that is desperate to be loved. Even as she had to endure not just humiliating moments but also moments that are degrading and horrifying as she succumbs to madness as well as a loss of identity in having to play a persona that ends up being just a nightmare. For de Armas, this is definitely a career-defining performance for the Cuban-Spanish actress who definitely proves that there’s a lot she can do while it is also proof that she’s really just getting started.
Blonde is an outstanding film from Andrew Dominik that features a towering leading performance from Ana de Armas. Along with its ensemble cast, rapturous visuals, a brooding music score, and its exploration of misogyny, identity, madness, and fame. It is a film that isn’t easy to watch while it is also willing to provoke the idea of myth and legend by showcasing a woman being trapped in a nightmare where she had no control of. In the end, Blonde is a magnificent film from Andrew Dominik.
Related: All About Eve - Some Like It Hot - Insignificance - My Week with Marilyn - Arthur Miller: Writer
Andrew Dominik Films: Chopper - The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford - Killing Them Softly - One More Time with Feeling - This Much I Know to Be True
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I'm glad this worked for you, even if it didn't for me. I too was a bit surprised at how not-explicit this film was after getting that NC-17 rating. I'm sure that 3rd act scene is what sealed it.
@Brittani-I was unsure about the rating until that moment though nothing was really shown but the presentation of it did deserve that NC-17 rating. I'm not surprised that people didn't like it but that's OK but I'm more upset at people who really didn't get it as it is clear they didn't see the film nor have an understanding of what is fact and what is fiction. I know it didn't work for you entirely but I'm glad we at least are on the same page on some things about the film.
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