On a recent Friday night I sat down in front of my big screen with no little trepidation to invite Blonde the new Netflix film about Marilyn Monroe, into my home. Was this biopic directed by Andrew Dominik based on a decades’ old novel by Joyce Carol Oates really as God awful as professional reviewers and legions of social media critics had led me to believe?
It was not. It was, to be sure, awfully long (Full disclosure: I watched it in two sittings, which is not an indictment of this film. The length of most movies these days tests my endurance.) The length of Blonde is somewhat justified because the film is mythic in substance, style and vision. Coincidently it’s only 2 minutes longer than a similarly bold and challenging biopic from 1988 that it most resembles — Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ.
Though Scorsese’s film (based on a novel of the same name by Nikos Kazantzakis) had a more favorable critical reception, it too stirred negative passions. Talk radio, the social media of the time, devoted hours to condemning it; Christian churches organized boycotts against it; Blockbuster, the motherlode of home video, refused to carry it. There are numerous other similarities between the two films. Both contain jarring cinematic choices. While Blonde features a talking fetus, Last Temptation offers a talking snake; where Blonde gives us a view up Marilyn’s vagina, Last Temptation treats us to Jesus sticking a hand through his flesh and pulling out his heart; Jesus gags at the smell of Lazarus’s body, Marilyn sticks her head in a toilet; both films present what have been labeled as gratuitous displays of flesh.
Most scandalously, Last Temptation, has Jesus enter the bedroom of Mary Magdalene where she reclines on her bed after a day of servicing her customers. In Blonde Marilyn enters JFK’s bedroom, where the president reclines on his bed conducting state business. Magdalene challenges Jesus to have sex with her; JFK orders Marilyn to give him a blow job. Jesus, the apostle of the spirit, declines Mary’s challenge. Marilyn the apostle of the flesh submits to JFK. In both instances the strength of each is perverted. Jesus is mocked by his spiritualism and Marilyn is humiliated by her sensuality.
In the opening “Note” to her novel Blonde, Oates warns readers not to rely on it for historical facts about Marilyn*. Last Temptation begins with a similar disclaimer about the film’s fidelity to the Bible. This is critical to the audience’s perception and understanding of both projects as essentially fictional accounts. Why that is so important is that the artistry involved here is myth making — not journalism or history or even gossip. They are myth making in the classic sense…Jesus/God of the spirit; Marilyn/Goddess of the flesh. Both mythic figures have taken on a life burden — not of their own choosing — to suffer for humanity. It’s a heavy, often grim burden, which is reflected in the persona of each mythic figure, neither of which is portrayed with much lightness and mirth. How could they be? They are both consumed by questions of personal identity and purpose. We all are haunted by these questions to one degree or another, of course, but these two serve as our proxies in searching for the answers.
Both characters have to battle their own duality. Jesus in the beginning is a carpenter who makes crosses for the Romans to crucify Jews, and he recoils at being a Messiah out of fear and confusion over what it would mean. Marilyn clings to the identity of Norma Jeane, resisting…almost abhorring…the manifestation of herself as Marilyn Monroe and the high price of that.
These two intertwining myths both focus on finding answers in their fathers. Their mothers bear mute or ineffectual witness to their lives as both these children go off in maddening quest for atonement with their fathers. Both have fitful contact with their fathers where they have momentary clarity on what’s expected of them and when the day of atonement might arrive. But both endure heartbreaking anguish that leave them with nothing left to do but cry out, “Father why hath thou forsaken me?”
Along their mythic journey the God and the Goddess frustrate and disappoint their followers by some of the choices they make. We want them to make the right ones…for us…to satisfy our needs and desires and make us feel hopeful about our own fate. We want Jesus to lift up the Jews, vanquish the Romans, miracle himself off the cross; we want Marilyn to win Oscars, have the athlete/author husband, a gaggle of supportive girlfriends, and happy children — -to have it all. The myth reveals the struggle in all that…the suffering and sacrifice it takes, the ultimate disappointment,. This is why there’s such a thing as the Stations of the Cross…this is why Blonde will not be the last reenactment of the Marilyn Monroe story, nor should it be.
Near the end of Last Temptation of Christ, Jesus who has fantasized on the cross about choosing domestic bliss over crucifixion, encounters Saul/Paul telling the story of Jesus the Messiah in a town square. Jesus confronts him, and angrily tells him that he has it all wrong, that he didn’t die on the cross, he’s not the Messiah. Saul/Paul replies, I tell the story now. If I need you to be crucified, you’ll be crucified; if need you to be resurrected you’ll be resurrected. As it is with Jesus, so it is with Marilyn.
The producers of Blonde, like much of the country, could not have anticipated that the US Supreme Court would go completely off the rails and overturn Roe v. Wade just as their film was being released. As it is, with all that they’ve taken on with this provocative movie, they also have to contend with justifiably heightened sensitivities about the issue of abortion. This has imposed a social/political assessment of the film based on current events, which is never good for art. As a pro choice voter, I found the film to be no more anti-choice than, say, Rosemary’s Baby, was pro-life. Filmmakers should be allowed to use whatever metaphors, symbols, analogies necessary to tell their stories. When Marilyn is seen lamenting her abortions…indeed when the talking fetus arrives on scene to scold her for her abortions…the lament is for her own painful uprootedness…for the way she was ripped from “the womb” of a happy home with loving parents. If expressing that kind of pain and regret does not fit a political agenda, perhaps the political agenda should be edited rather than the movie.
Finally, this brief for Blonde would be amiss if amidst this myth-making dialectic, I made no mention of the the film’s most stunningly pure movie making strength…the performance of Ana de Armas as Norma Jeane/Marilyn. De Armas is in nearly every scene of this epic length film and is alternately luminous and mesmerizing throughout. It is the best reanimation of a historical figure since Daniel Day Lewis raised Abraham Lincoln from the dead.
* At the very end of the credits roll, Blonde provides the traditional disclaimer that “the characters and events depicted in this program are fictitious. No depiction of actual people or events is intended”.
And thanks to critic Mel Campbell I learned that in an earlier incarnation as an Australian TV mini series, Blonde opened with the disclaimer that it was fiction.