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The Hollow Impersonation in Blonde

In life, Marilyn Monroe was a complex artist and human being. In the hands of Ana de Armas, she’s an eternal victim. Photo: Netflix

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Arthur Miller enters the Actors Studio, drawing its crowd into a reverent silence. Marilyn Monroe sits on a shadowy stage in front of him, about to perform, flanked on each side by other actors in a half-circle. She’s in a black dress, legs crossed and a coat slung over her shoulders, her face fixed in a terrified expression. “Marilyn Monroe? Here?” Miller muses. “Oh, he’s in love with her,” he says, nodding to the director and studio founder Elia Kazan, seen only from behind cradling a cigarette between his fingers. The scene cuts between Miller at the back of the audience, presumably at the studio to cast his next play, and Monroe in the center of that stage, there to train. The camera tracks closer and closer to their faces with each cut. His physicality has all the respect of an eye roll. Hers is fragile. Her gaze darts between the script pages shaking in her hands and the reactions glinting across Miller’s face. Tears dangle from her lash line like diamonds in suspended animation. When she’s called to speak, they fall. “Not my Magda,” Miller says definitively, referring to his first and unconsummated love, on whom a character in his play is based. Monroe’s mouth pops open, but she’s stopped from speaking by freeze frame. We don’t get to see her performance or regard the skill that ends up moving Miller to tears himself.

“Actress must have no mouth,” Monroe once wrote about the industry in a diaristic poem, collected in Fragments: Poems, Intimate Notes, Letters.

In Blonde, Andrew Dominik’s faithful film adaptation of Joyce Carol Oates’s hothouse Gothic novel, that casts Adrien Brody as the presumptuous yet softly rendered Miller and Ana de Armas as the immobilized Monroe, the actress must have no voice, either. It’s not that she doesn’t speak so much as what she says doesn’t matter as much as what she endures. In the next scene, de Armas’s Marilyn trepidatiously shares her ideas with Miller about Magda, referencing Anton Chekhov’s Three Sisters and probing the idealized memory he’s put on the page. He’s annoyed before being shocked by her perceptiveness; she recognizes that Magda struggles with English and was only pretending to read a poem he thought she loved. Monroe travels from timid to hurt to elated, always so eager for the approval and love of the men in her orbit. Here, the dynamics that define de Armas’s performance are in the spotlight: sherbet-soft eyes incessantly blinking; an airy, alluring voice; body language that prioritizes the expression of beauty rather than any emotional truth. “You could call me Norma,” she says to Miller, breathier with every syllable. “That’s my true name.” For Dominik and de Armas and so many other storytellers — including Fred Lawrence Guiles, whose 1967 serialized biography, “Norma Jean: The Life of Marilyn Monroe,” popularized the idea that Norma and Marilyn were two opposing sides of one woman — Monroe isn’t a human with interiority, so much as a myth to be peeled apart.

Over the 60 years since her death, Monroe’s history has become a vehicle for investigations into mid-century Americana, female sexuality and female madness, the cruelty of the Hollywood dream factory. Dominik’s Blonde both inherits and builds upon these considerations. It is a fictionalization of a fictionalization that is wild with visual experimentation, fluttering between aspect ratios, flinging from serenely wrought black-and-white cinematography to pastel-sweet color; a sensory experience meant to enrapture. Yet the film ultimately moves through her life narratively like the Monroe biopics that have come before, wedded to her trauma while forsaking the complex artistry and politics that glittered through her life. We watch Norma endure her mother’s abuse before Gladys is sent to a state-run mental hospital; we observe Marilyn’s marriages to Miller and Joe DiMaggio (a brutish, one-note Bobby Cannavale), and her struggles with addiction to alcohol and barbiturates; we get rather brief glimpses into the actual work she did onscreen, including in Don’t Bother to Knock, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, Niagara, and Some Like It Hot. The film hits every well-worn trope of the Monroe mythological canon, right down to the gender-essentialist belief that ties her madness to her failure to become a mother. Blonde is riddled with scenes of great trauma — rapes, forced abortions, near-death experiences — treated with all the care of a seven-car crash; the camera gawks before rolling up its window and driving away. This is a woman with little agency, who is defined by her relations with men, the horrors she has experienced, and her ragged past. As a survival method, she has supposedly split herself in two.

