Given all the indignities and horrors that Marilyn Monroe endured during her 36 years — her family tragedies, paternal absence, maternal abuse, time in an orphanage, time in foster homes, spells of poverty, unworthy film roles, insults about her intelligence, struggles with mental illness, problems with substance abuse, sexual assault, the slavering attention of insatiable fans — it is a relief that she didn’t have to suffer through the vulgarities of “Blonde,” the latest necrophiliac entertainment to exploit her.
Hollywood has always eaten its own, including its dead. Given that the industry has also always loved making movies about its own machinery, it’s no surprise that it also likes making movies about its victims and martyrs. Three years ago in the biopic “Judy,” Renée Zellweger played Judy Garland near the end of her troubled life. “Blonde” goes for a more comprehensive biopic sweep — it runs nearly three hours — embracing a bleakly familiar trajectory that begins with Monroe’s unhappy childhood, revisits her dazzling yet progressively fraught fame, her depressingly abusive relationships, myriad health issues and catastrophic downward spiral.
After a brief prelude that introduces Marilyn at the height of her fame, the movie rewinds to the sad, lonely little girl named Norma Jeane, with a terrifying, mentally unstable single mother, Gladys (Julianne Nicholson). Childhood is a horror show — Gladys is cold, violent — but Norma Jeane crawls into adulthood (a fine if overwhelmed Ana de Armas). She models for cheesecake magazines, and before long breaks into the film industry, which is another nightmare. Soon after she steps onto a lot, she is raped by a man, here called Mr. Z and seemingly based on Darryl F. Zanuck, the longtime head of 20th Century Fox studio, where Monroe became a star.
“Blonde” is based on the 2000 Joyce Carol Oates hefty (the original hardback is 738 pages) fictionalized account of Monroe’s life. In the novel, Oates draws from the historical record but likewise plays with facts. She cooks up a ménage a trois for Monroe and channels her ostensible thoughts, including during a lurid tryst with an unkind President John F. Kennedy. In the introduction to the book, the critic Elaine Showalter writes that Oates used Monroe as “an emblem of twentieth-century America.” A woman, Showalter later adds without much conviction, “who was much more than a victim.”