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"Blonde": De Armas elevates Marilyn Monroe, the film victimizes her

Ana de Armas as Marilyn Monroe in "Blonde," singing "Diamonds Are a Girl's Best Friend" in "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes."


Starring Ana de Armas, Julianne Nicholson, Adrien Brody, Bobby Cannavale, Xavier Samuel, Garret Dillahunt, Toby Huss, Caspar Phillipson and Lily Fisher. Written and directed by Andrew Dominik, adapted from the novel by Joyce Carol Oates. Opens Friday at TIFF Bell Lightbox. 166 minutes. STC

⭐⭐1/2 (out of 4)

Peter Howell

Movie Critic

“They say I’m whistle bait, could be, but I’m forever meeting guys who don’t stop at a whistle. I’ve learned to handle them all.”

— Marilyn Monroe, “Wolves I Have Known”

The quote above is from a magazine essay published in January 1953, the year of Monroe’s big Hollywood breakthrough, when she had starring roles in “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes,” “How to Marry a Millionaire” and “Niagara.”

At age 26, Monroe knew who she was. She understood the smouldering sexuality of her screen image and the effect it had on people. She had a sad beginning and a tragic demise, but she was nobody’s fool and nobody’s victim.

That’s not the message we get in Andrew Dominik’s “Blonde,” which stars a luminous Ana de Armas in the title role. The Cuban actor brings much-needed compassion and believability to a film of harsh judgments, dirty whispers and lazy conclusions about one of the 20th century’s greatest movie icons.

Dominik humanized an infamous Wild West outlaw in “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford” and a gangland hit man in “Killing Them Softly.” Yet he’s unable or unwilling to extend the same courtesy to Marilyn Monroe.

To be fair, “Blonde” follows a gawk-and-pity template laid down by author Joyce Carol Oates in her 2000 bestselling novel of the same name, a 738-page doorstopper that stretched the definition of biography by injecting a large amount of wild supposition into known facts about Monroe.

Like the book, the nearly three-hour film depicts the former Norma Jeane Baker as a pathetic figure enduring daddy issues and a succession of rejections and abuse from preying and uncaring men. The plot takes a then-this-happened approach that numbs the viewer, despite Dominik’s attempts to liven up the frame with flashing lights, rapid edits, constant colour/B&W shifts, and bizarre images that include a vaginal POV shot and a talking fetus lamenting an abortion.

The film begins Monroe’s story in 1933, when seven-year-old Norma Jeane (Lily Fisher) is living in L.A. with her schizophrenic (and later institutionalized) mother, Gladys (Julianne Nicholson), who points to a faded wall photo of an actor resembling Clark Gable and declares him to be the girl’s father. Mother and daughter undergo near-death experiences by fire and water, and Norma Jeane finds herself in the care of state authorities. She’s an orphan in name if not reality.

Jump to circa 1950, when Norma Jeane is now the starlet Marilyn Monroe, being casually raped in the office of a studio mogul called Mr. Z (allegedly Fox boss Darryl Zanuck), her “audition” for a small but important role in “All About Eve,” which will become the year’s big Oscar winner.

This mercifully brief scene begins a series of degradations at male hands that will include Monroe’s marriages to “the Ex-Athlete” (a.k.a. baseball great Joe DiMaggio, played by an intense Bobby Cannavale) and “the Playwright” (a.k.a. Pulitzer-winning writer Arthur Miller, played by an owlish Adrien Brody). The first spouse is jealous and violent; the second is condescending and exploitive.

Later we’ll see arguably Monroe’s greatest humiliation and the film’s most tawdry moment. She’s summoned to the hotel room of President John F. Kennedy (Caspar Phillipson) to administer oral sex while he’s on the phone (“Am I room service?” she asks JFK’s security men) while cartoonish images of rockets appear on a nearby TV set.

Dominik allows Monroe just one brief interlude of joyful agency in her sex life, a time early in her career when she simultaneously dates the look-alike sons of two famous actors: Charlie Chaplin Jr. (Xavier Samuel) and Eddy G. Robinson Jr. (Evan Williams), who identify and sympathize with her absent-father loneliness. Yet even this playful ménage à trois, based on rumour rather than fact, will eventually lead to unhappiness.

It’s a pity we don’t see more of Allan “Whitey” Snyder (Toby Huss), Monroe’s personal makeup man and crafter of her unique look, who might be the only male in the movie who isn’t trying to exploit her.

Through it all, and including the termination of at least two pregnancies through abortion and miscarriage, Monroe maintains a grim stoicism in private and a carefree ebullience in public.

Expressing all these emotions and experiences demands a lot of actor de Armas, who rises to the challenge superbly and makes me inclined to give the movie a pass on the basis of her performance alone.

She resembles and moves like Monroe enough that in scenes recreating some of the star’s most famous moments — such as the “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend” number from “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes” and the subway-grate “flying skirt” PR stunt for “The Seven Year Itch” — it’s hard to tell the icon from the actor.

De Armas also conveys Monroe’s breathy whisper of a voice, so intoxicating to male ears, with barely a trace of her natural Cuban accent. Don’t believe any comments made to the contrary.

Most of all, she conveys Monroe’s inner fortitude, undoubtedly true to life. She makes you believe the “I’ve learned to handle them all” boast about navigating the many toxic males in Monroe’s orbit, even if it was more aspirational than actual.

When the time inevitably arrives to depicts Monroe’s tragic 1962 death at age 36, an apparent suicide through drug overdose, de Armas summons genuine feelings of grief and loss as the film exercises rare restraint.

De Armas elevates Marilyn Monroe with her performance. Dominik, like author Oates before him, sullies the icon’s memory by emphasizing gossip over fact. “Blonde” remains an imperfect account of a perfectly captivating individual. 🌓

(Originally published in the Toronto Star.)

Twitter: @peterhowellfilm

The real Marilyn Monroe, singing "Diamonds Are a Girl's Best Friend" in "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes."


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