Greetings again from the darkness. For those who have studied Marilyn Monroe’s personal and professional life, writer-director Andrew Dominik’s (first feature film since KILLING THEM SOFTLY, 2012) interpretative adaptation of the 2000 novel by Joyce Carol Oates may send them into the early stages of shock. In fact, regardless of one’s level of knowledge of the details of Marilyn’s background, shock and bewilderment are likely reactions. It should be made clear for all viewers that it’s a fictionalized account of her life, not a true biography. One should also know that this is cinematic artistic mastery to complement an incredibly in-depth and revolutionary performance from Ana de Armas (KNIVES OUT, 2019, NO TIME TO DIE, 2021).
At times, the film is surreal, while at others, downright hallucinatory. It’s certainly never boring. However, it’s a disturbing beatdown and a grueling watch for a single sitting at close to three hours long. The film begins in 1933 with a young Norma Jeane (Lily Fisher) living in poverty and misery with her single mom Gladys (a terrific Julianne Nicholson). Mom has obvious mental issues and would much prefer Norma Jeane not be around. It’s here where the ‘Daddy issues’ take hold – issues that stick with the girl for the remainder of her life. After being rejected by her father, her mother, and the friendly neighbors, Norma Jeane ends up in an orphanage. A montage takes us through her teenage modeling years, where we see the beginnings of her being taken advantage of and treated as a commodity.
There is an extended sequence involving the threesome of Marilyn and the sons of Hollywood legends Charlie Chaplin and Edward G Robinson (Xavier Samuel, Evan Williams, respectively), and a vicious rape scene with a studio head “Mr. Z” (hmmm). Marilyn’s first pregnancy leads to an abortion, which is the first of a few tragedies she will experience – and director Dominik finds an entirely new (and bizarre) method of filming these occurrences. The Joe DiMaggio (Bobby Cannavale) and Arthur Miller (Oscar winner Adrien Brody) marriages are noted, yet the men go unnamed, instead referred to as “former athlete” and “playwright” … as if somehow that will trick us.
Of course, all of these relationships are right in line with her “Daddy issues” … Marilyn even goes so far as to call these men “Daddy”, in hopes that one will finally give her the love and acceptance she so craves. One of the more uncomfortable scenes (and that’s saying something) involves her tryst with JFK (also unnamed), played by Caspar Phillipson, whose uncanny resemblance to the former President has resulted in his casting for the role in multiple projects. It’s likely this White House moment, replete with Marilyn’s inner voice, is responsible for the film’s NC-17 rating.
Dominik and cinematographer Chase Irvin recreate some of the most memorable film moments from Marilyn’s career … including the subway vent scene from THE SEVEN YEAR ITCH. After capturing that film magic, the sequence seems to drag on with leering onlookers and what proved to be the final straw with DiMaggio. A recurring feature involves Marilyn receiving and reading letters from the father she’s never met – including promises of meeting “soon.” The payoff for this is disappointing for us and for her.
Perhaps the main point of Dominik’s movie is the enormous gulf and psychological contrast between Norma Jeane, the eternally-scarred young girl, and Marilyn Monroe, the iconic bombshell she created for public consumption. There is a sadness about her most of the time, even when she flips that switch to become Marilyn – the familiar sultress adored by so many. Toby Huss plays Whitey, a version of real-life Allan Snyder, who was Marilyn’s long-time make-up artist and confidant. Her famous diary gets a mention, and we see the price she paid for taking drugs to calm anxiety while dealing with the crushing weight of fame.
Ana de Armas delivers a performance for the ages. Of course, the scrutiny she will face playing one of the most famous women of all-time will be senselessly nitpicky, yet from an artistic standpoint, her work is supreme. Costume Designer Jennifer Johnson somehow manages to nail the different stages, films, and moods (of both the film and its subject). Is this exploiting the woman who made a career out of being exploited? Or is it simply telling a story? Norma Jeane was a fragile creature constantly victimized as she desperately searched for love. Has the filmmaker continued that abuse with this vision? From a moviemaking aspect, it’s’ a thing of beauty. From a human perspective, it’s torturous to watch. If you are in need of a ‘feel-good’ movie, keep searching. On the other hand, if you are in the mood for the work of a cinematic visionary and one of the best acting performances of the year, settle in.
Opens on Netflix September 28, 2022