The term “icon” has been so overused that it’s lost much of its impact.
But Marilyn Monroe, unquestionably, is one of the great American icons of the 20th century and beyond. There have been many sex symbols over the years, but she remains the sex symbol – overshadowing everyone from Marlene Dietrich and Rita Hayworth to Madonna and Kim Kardashian.
It’s hard to pin down exactly why, and that’s probably one reason why she’s been the subject of so many books and movies, whether on the big screen or TV.
Certainly, there’s something – a lot of things – about her that oozes sex: the eye-popping figure, the come-hither expressions that make her seem accessible and out of anyone’s league at the same time, the va-va-va-voom image created by the characters she played on screen and the one she maintained off-screen in the public eye.
But while sexual allure might be the No. 1 reason for our enduring fascination with her, the mystery and tragedy and contradictions of Marilyn Monroe are right up there, too. There was her obvious vulnerability: She seemed over her head when it came to her fame, to her image, to the expectations placed on her.
Anyone even vaguely familiar with her story probably knows something about her troubled, high-profile marriages to baseball Hall of Famer Joe DiMaggio and acclaimed playwright Arthur Miller, her suspected romances with the Kennedy brothers, her death at 36 caused by an overdose (at least, that’s the official story). Like Elvis Presley, another genuine icon who met an early end, she can be seen as a tragic figure of Shakespearean proportions.
Which brings us to the latest take on Marilyn: writer-director Andrew Dominik’s “Blonde” (NC-17, 166 minutes, in theaters Sept. 28). Based on a 1999 biographical fiction novel by Joyce Carol Oates and starring Ana de Armas in a tour de force performance, Dominik’s adaptation in many ways depicts Monroe’s life as a horror story.
The movie envelops you in her hellish existence, starting as a young girl – Norma Jean Baker – abused by a mentally unhinged single mother (Julianne Nicholson); then a casting-couch victim embarking on a Hollywood career; then a movie star overwhelmed by her celebrity and the pressures that come with it; then the temporary life partner of a brutish DiMaggio (Bobby Cannavale) and a distant Miller (Adrien Brody); and, finally, the drug and alcohol addict who becomes the sexual plaything of a president. And that’s just a cursory view of the heartache Monroe endures.
It’s relentlessly, oppressively depressing. It’s exhausting to watch, and it’s unlikely to be a blockbuster as a result. But there’s something admirably bold and uncompromising about Dominik’s interpretation – no surprise, given this is the same filmmaker who gave us the extraordinary revisionist Western “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford.”
As with that film, the performances in “Blonde” are all top-notch, with the work of de Armas (“Knives Out”) towering over all. De Armas plays Marilyn/Norma Jean as two people merged into one, and that one person is like a walking, talking open wound. She projects the extreme sexiness of her real-life counterpart (no easy task), and looks, acts and sounds (that breathless whisper of a delivery) like her. But she avoids turning in what could have been merely an excellent impersonation. Watch de Armas’ eyes, her expressions, and you’ll often see extreme, conflicting emotions so genuinely rendered that they take your breath away.
You have to take the movie with a grain of salt, though: It is, after all, a fictional view of a person’s life, as presented through the lenses of Dominik and novelist Oates. JFK does not come off looking good; nor does DiMaggio. And, who knows, for sure, what really was behind that familiar image of Marilyn Monroe? Maybe she was a lot happier, or a lot less pliant, than she is presented here.
Regardless of its accuracy, “Blonde” challenges you to think deeply about what lurks behind fame, or a public image, or anyone whose sole purpose becomes personifying the fantasies of everyone around her, including the drooling masses. *** (out of four)
** Click here for Tim Miller’s previous movie columns for Cape Cod Wave **
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Tim Miller is a Cape-based member of the Boston Society of Film Critics. He also teaches film and journalism at Cape Cod Community College in West Barnstable. You can contact Tim at [email protected] or follow him onTwitter @TimMillerCritic. Or you can ignore him completely.
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