Biopic Theater makes its triumphant return with a TV movie doomed to irrelevancy after next year (barring release dates don’t change). If you read my News From the Lake post from a few weeks back, you’ll recall the announcement that director Andrew Dominik was adapting Joyce Carol Oates’ fictional Marilyn Monroe novel, Blonde, with Jessica Chastain. Several critics and biopic fans felt another Marilyn biopic was as necessary as a hole in the head, no doubt recalling Michelle Williams’ award-nominated performance in My Week With Marilyn a few years ago. Either way, it’s harder to find people who remember the first time Blonde was adapted for the screen, the small screen that is. This 2001 Joyce Chopra-directed adaptation aired on television to little fanfare despite the rather prestigious cast. This is, by far, one of the best made-for-TV films I’ve reviewed, and while it stumbles into typical Monroe territory a time or two, the worthy script provides context and motivation for everyone, preventing its devolving into smut or caricature.
Marilyn Monroe’s (Poppy Montgomery) life is presented in a fictionalized account wherein her, her various friends, family, and lovers all recount her life and road to stardom.
I’ve yet to read Oates’ Blonde, but based on what I’ve been told the novel acts under the guise you know enough about Marilyn and her life to identify the unnamed cast of characters, particularly her husbands and lovers. Marilyn’s three husbands are renamed or given monikers like “The Playwright” and “The Baseball Player.” The intent is to remove them from the equation, turning them into nameless, requisite stepping stones. If you’re well-versed in Marilyn’s story you’ll figure them out easily; they’re deduced even easier in visual format where attention to detail is paramount. Blonde is one of the few biopics I’ve reviewed wherein it’s very easy to figure out who’s who. You might be unable to figure out who Mr. R, the studio head is in the novel, but seeing him portrayed by Richard Roxburgh helps you realize he’s Darryl F. Zanuck.
Director Joyce Chopra’s forte directing in the past is female sexuality, and she tries to break down the image of Marilyn Monroe as a little girl lost. Unfortunately, Marilyn herself isn’t where that focus is found. The movie uses a narrative technique last seen in White Hot: The Thelma Todd Story, where all the people Marilyn came in contact with are interviewed in a psychiatrist’s office of some kind (the exception being Marilyn’s mother whose interviewed in what looks like a smoky bar). Marilyn herself is placed on the doctor’s couch, giving us narration and insight into what she felt about certain events at the time. Blonde’s tagline is “Imagine if Marilyn Monroe could tell you her secrets…” implying a lascivious tale which isn’t the case. The narrative device helps Marilyn find catharsis, telling her therapist (her public watching the movie of her life) about the real her. The script, written by Joyce Eliason (a lot of Joyce’s associated with this production), has some beautiful prose, but you might find it hard to believe Marilyn would say certain lines like “Some of us were born here. And some of us will die here.” The thing is, this movie is all about questioning what you believe about Marilyn. We’re not presented with a dumb blonde. One of the characters even says the problem was she wasn’t a dumb blonde. Compared to other Marilyn biopics where we watch her be victimized, yet at the same time she has no agency or devotion to anything other than being famous, this Marilyn is given context and desires to change what’s happened to her. Her career is ancillary to her own personal well-being.
That’s not to say the movie doesn’t fall victim to treating Marilyn as such. Over half of Blonde’s first part explores Marilyn, nee Norma Jean’s, childhood where the strongest elements are found because the script isn’t rushing to hit certain roadblocks, probably because so much of Marilyn’s childhood remains mired in hearsay. Norma Jean, played by Skye McCole Bartusiak, is torn between a love for her mentally unstable mother, Gladys (Patricia Richardson) and her grandmother, Della (Ann-Margret). These scenes are the strongest because Richardson and Margret are fantastic! So much of their history is unrevealed, but it’s obvious Gladys is responsible for her mistakes in the past; Della refers to possible drug abuse. However, Gladys is both selfish and mentally ill. Richardson is given some great scenery to chew, hitting the required “crazy” moments of almost scalding her child, but Richardson imbues a sense of tortured, past trauma into the character. For all their faults, Marilyn and her mother were two of a kind, plagued by fears of failure, mental illness, and possible trauma. These moments aren’t perfect, especially with young Norma Jean almost being molested, an instance mitigated by the perpetrator turning into a decent guy? There are moments of rape in this biopic, although nothing nearly as chronic as in past Marilyn stories. A moment with Darryl Zanuck, renamed Mr. R, is shown, and it’s also alluded to that Marilyn’s co-star (a thinly veiled Richard Widmark) assaulted Marilyn. Again, these moments are never glorified like in Goodbye, Norma Jean, instead playing as necessary stops in Marilyn’s ascent, as opposed to anything of weighty significance.
The actors assembled are all good, another rarity in this series. I’ve already praised Richardson and Ann-Margret. Poppy Montgomery as our Marilyn is a double-edged sword. There are moments where you believe she’s Marilyn, although not quite on a level as Michelle Williams. Montgomery excels when she’s not emulating Monroe, or as if she dressed up as Marilyn for Halloween. When Montgomery recreates Marilyn’s iconic “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend Performance,” she acts for the biopic and not the scene. There’s no sense of fun in the sequence, when that’s the intent within Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. While I understand the unhappy expression on Montgomery’s face implies her unhappiness with the film and her life up to this point, a fact the men behind the cameras don’t see it, Marilyn was a good actress and wouldn’t let her personal emotions cloud the performance. Montgomery also decently nails down the vocal cadences of Monroe, although she drops them frequently.
The various men in Marilyn’s life are portrayed well, but their characters are spotty repetitions of the same themes of control and dominance. They all either dream of reinventing Marilyn in their own image, or outright controlling her. Outside of their names and personalities, they’re all variations on the same theme: male patriarchy. It’s a refreshing take on the Marilyn ethos, but fails to prevent the feeling of caricature that happens. I’m all for humanizing Marilyn, but not at the sake of demonizing others. The narrative device helps in letting the men explain the reasons for their actions. The Ballplayer aka Joe DiMaggio (Titus Welliver) isn’t interested in his wife being seen as a joke or a whore-the words “whore” and “slut” take up a lot of space in the script; Marilyn’s first husband, Bucky (Niklaus Lange), the only man renamed entirely, is G.I. Joe with a 1950s sensibility of woman as a wife and mother; and The Playwright aka Arthur Miller (Griffin Dunne) is desperate to “rewrite” her story into a happy ending. The actors are all great and fit in with the character, even the resemblances are good, but they’re the caricatured ones here. This all ties in with Marilyn’s obsession to have a child in order to make up for her, and her mother’s, past failings. All of this would be awesome if not every time Marilyn faced disappointment she attempts suicide. Yes, Monroe had suicidal tendencies, but the movie repeats the cycle of “marriage, disappointment, suicide, repeat” too often.
At 240 minutes (split into two discs), the movie is comprehensive and slows down in order to truly explore Marilyn’s life. There’s little salaciousness, and JFK is completely absent, aside from a passing reference at the end. It’s also refreshing to have a movie cut before Marilyn’s death. There’s no examination of the controversy, or even how she died–again left to the people who have studied Marilyn. Chopra’s movie isn’t interested in the gruesomeness of Marilyn’s death, or the sordid sex life we’ve come to identify with her. The portrayal of Marilyn is easily the best we’ve seen, for her perspective especially. The men are one-dimensional despite attempts to balance all the competing perspectives, but it’s shocking to see one-dimensional men in a Marilyn biopic when too often she’s the one underwritten. If you want a taste of what to expect in next year’s take on Blonde, give the 2001 TV version a watch.
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A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.