One film journalist’s stream-of-consciousness cinematic journey through the pandemic, Part 74
By Laurence Lerman / New York City
“For the entire world, Marilyn Monroe became a symbol of the eternal feminine,” Actors Studio legend and one of Marilyn’s mentors Lee Strasberg said in his eulogy at her funeral in 1962. Only a little more than a decade later, the legendary star’s status as one of America’s most popular icons, performers and sex symbols began fueling a near-industry of film and TV programs.
And now, nearly 50 years and dozens of films and programs later, comes a long-gestating feature that’s been getting an excess of buzz since it first went into production back in pre-Covid 2019. It’s Blonde, starring Cuban-born actress Ana de Armas, who was cast before she became a substantially hotter commodity via her roles in the comedic whodunit Knives Out (2019) and Daniel Craig’s James Bond swansong No Time to Die (2021).
Based on Joyce Carol Oates’ well-regarded 2000 historical fiction novel, Blonde was in development for over a decade by New Zealand-born filmmaker Andrew Dominik. Known for his vivid, character-driven critics’ favorites The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007) and the neo-noir Killing Them Softly (2012), Dominik announced to the trades in mid-February that Netflix will release the film to theaters and then onto its streaming platform later this year, with a possible NC-17 rating in the U.S.
Of the chatter surrounding the adults-only classification, the none-too-shy filmmaker told trade magazine Screen Daily, “It’s a demanding movie! If the audience doesn’t like it, that’s the fucking audience’s problem. It’s not running for public office.” That’s the kind of attention-grabbing quote that will help put Blonde on everyone’s radar the moment a release date is announced.
The Marilyn Monroe bio-pic industry launched with 1976’s Goodbye, Norma Jean, an awful Australian/American co-production starring Hee-Haw’s Misty Rowe that reveled in the more sordid aspects of Marilyn’s life, wherein she endures a never-ending cycle of physical, mental and sexual abuse.
While her well-documented life certainly had its sadder and more tragic aspects, Marilyn’s subsequent depictions on screens large and small have been much more open to positive aspects of her story. And that’s while her life was being fictionalized (to varying degrees) and chronologically splintered, as is the wont in bio-pics.
And so, the rollout of Marilyn chronicles began, moving through the ‘80s and into the ‘90s with Susan Griffiths in 1991’s Marilyn and Me and Melody Anderson in 1993’s movie Marilyn & Bobby, Her Final Affair, both high-profile TV movies.
That so many biographical projects over the years have been television productions speaks of Marilyn’s accessibility and appeal to the masses, along with Hollywood’s content creators re-constructing and sometimes even reinventing her life in a clearly episodic format.
Even when she wasn’t the main subject of a program, Marilyn has popped as a supporting character in countless biographical pics on other famous figures (Barbara Niven in the 1998 HBO quickie The Rat Pack about Sinatra and company and Charlotte Sullivan in the 2011 miniseries The Kennedys, to name a couple). Then there are the dream sequences and masquerade riffs that have appeared in a number of TV shows (Blake Lively in a 2012 episode of Gossip Girl; Uma Thurman, Megan Hilty and Katherine McPhee in 2012’s short-lived Smash, about the making of a Broadway musical about Marilyn).
Until Blonde arrives, there are more than enough narrative pictures out there to sate those seeking a Marilyn fix (or you could go for the real McCoy and dive into one of a myriad Marilyn docs). You can begin with these half-dozen of the more notable screen biographies, which are all available to stream on major platforms. Two are feature films, four are television projects, and some of them really deliver, while others really don't. But I can honestly say that each and every leading lady offers a lively, earnest portrayal of the late Hollywood legend. And that is saying something.
Catherine Hicks in Marilyn: The Untold Story (1980)
Based upon Norman Mailer’s popular 1973 Marilyn: A Biography, this well-appointed TV movie stars Catherine Hicks, who turns in some significant adult charm years before her decade-long family-friendly triumph in TV’s Seventh Heaven (1996). Reportedly a troubled production with three credited directors (Jack Arnold, John Flynn and Lawrence Schiller), The Untold Story earned four Emmy Nominations, including a Best Actress nod for Hicks.
Theresa Russell in Insignificance (1985)
A dearth of challenging roles for the always game Theresa Russell gave way to her lively take on Marilyn in this experimental effort adapted by British dramatist Terry Johnson from his 1982 play of the same name. Directed by arthouse auteur Nicolas Roeg (Russell’s husband at the time), this chamber piece follows a mythical meeting of four famous people in a New York City hotel one night in 1954: Joe DiMaggio (billed here as “The Ballplayer), Albert Einstein (“The Professor”), Joseph McCarthy (“The Senator”) and Marilyn Monroe (“The Actress”). The highlight is when Marilyn demonstrates to an enthusiastic Einstein his theory of relativity using a flashlight, some balloons and a toy train.
Ashley Judd and Mira Sorvino in Norma Jean & Marilyn (1996)
Tagged with the line “Marilyn Monroe was our fantasy. Norma Jean was her reality.,” this HBO Original Film features Mira as Marilyn and Ashley as Norma Jean, her younger self. Filled with a number of dreamlike scenes that find Marilyn and Norma Jean appearing on-screen together (and even taunting each other!), this strangely conceived concoction garnered five Emmy Award nomination, including a pair for both lead actresses.
Poppy Montgomery in Blonde (2001)
This 2001 made-for-TV film was actually the first adaption of Joyce Carol Oates’s same-named 2000 novel. Like Catherine Hicks twenty years earlier, this very competent take on the public life and inner turmoil of Marilyn was a high-profile served as a kick-off to the actress’s subsequent television career, which includes leading turns in the popular series Without a Trace (2002) and Unforgettable (2011).
Michelle Williams in My Week with Marilyn (2011)
This Simon Curtis-helmed drama concerns a week during the production of the 1957 film The Prince and the Showgirl starring Marilyn and actor/director Laurence Olivier (Kenneth Branagh), when in Marilyn was escorted around London by a young production assistant (Eddie Redmayne). Based on a pair of Marilyn-themed books by Colin Clark, this Week feels like a plausible piece of historical fiction, but that could be due to a remarkably sensitive performance by Michelle Williams, who picked up a Golden Globe Award and Oscar nomination for her efforts.
Kelli Garner in The Secret Life of Marilyn Monroe (2015)
Though it tries its best to focus on the seldom-seen relationship between Marilyn and her mother, there aren’t really many surprises in this Lifetime two-part miniseries. That doesn’t take away anything from Kelli Garner’s outstanding performance or that of Susan Sarandon as her troubled mom. And let’s hear it for Jeffrey Dean Morgan and his great take on Yankee Clipper Joe DiMaggio!
Laurence Lerman is a film journalist, former editor of Video Business--Variety's DVD trade publication--and husband to The Insider's own Gwen Cooper. Over the course of his career he has conducted one-on-one interviews with just about every major director working today, including Martin Scorsese, Quentin Tarantino, Clint Eastwood, Kathryn Bigelow, Ridley Scott, Walter Hill, Spike Lee, and Werner Herzog, among numerous others. Once James Cameron specifically requested an interview with Laurence by name, which his wife still likes to brag about. Most recently, he is the co-founder and editor-in-chief of the online review site DiscDish.com.