January 12, 2023 – Despite a great performance by Marilyn Monroe look-alike Ana de Armas (“Knives Out”) impressive cinematography and special effects, this movie plays Marilyn Monroe as a pure victim, not the rebel who blew up the Hollywood studio system.
Based on the Joyce Carol Oates novel of the same name, this movie follows Norma Jeane Mortenson from the time she was seven, in 1933 (played as a child by Lily Fisher). On her birthday, Norma Jeane's mother Gladys (played by Julianne Nicholson of “August: Osage County”) shows her a photograph of her father and tells her that he will be coming back soon to visit.
This image of Norma Jeane's absent father haunts her for the rest of her life. Norma Jeane is put in great danger by her mentally unstable mother by driving through a wildfire near Los Angeles. Norma Jeane is also nearly murdered by Gladys in a bathtub. Raging fire and abuse are themes throughout the movie.
Gladys is institutionalized, and Norma Jeane becomes a ward of the state. We skip ahead to where Norma Jeane has grown up to become Marilyn Monroe, who is again graphically abused, Harvey Weinstein style, by a studio executive. She gains a movie role through sexual favors.
Marilyn becomes friends and lovers with handsome Cass Chaplain (Xavier Samuel of “Love & Friendship”) the son of movie legend Charlie Chaplin, and Cass' friend, Eddy Robinson Jr. (Evan Williams) the son of movie legend Edward G. Robinson. This odd relationship seems to make all of them happy, one of the few times in this story where Marilyn seems happy.
The studios, and Marilyn's management, however, are not happy with this threesome, and she is encouraged to not be so public about it. Marilyn becomes pregnant, which threatens her next movie deal. She carries on conversations with her unborn fetus, who also appears on screen.
Marilyn gets an abortion, arranged through her studio connections, in a nightmarish sequence of events in which she screams that she has changed her mind, and doesn't want to go through with it. The abortion is carried out anyway. This makes it look like Marilyn is a victim, but, at the same time, it seems like she also agrees to have the abortion, partly because she is afraid her offspring will inherit the mental problems that seem to run in her family.
Later, when Marilyn again is pregnant, she again carries on a dialog with her fetus, who again appears on screen. The fetus says it does not want to share the same fate as the first fetus. Blood and nightmares follow, along with a graphic miscarriage.
Her famous marriage to baseball legend Joe DiMaggio, who is not named as such in the movie, but the character, called the “Ex-Athlete” is played by Bobby Canavale (“Ant-Man”). The ex-athlete is unable to cope with Marilyn's career as a movie sex symbol and becomes abusive, leading to a divorce after just one year.
Her next famous marriage is to legendary playwright Arthur Miller, again not named as such in the film, but simply called “The Playwright” (played by Adrien Brody of “The Pianist”). The Playwright is portrayed as a much more sympathetic character, but he too, is ultimately unable to cope with Marilyn's mood swings, chaotic career and drug addictions.
While the studios are still making money on Marilyn's sex appeal, she is becoming increasingly difficult to work with, in part, because of drug addiction. Her old friends, Cass Chaplain and Eddy Robinson, are also using her in the cruelest ways. They try to bribe Marilyn's ex-athlete husband with nude photos.
Marilyn comes across in this movie as a victim with daddy issues, but if you do even the most basic research on Monroe, you find out that she formed her own production company, Marilyn Monroe Productions in 1955. That, and her legal battles with a movie studio (Fox) to break her unfair contract, paved the way for the end of the old Hollywood Studio system. She also studied Method Acting at New York's Actors Studio under the legendary Lee Strasberg. None of this is in the movie.
It seems to me that the real Norma Jeane was less of a victim than she appears to be in this movie, but this movie is really not pretending to be a docu-drama. The movie does show Marilyn Monroe as being determined to be recognized as a talented actress in her own right. It also shows her as being a lot smarter than the dumb blonde she played in many movies. However, the movie also hints that Marilyn's acting ability is due, in part, to her past abuses.
One of the best scenes in the movie, between Marilyn and The Playwright, when they first met, shows Marilyn to be a very perceptive actress who is able to perceive which characters she is best able to play, and how to play them. Her insight into characters is what captures the heart of The Playwright. Marilyn also seems to have a good relationship with her personal makeup artist, Allan “Whitey” Snyder (Toby Huss of “Copshop”).
Because she is portrayed as a victim, abused by powerful men, used by friends who also play cruel tricks on her, abused by lovers, and most of all, abandoned by her father, Marilyn's story in this movie is a very sad tragedy. Was her real life less of a tragedy? Maybe, but that is not what is presented here.
This movie spends a lot of time, almost three hours, to tell us very little about the real Marilyn Monroe, instead concentrating on the tragic spectacle of what was done to her by others. What we get is not so much the real Norma Jeane, but the tragic legend of Marilyn Monroe, still being exploited by graphic sex scenes (this movie is rated NC-17) long after her sad demise.It's an O.K. movie, despite its faults, but I think I would have rather seen more of the real Norma Jeane and less of the sad, exploited victim. This movie rates a C+.
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