More than 60 years have passed since the death of Marilyn Monroe, but scrutiny of her life and death shows no signs of diminishing.
Perhaps only Diana, Princess of Wales holds a candle to her as a 20th century icon still subject to rumour, gossip and intrigue. They were both only 36 when they died.
Judging by the commotion around Netflix’s powerful image Blonde, which is at least three hours long, that enduring fascination might actually be intensifying.
The film is an adaptation of Joyce Carol Oates’ novel, a fictionalized account of Monroe’s life, which runs to over 700 pages. I read it once on vacation and needed another vacation when I finished it. It was quite hard.
So, in many ways, is the movie. Writer-director Andrew Dominik also directed The Assassination Of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford (2007), which was admired by some and left others scratching their heads.
It specializes in a fancy brand that is full throttle in Blonde, but I liked it a lot more than I expected.
Ana de Armas – apparently the third choice for the role – is terrific as Marilyn Monroe. While there are times when she looks like a pub tribute act, there are others when she looks amazingly like the real thing.
Blonde shows Monroe’s 36-year-old was defined as much by what she lacked as what she had
Ana de Armas plays Monroe. She would have been the third choice after Naomi Watts and Jessica Chastain, and many Hollywood eyebrows shot skyward when she was chosen.
She is, after all, Cuban. She has a Latin accent. No one, except perhaps Dominik, watched her charming through the 2019 film Knives Out, or playing a CIA agent in the latest Bond film No Time To Die, and thought of The Seven Year Itch.
Yet she is wonderful. Cuban vowels pop up here and there, but overall she nailed Monroe’s breathy vocals, and while there are times when she sounds like a pub tribute act, there are. others where she looks amazingly like the real thing.
Plus, Dominik very convincingly laid her down in sequences from Monroe’s most famous films.
The story begins with a miserable childhood in Los Angeles, with young Norma Jeane (Lily Fisher) being abused by a mentally unstable mother (Julianne Nicholson).
Later, she gets her break at the movies, like so many young actresses did in the heyday of a notoriously debauched industry, by submitting to the sweaty advances of a predatory producer.
Director Andrew Dominik has laid down Armas very convincingly in footage from Monroe’s most famous films
The men, it must be said, do not exactly emerge with the honors of this film. Charlie Chaplin’s son, Cass (Xavier Samuel), an early lover, plays an unspeakably cruel trick on him.
Baseball hero Joe DiMaggio (Bobby Cannavale), whom she married in 1954, adores her so much that he regularly beats her.
In one particularly shocking scene, President John F Kennedy (Caspar Phillipson, who also played JFK in the 2016 film Jackie), treats her no better than an underground prostitute.
Only the great playwright Arthur Miller (Adrien Brody), her husband after DiMaggio, behaves decently. But their marriage is doomed after she miscarries their baby (usually from Dominik, he has the fetus talking to her), and just as she does Some Like It Hot (1959), she is a liability of pills and tantrums.
Despite the studied weirdness with which much of it is presented – the switches from monochrome to color, voice-overs, blurry sequences and slow motion, all of which imbue the film with a dreamlike quality – the movie rocks , tragic the truths of his life are tackled head-on.
From childhood, she longed for her absent father and could have held a psychoanalysis conference on her own; his name for DiMaggio and Miller is ‘Daddy’.
Indeed, Blonde shows that her 36 years were defined as much by what she lacked (a father, a sensitive mother, children, stability) as by what she had (beauty, talent and unimaginable notoriety).
For those familiar with its history, which must be many if not most of us, there are some curious omissions. As in the book, there is no reference to her affairs with the other Kennedy brother, Robert.
But while the book, if I remember correctly, delivered as undeniable fact the theory that she was murdered, here the circumstances of her sad and lonely death are lightly faked in a deliberately chaotic blur of imagery.
In many ways, of course, it was also a chaotic blur of a lifetime.