Tuesday, October 4, 2022


Marilyn Monroe has always been treated as, to borrow a phrase from Rodgers and Hammerstein, an empty page that men would like to write on. This is certainly the case with every public figure who passes from famous to iconic. But for Monroe, whose objectification has long obscured her individuality, it’s denied her participation in her performances. She’s too much the image: the legs, the cleavage, the billowing skirt, the tasteful nudes, the mole, and, yes, the blonde hair. Her genius as a performer, perpetually underrated by some critics and reclaimed by other (smarter) ones, was typified in films such as Some Like it Hot or Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. She’d somehow play both the oblivious sexual object and the shrewd self-presenter as she subverted sexist expectations of those attempting to define her. And yet when she’s trapped in the cultural memory we are so often left with the shallow glamor and the sordid details. From made-for-TV biopics (1980’s Marilyn: The Untold Story) and the occasional prestige big screen effort (2011’s deadly dull My Week with Marilyn), the beats of her life are somehow placed on a pedestal of reverence even as such slobbering lends easily to condescension and objectification. Even when she died, as Elton John would remind us, all the papers had to say was that she was found in the nude.

Now here’s Andrew Dominik’s Blonde, which, like Baz Luhrmann’s Elvis, is interested in a mid-century icon as the icon, attempting to excavate in a freewheeling, loosely (or, in this case, tangentially) factual way, but feeling right about how they moved through the culture. But unlike Luhrhman’s glitzy, heartfelt montage, which has a palpable love for Presley every second, Dominik is largely skeptical of what Monroe did, and what was done to her. The movie has a blitz of montage and mix of style—varied colors and ratios and CG flights of fancy that trade off with a cold logic—that could only look slow and tame compared to Luhrmann (or Oliver Stone at his most manic), as it looks at Monroe from a cool remove. She’s Norma Jeane abused and exploited and rendered hollow by a culture that looks only at the surface, and a personality that grinds itself into traumatized dust. She’s played by Ana de Armas in a state of fret and worry, really only alive on screen or in bed. Her voice slippery and tremulous, pulsing with breath and anxiety, she fidgets and darts her eyes, looks up from underneath the makeup and hair done in a perfect simulacrum and steps into the spotlight, before retreating into the shadows again—or forced into yet another abusive situation. She’s beaten, raped, forced to have an abortion, run through a meat grinder of casting couches. All the time, she clings to the men in her life—a procession of famous men (Bobby Cannavale as Joe DiMaggio, Adrien Brody as Arthur Miller, Caspar Phillipson as JFK) who think only they really get her. The her she sees on the big screen, the one we all love, she doesn’t recognize herself in there.

Dominik has previously done good work exploring American myth-making. His The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford is a great late Western, casting a critical eye on the consequences of living out a life of disreputable legend, and, in its brilliant final sequences, what happens to those left after that life has gone. Similarly, his Killing Them Softly takes traditional crime movie tropes and makes them into a grubby mirror of capitalist self-congratulation, a talky swirl of potent political cynicism. With Blonde, adapting a Joyce Carol Oates novel that has a passing resemblance to reality, his vision of Monroe is troubled by superficial confusion. It’s interested in surfacing the real ugliness of parts of her life, and eliding any pleasure or control she may have had. Typical of the film’s interest in her work is a scene set in a theater playing the last scene of Some Like it Hot—with its hilarious final line chirped out with perfect timing by Joe E. Brown and wide-eyed reaction from Jack Lemmon. Dominik doesn’t let us hear any laughter from the crowd. Instead there’s eerie silence followed by sped-up footage of rapid-fire applause. Blonde creates a vision of Monroe’s stardom as nothing but product, served up to the masses in a va-va-voom wolf-whistle package. Watch the cross-cutting of the woman getting a—ahem—hand from a fella in a theater while the roaring waterfalls of the trailer for her film Niagara gush forth on the screen.