“In a sense, Norma Jeane Baker represents the authentic self — as we all possess ‘authentic selves’ usually hidden beneath layers of defensive personae,” Oates told Variety. “‘Marilyn Monroe’ is the performing self that really exists only when there is an audience.”

We all have public and private selves that flutter in and out of focus, but Monroe’s identity was likely more protean than Oates implies. Norma Jeane was the name given to a woman by an abusive family, and Marilyn Monroe was the name she legally adopted in 1956, six years before her death from a barbiturate overdose. Nonetheless, the calcification of her legend around half-truths and superstitions was immediate and profound. By the end of the 1960s, her great beauty and outward sexuality was exalted even as it was seen as her downfall, while gynecological terror and mental illness came to define her interiority. And so de Armas can’t help but channel the false notion that someone’s identity could be neatly halved. Her Monroe vacillates between a weeping, yearning, and vulnerable girl and a glittering screen icon prone to pill-addled hazes. Neither has interiority to speak of, beyond pain. On a date early in their relationship, Cannavale’s DiMaggio asks her how she got her start, and her smile cracks. The scene cuts to a flash of a studio executive raping Monroe. “What start?” Her eyes are as empty as her response; it’s as if she’s still figuring out what the words he threw at her actually mean. De Armas is committed to her performance, willing as she is to be the beautiful canvas upon which Dominik paints increasingly frightening misogynistic ideas.

Later in the film, Monroe is blissfully married to Miller and far from the glare of Hollywood’s debilitating machinations. When she enters his office she carries herself like a child seeking to uncover a glimpse of the inner life of an adult they admire. Her hands grace the pages of his work matching the gentle refrain of the Nick Cave and Warren Ellis score. But her delight is short-lived. She turns her head to see something that shocks her. Score stops. Camera zooms in. Hanging from the typewriter like a tongue is a page filled with words from a real conversation they had, during which she asked him not to write about her. She’s alone at this moment, and we’re primed to expect this betrayal to prompt a private, more authentic response. But when the camera cuts back from the typewriter to her face there is nothing. No wit. No curiosity. No fury. De Armas simply confirms rather than complicates the film’s insistence that Monroe is an eternal victim.

Dominik has admitted that he placed “some basic parameters” on the character that de Armas could not escape, “Anger is not in her toolbox, at least until she gets to the Some Like It Hot section.” So when de Armas’s Monroe is lip syncing to “I Wanna Be Loved By You,” going for total sweetness until her eyes suddenly dim, she unleashes a display of pure pathology. “You think I’m too dumb to comprehend the joke on me?” she howls at director Billy Wilder, unprompted. She claws at her face, leaving streaks of blood, before storming off. The real Monroe was known to radiate anxiety and fall into on-set dysfunction in the face of an industry that refused to respect her as an artist. But she had a shrewd understanding of the camera (for both still photography and film), to which even her most ardent detractors admit. Monroe used this skill to let people in. She could create a hushed intimacy with minute gestures toward a lens — an upheld chin, a swish of the hips, a blooming of her lips before a line. Whether she’s playing an earthen working-class dame in Clash by Night or joyfully subverting the dumb blonde in How to Marry a Millionaire and Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, she approached comedy with a graceful touch and impeccable timing, but also a hard-won refusal to be disconnected from her audience and made into a punchline. The trouble with being a woman and making your art look so natural is that the world believes you unaware of your own magic; you’re less skilled artist than unaware naif merely happening upon great talent.

