‘Living Dead Girl’

‘Blonde’ is a joyless slog through the life of Marilyn Monroe

Ana de Armas as Marilyn Monroe in 'Blonde.'

She was born Norma Jean Baker in 1926, but she died Marilyn Monroe in 1962. Between those two dates and names lived one of the 20th century’s most enduring icons — a not-unusual collection of complications and contradictions exacerbated all the more because of our relationship as viewers and admirers. That angle has been revised, reimagined and recast many times, yet Monroe’s legacy endures not because of the revisions but in spite of them. Marilyn Monroe is famous in 2022 for the same reasons she was famous in 1962.

None of which escapes the eye of Andrew Dominik in his latest movie, Blonde — now streaming on Netflix. Working from Joyce Carol Oates’ 2000 novel, Blonde follows Monroe’s life from childhood (played by Lily Fisher) to infamy (Ana de Armas). The notable players are all present: her abusive and mentally unstable mother (Julianne Nicholson), husbands Joe DiMaggio (Bobby Cannavale) and Arthur Miller (Adrian Brody), director Billy Wilder (Ravil Isyanov), President John F. Kennedy (Caspar Phillipson), etc., etc. The only one absent is Norma Jean’s father (Tygh Runyan), who haunts her and the movie via a photograph, a handful of letters, a few questionable memories and a disembodied voice.

Dominik plays up the daddy angle in ways that feel simultaneously informative and exploitative. In one scene, DiMaggio bursts through Monroe’s bedroom door to confront her about the nude photos she took when she was young. The door opens, and DiMaggio finds Monroe lounging on the bed, reading a trade in nothing more than her underwear. The look on her face conveys all the casualness and comfort of a happy marriage, the kind where you walk around half-naked like it’s no big deal and feel safe all the time. Then DiMaggio strikes her, and Monroe transforms into a naked little girl cowering in the corner, asking for forgiveness from “Daddy” — her nickname for all her lovers. It’s a violent and uncomfortable scene underlining that no matter what Monroe does or how much she accomplishes, men will always remind her that she is nothing more than a sex object and that she should be ashamed for it.

Frustratingly, Blonde makes this point repeatedly and never rises above it. The moments of Monroe, the actor, are almost entirely exercised while Dominik has a damn near fetishistic field day with the look of Blonde. The aspect ratio pops back and forth between boxy Academy ratio and narrow anamorphic widescreen for no discernible reason — ditto for the use of black and white in some scenes; full color in others. If there is a method at work here, it is not easily unlocked on first viewing.

Blonde’s lone bright spot is de Armas. She’s game the whole way through (the film wouldn’t work if she weren’t). But like Dominik’s disinterest with Monroe the performer, his inability to capitalize on de Armas’ performance sinks Blonde. There are about a million ways you can go with the Monroe story, and Dominik settles on the one we’ve seen a million times before: A naked dead girl and questions about the father who was never there. 

For more, tune in to After Image Fridays at 3 p.m. on KGNU: 88.5 FM and online at kgnu.org.