You can’t say the movie’s not boldly trying out its ideas. It’s lousy with thin Freudian analysis—the words “mother” and “daddy” are murmured here more often than in a Tennessee Williams play. Her mom (Julianne Nicholson) is cranked up near Faye Dunaway in Mommie Dearest levels (though “Get! In! The! Bath!” is no “No! Wire! Hangers!”), and pop is a black and white glamor shot that haunts her. (Echoes of familial tension are doubled by a CG fetus slowly twirling in amniotic fantasia.) It's perhaps perversely resistant to entertainment or nostalgia, dripping as it is with classic movie clips digitally altered to place new people in old shots, and copious period detail. Here Hollywood is shown as a suffocating spectacle that wraps Norma up in increasingly tight framing and sun-dappled faux-grain that cinches in just as her stardom expands. Her chaotic upbringing and tumultuous affairs are also grim—she never enjoys sex, and even the men who worship her body fall flat when getting access to it. JFK lounges with disinterest on the phone while she leans over his lap; more baroque configurations of bodies earlier in the film are blurred and bleakly mechanical; powerful men invade her and use her and think nothing of her. Here’s a stark movie that revels in its misery, and avoids all hero worship and vicarious success of the True Hollywood Story. Instead, it’s a burning Babylon of a city, with wildfires, broken women, and madmen whose suits buy them respect they don’t deserve. It’s a young woman with a tear running down her cheek. But Blonde isn’t interested in anything more that gorgeous misery. It just hurts. In doing so, the movie does the exact same thing it laments—turning her pain into its own narrative from which to profit. That leaves, no matter its intriguing qualities, its ambitions beyond its reach.

But at least it has reach, which is more than one can say for Olivia Wilde’s Don’t Worry Darling. It, too, wants to interrogate the prison of pining for mid-century femininity. Too bad it’s just a slice of Swiss—thin, cheesy, full of holes. This misfire wants to be a mysterious mind-bender of a picture in which an idealized 50’s suburban community is slowly revealed to be Up To No Good. (Gee, where have were heard that before?) Because it’s 2022, that means it starts like a bad episode of The Twilight Zone and ends like a typical episode of Black Mirror. Florence Pugh stars as a seemingly happy housewife who cooks and cleans and shops and takes ballet lessons and hangs with the other neighborhood women. It’s a company town where the men drive off to the plant and are in constant admiration of their boss (Chris Pine). Pugh starts to suspect something’s up with the men’s double-talk and the other weird sub-WandaVision breaks with reality revealing that everything’s pretty empty in this existence. She’s literally trapped behind glass walls or cracking open empty eggs. Get it? But the free-floating symbolism never adds up and a potentially interesting stew of topical and philosophical ideas get buried in the movie’s long, slow trudge—flat declarations, muddled revelations, confused supporting characterizations, perplexingly fuzzy world-building.

The irritating lack of specifics here—everything’s burnished and polished and vacant—make the eventual revelations feel all the more inadequate. It’s the kind of dull thriller that one thinks back through with full knowledge of the twists and finds it even more lacking. If that’s what’s going on, then it makes even less sense, one thinks. You could probably talk for hours with your friends about every nagging loose end of confused sub-twist, but, gosh, how boring would that be? The movie does have Pugh giving it her all, even with as inconsistent a scene partner as Harry Styles as her husband who loves getting down to business on her, and also endlessly twirling on stage for his buddies. And Pine is perfectly sinister as her foil, a masculinist phony clearly cultivating a cult of personality—he’s like a few prominent poisonous alt-right faux-intellectual men you might think of. But the movie clicks into its most interesting ideas right as it all falls apart, and makes such a hash of its conclusion that one feels all the more intently the waste of time it took to get there. Sure, kids these days might not’ve seen—and here’s a warning that if you’ve seen the following you’ll start to glean this one’s twists—The Stepford Wives or The Truman Show or Pleasantville or The Village. (They should, though!) Even they might smell this one’s meager second-hand nature.

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