By John H. Foote

(***) On Netflix

The tragic life of Marilyn Monroe has been told in books, TV films, documentaries, plays and film. I am not sure any one of them captures her naked vulnerability with as much visceral power as this new film, Blonde. It is a difficult watch, but the extraordinary lead performance makes it worthwhile.

Ana De Armas is, in a word, astonishing. She is not acting Marilyn Monroe; she IS Marilyn Monroe.

This is a case of single performance elevating a film to a greater height than perhaps it deserves. In what is a fictional and non-fictional account of the life of Marylyn Monroe, Ana de Armas is a revelation as the troubled actress, burrowing deep under the skin and into the wounded soul of the woman who was desired by men around the globe. Sadly, we know now that Marilyn was abused and used by most of the men in her life, and really could trust none of them. They all wanted to bed Marilyn Monroe and, in her endless search for true love, she let them.

De Armas is astounding as Norma Jean Baker, who becomes Monroe and admits the greatest role she ever played was Marilyn Monroe. That is nothing new and was well explored by Michelle Williams (so brilliant) in My Week with Marilyn (2011), but here De Armas seems to go deeper, so that we see the deep cuts and ravaging of her soul in giving the world this blonde bombshell. The actress, of Latin descent, is superlative in a brave, fearless performance that requires much nudity that is never once distracting or exploitive. Some critics have detected a hint of the Latin accent the actress grew up with, I did not. Perhaps I was so immersed in the performance I did not hear it, but after three viewings I have still not heard it. De Armas is nothing short of spectacular and absolutely deserves an Academy Award nomination.

Ana De Armas as Marilyn Monroe in Niagara

The film explores some of what we have experienced before: her marriage to baseball great Joe DiMaggio, who was physically abusive to her; Arthur Miller, the one man who might have truly loved her without idealizing her; and many of the relationships before them and after, none lasting, none real. Miller broke her heart when he wrote about her after promising never to do so. It is interesting she called all of her lovers “Daddy” because we know the love she is really seeking is that of an absent father.

Bobby Cannavale is terrific as DiMaggio, but Adrien Brody soars as intellectual Artur Miller, one of the greatest playwrights of the 20th century. Where they an odd match? Not if you believe the facts about Marilyn’s intellect, she was never a dumb blonde. Brody captures the love he had for her, like caring for a wounded bird with the knowledge that in the end you really cannot do much for them. As Marilyn falls into that pit once again, his looks are heartbreaking as he can do nothing to prevent her fall. Brody famously won an Oscar for Best Actor for The Pianist (2002) but has done very little since. Great to see him so immersed in a character.

Julianne Nicholson is frightening as Norma Jean’s mother, a mentally ill woman prone to starting fires and placing her daughter in danger. Given the power of Nicholson’s brief performance I would love to see an entire film made about this character with Nicholson given the lead. Both heartbreaking and terrifying, the actress commands each scene she is in, even those with De Armas later in the picture.

The moments on set are very telling, especially the long, perhaps drawn-out shooting of the famous dress scene in The Seven Year Itch (1955). Yet as her mental health slips away, she becomes a nightmare to work with on set, exploding into tantrums and rages I doubt even she understood.

And Kennedy. The youthful looking American President was no better than any other of the abusive men who came and went in her life. Ushered to see him secretly for an afternoon tryst, she finds him, lying near naked on the bed, on the phone and he takes his hand and pushes her face to his crotch, silently demanding she fellate him. I found the entire scene very sad to watch, as she realizes even the President treats her as a piece of meat.

Andrew Dominick takes enormous risks with the film, moving effortlessly from black and white to colour, boldly breaking from facts to fiction and metaphors but never once taking away from the performance of de Armas. The scenes in black and white are especially excellent because the blonde goddess seems to shine from within, all but exploding with bright light across the screen.

Many actresses have tried to portray Monroe and, until now, Michelle Williams was the finest. De Armas goes so far into Monroe she seems to lose herself and only Monroe could ever claim that. This poor soul created Marilyn Monroe and then could never escape portraying her.

What an astonishing performance in a film that is often flawed yet ultimately haunting. To be the subject of every man’s fantasy and yet die alone? How lonely she must have been. How difficult it must have been to wake each day and know you had to play Marilyn Monroe for them.

I hope De Armas is a Best Actress nominee this year, she deserves it so.

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