The point of a biopic is to understand its subject. Isn’t it? I think so, though, for a long time, biopics seemed to exist to portray every significant moment in a person’s life, then sum it all up.* The best ones, however, examine a period of time or series of moments, then focus on behavior to tell us who someone is. The Social Network and Steve Jobs are just a few of the better offerings we’ve seen in the last few years.
But what happens when a biopic fundamentally doesn’t get its subject? An excellent example of this is 1989’s Wired, which focused on John Belushi. It was based on a book by Bob Woodward, who knows a thing or two about politics but is somewhat lacking in terms of his understanding of comedy. The result is a priggish book that almost entirely focuses on Belushi the addict and misses the appeal of Belushi the performer.
And the movie? Holy Christ, Wired is very, very bad. How bad is it? We have the ghost of Belushi hanging out with an angel. We have reenactments of SNL sketches that lack the comic genius of the originals. We have a film with an understanding of addiction on par with Nancy Reagan’s “Don’t Do Drugs” slogan. We have Woodward meeting the ghost of Belushi and Belushi uttering the immortal line, “Breathe for me, Woodward.” In short, Wired sucks.
However…it has a strong central performance by Michael Chiklis as Belushi. Chiklis gets the charisma, grace, and pain of Belushi, but he’s not in a movie that lives up to his performance. You would have thought after the trainwreck of Wired that people would have learned. But then films like Blonde come along, the new biopic about Marilyn Monroe. It proves that some lessons need to be relearned.
It’s 1933, and seven-year-old Norma Jeane (Lily Fisher) is surrounded by chaos. Her mother Gladys (Julianne Nicholson) shows her a picture of a rakish man with a pencil mustache. She tells the girl that the man is her father. Later, Gladys will attempt to drive through a fire to get to this man, and she’ll tell a police officer the man is well-connected in Hollywood. After that, Gladys will try to drown Norma Jeane in a bathtub.
It’s the late 1940s and the adult Norma Jeane (Ana de Armas) tries to break into Hollywood, under the stage name of Marilyn Monroe. She’s raped by the powerful head of a studio. She thinks she’s bombed an audition, her last and best chance to make it as an actor. But the casting director sees something in her, something unique, and she lands a role in Don’t Bother to Knock.
It’s the 1950s and Norma Jeane’s acting career just keeps going up. The identity of Marilyn Monroe promises an all-American sex appeal to audiences, as Norma Jeane keeps playing the same role over and over, that of the lovably ditzy blonde. Norma Jeane also enters into a throuple with Cass Chaplin (Xavier Samuel) and Eddy Robinson (Evan Williams), both the sons of famous men. They know that a name isn’t who you are. They ignore the icon of Marilyn and love Norma Jeane. This will be the last time that happens to her.
Time will pass. Norma Jeane will become one of the biggest stars in the history of cinema. She’ll be married to baseball legend Joe DiMaggio (Bobby Cannavale) for a time, be married to playwright Arthur Miller (Adrien Brody) for a time, and be the plaything of President Kennedy (Caspar Phillipson). She’ll learn that Marilyn Monroe is a machine, and the machine will have its pound of flesh.
Blonde is an absolutely maddening film because the aspects that work happen to work very well. Unfortunately, those aspects are eclipsed by languid pacing and a tone that veers and then collides into something that looks a hell of a lot like sadism. Understand that director Andrew Dominik is a genuinely thoughtful and talented filmmaker** with a distinct point of view. His craft is impeccable from a technical standpoint, as scenes shift from black and white to technicolor with shifting aspect ratios. Dominik mutes the sound or enhances the images at certain moments to enhance the emotion. While the film doesn’t need to have a nearly three-hour runtime, I understood why Dominik made every decision he made.
That’s part of the problem, though, because some of those decisions batter viewers mercilessly. Was it necessary for there to be a POV shot within Marilyn’s vagina during one of two forced abortion scenes? Did we need a very, very, very long sequence of Marilyn fellating JFK? Was this film made better by a shot of Marilyn vomiting directly at the camera or the scene where the fetus inside Marilyn begs her not to abort it? Even a sequence reenacting the iconic moment from The Seven Year Itch is meant to indict sleazy men leering at her like a piece of meat. When the sequence goes on to actually leer at her, it says to me a different and more subtle approach would have been better.
Dominik mentioned in an interview that he wanted to make a film showing the audience what it was like to be Marilyn Monroe. I get that, and his screenplay has an almost total focus on the sexual violence, addiction, and abuse she suffered at the hands of men. But did you know that Monroe set up her own production company, an act that helped to cripple the studio system? Or that she was not only a clever comedic actor but also a smart dramatic performer committed to method acting? The screenplay focuses so hard on the nightmare of the studio system that it almost fetishizes her suffering. It almost feels like you can’t go for more than five minutes without her sobbing. I think a more balanced approach would have yielded better results. Can you imagine if we’d seen a glimpse of the character actor Marilyn Monroe could have become? Something like that would have not only humanized her more but also made the tragedy of her downfall more profound.*** Instead, Monroe is victimized, over and over.
If you’ve read this far (and if you have, I’m so sorry), you might think Blonde is nothing more than an atrocity exhibition. The main reason to stick with this film is the performances. I liked Adrien Brody’s Arthur Miller, a man who genuinely loved Norma Jeane but was too emotionally reserved to offer her the support she needed. I also appreciated Bobby Cannavale’s Joe DiMaggio, an ex-athlete who simply could not deal with Marilyn’s volcanic sex appeal and resorted to violence.
Ana de Armas is in nearly every scene, and as the doomed Norma Jeane, she carries the film virtually singlehandedly and makes it worth watching. There are a few moments where you’ll think, “Wait a minute, since when was Marilyn Monroe Cuban?” De Armas’ accent slips just a little, but it doesn’t really matter. She allows us into the head of an icon in a vulnerable and creative performance. You want to know how good she is? There’s a scene (of which there are many) of Norma Jeane regarding herself in a mirror. She’s summoned by an off-screen voice. With a head tilt, lowered eyes, and a just-so smile, de Armas literally transforms from Norma Jeane into Marilyn Monroe in the space of a few seconds. That’s how good she is.
If the point of a biopic is to understand its subject, then Blonde understands that Norma Jeane suffered. Andrew Dominik was trying to make a point about the venality of the movie business and the horror of men’s treatment of women. But he forgot the old line from Walt Whitman, who wrote, “Very well, then, I contradict myself. I am large, I contain multitudes.” Marilyn Monroe was more than a victim of sexual violence, more than a drug addict. A better film would have reckoned with that.
*The remarkable comedy Walk Hard did a commendable job of killing off mediocre musician biopics like Walk the Line. For a while, anyway.
**His film The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford is a genuine masterpiece.
***It bears mentioning that Blonde is based on the novel by Joyce Carol Oates, and both works aren’t terribly concerned with sticking to the facts. I get that, and I understand that when a film is based on a true story, fidelity to the truth can kill drama. You might be curious if the real Marilyn was part of a throuple or if she was obsessed with her missing father. Check out this article that goes into the accuracy of the film.