“Blonde” is not your typical TV miniseries. On the one hand it’s just another in a long line of biographical portraits of Hollywood royalty, a genre back in vogue following ABC’s successful Judy Garland pic. But this film about the life of Marilyn Monroe is also the product of some creative forces whose sensibilities venture well beyond the tepidly commercial. Director Joyce Chopra and author Joyce Carol Oates, upon whose novel this work is based, teamed previously on the small feature “Smooth Talk,” which “Blonde” resembles in tone. The result here can be surprising in the depth of its dark examination into the psyche of its subject, so while it has plenty of weaknesses, the mini accomplishes far more than most of its ilk.
Unlike most telepics, where the most outlandish fantasies can bear the label “based on a true story” or at least “inspired by actual events,” the first notable oddity in “Blonde” is its opening warning, telling the audience that, while it depicts actual people, the work is fictional. This approach allows the creators to be far more imaginative in their suppositions about the characters’ private thoughts, and from the start we see many of the personages who played a role in Monroe’s life, as well as Marilyn herself, speaking to the camera as if they were being interviewed. These provide depth to what is in essence a lengthy character study, and also, in Joyce Eliason’s smartly selective teleplay, fill in narrative gaps in an oblique but satisfying fashion. On the downside, though, it’s impossible to say without further research which elements of this story are genuine and which are apocryphal.
Piece gets off to a rich and stylish start, showing Marilyn Monroe, in a beautiful red dress, sprawled in a semi-conscious state on a large beach, populated only with birds. In the background, we hear the actress singing, “I Want To Be Loved by You.” Shot beautifully by cinematographer James Glennon, the brief sequence is filled with the ironic contradictions — the natural and the fake, love and eroticism — that will define the rest of the story. Throughout, all the technical contributions are excellent, giving this mini a refined polish.
From the opening, the piece goes back to the beginning, when Marilyn, nee Norma Jeane (Oates added an “e” to the end of the name and the pic’s credits follow suit) Baker, was born to a single mother ill-prepared to care for her.
Patricia Richardson invests the mentally unstable Gladys with a stark narcissism. The first hour or so, by far the most powerful and disturbing, plays a bit like “Mommie Dearest” without the camp. Skye McCole Bartusiak ably portrays Norma Jeane as a youngster, and Chopra does an excellent job of making her a figure of strength as well as a clear victim.
Pic takes the tale through Norma Jeane’s harrowing childhood into her early and brief marriage during World War II. A segment never goes by without direct allusion to male lust, and the sense that the fatherless Norma Jeane, who sought male affection needily, was continually objectified by the men around her.
This reaches its peak with the entrance of photographer Otto Ose (Eric Bogosian), whose photos of Norma bring her to the attention of agent I.E. Shinn (Wallace Shawn). She then meets studio honcho Mr. R (Richard Roxburgh), who introduces Norma to the casting couch, or, in this case, a white rug, which we’re told Norma bleeds on. Together, these men figure out how to “sell” their discovery, and thus create a new identity for Norma, transforming her into the sexual siren we’ve come to know as Marilyn Monroe.
Poppy Montgomery (“The Other Sister”) portrays the adult Norma/Marilyn, and, in an impressive performance, captures her from multiple perspectives. Norma is as intelligent as she is confused, as sensitive as she is needy. She’s clearly trapped in her professional life by being forced to play the dumb blonde. In her personal life, she’s first drawn into a dysfunctional menage a trois, and then falls instantly in love with any attractive man who takes her seriously even for a moment. Joe DiMaggio and Arthur Miller here become rather bland icons, never referred to by name.
The film actually becomes less interesting as it goes along, and makes its point well before its end, which comes rather abruptly and never deals with Monroe’s mysterious death. Montgomery’s depiction remains entertaining, though — there’s something deeply fascinating about Marilyn’s breathy delivery that the actress understands.