De Armas’s problem is not that she appears natural. (She doesn’t.) Hers is the kind of acting that gets enshrined in biopics, in the sense that it makes the labor of its performance hyper-visible. That labor is never more visible than when de Armas adopts the breathy, bubbly voice associated with characters like the vivacious Lorelei in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. It’s a jarring choice during a sequence at the mental hospital, where Monroe is reconnecting with the mother who nearly killed her, and during the film’s first forced-abortion scene, as she pleads for the doctors to stop. Monroe didn’t use the affectation for every part, and there is recorded evidence that her casual speaking required far less effort. In a 1956 interview that took place after Monroe’s time at the Actors Studio in New York, her voice certainly sounds soft, but there’s a sturdiness to it. Reporters are bombarding her with questions. “Do you feel you have grown?” they ask. Monroe stalls, not wanting to fall into a trap. “I’m not talking about inches,” a female journalist clarifies over laughter. “Speaking of measurements, are they still the same as when you left?” another asks, remarking on her high-neck outfit. “Is this a new Marilyn, a new style?” Monroe retorts, “No, I’m the same person but it is a different suit.” Her eyes strategically drop and rise again with the joke.

In many ways, de Armas is playing the Monroe story too straight, and her recreation of Monroe is only uncanny if you care about the skin of the performance. For all her training, she can only adopt a threadbare approximation of Monroe that misses the vivacity and complications of the actress, which isn’t to say de Armas hasn’t shown promise elsewhere. She’s best when she’s not the gravitational force powering a narrative; rather, she’s its shot of relief. Its pressure valve. In No Time to Die, which she filmed right after Blonde, she’s a breath of fresh air in the film’s most successful action sequence. As both the AI holographic girlfriend in Blade Runner 2049 and the kind-hearted caregiver Marta Cabrera in Knives Out, she’s a mirror  for other people’s dreams, beliefs, and bad habits. Her performances require charm, and she provides it with sincerity, but they lack that knowing spark that Monroe mastered.

Monroe has proven impenetrable for other actors, too. Michelle Williams empathetically explores her insecurities in 2011’s My Week With Marilyn, but she lacks the effervescence. In the salacious 1996 TV movie Norma Jean & Marilyn, Ashley Judd plays Monroe before her plastic surgery and Mira Sorvino plays her afterwards. As a result, neither actress can conjure the dynamism of a full person. Monroe is literally a body to be cut into, and an autopsy to be made. The 2001 TV-movie adaptation of Blonde helmed by Joyce Chopra takes much of its ethos and story beats straight from Oates’s book, but Poppy Montgomery makes the smart decision to differentiate the voice her Monroe uses when performing and the one she uses among friends away from the screen. Still, she over-amplifies a sense of parodic sloppiness when it comes to playing scenes under the thrall of Monroe’s addiction. Perhaps only Theresa Russell in Nicolas Roeg’s completely fictional Insignificance crafts a performance that stands on its own. It isn’t so much that she has a significant vocal or visual resemblance to the star (though Russell does choose to forgo an outright breathy coo), but that she foregrounds Monroe’s curiosity and brightness. Somehow in the most boldly fictional work (at one point, Monroe explains the theory of relativity to Albert Einstein using toy cars, trains, soldiers, and some flashlights), Monroe feels the most human.

Why are women so often called to represent things rather than be things in film? Woman is a myth, is a representation of Hollywood’s depravity, of the totalizing nature of white women’s victimhood, of the nature of womanhood itself (which is to suffer, of course). But never herself. The Many Lives of Marilyn Monroe author Sarah Churchwell argues that storytellers too easily evade the ethical question about Monroe’s representation. “Marilyn was not only a fiction; she was not simply an icon,” she writes. “And it is wishful thinking to believe that focusing exclusively on the surface does anything but make her superficial.” Blonde, for all its posturing and virtuoso stylings, shores up a mythology — in death, Monroe remains a vessel into which directors and actors can pour their ideas about the entertainment industry and the broader patriarchy, female beauty and female image-making. Yet wallowing in these phantasms of feminine horror simply reaffirms the noxious misogyny these stories purport to dissect. What is lost when Monroe’s body is made into a screen onto which ideas about Hollywood’s moral turpitude can be continuously projected? The most evasive aspect of the legend, apparently: her humanity.

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The Hollow Impersonation in Blonde