The world needs another Marilyn Monroe biopic like it needs another Joyce Carol Oates novel. But in both cases, every so often another one comes along with a new active ingredient that leaves us wanting more. Such was the case today when Andrew Dominik reaffirmed his commitment to turning his attention to adapting Oates’ novel, Blonde, after this week’s release of "Killing Them Softly." Similarly, nobody was crying out for another Tarantino-esque noir redux until Dominik’s adaptation of George V. Higgins' archly comedic crime novel about a mob enforcer (Brad Pitt) hired to hunt down a trio of small-time crooks held critics at the 2012 Cannes Film Festival in its thrall.
If anyone can bring the special sauce to this project, it's Dominik, best known for his elegiac violence and big canvas myth-making in a compact and quality-controlled body of work that includes “Chopper” and “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford.” With the New Zealand-born filmmaker at the wheel, chances are good that he’ll steer the project – which will encompass Monroe’s entire tragic trajectory, from age seven to her death – beyond her ascent to the shimmering heights of stardom and dark descent into self-destruction and dependency (prescription, emotionally, you name it) and into the swampy psychological murk that fed her success and her self-sabotaging impulses.
Oates’ book, a finalist for the 2001 Pulitzer Prize for fiction and National Book Award Nominee and one of only two of her novels to be adapted for the big screen, excavates Monroe’s emotional life with a dramatic intensity that aims to connect the dots between the star’s abusive mother, absent father, and the gaping wound no amount of public adoration could heal. Over the course of 700 pages, Oates chronicles Norma Jeane’s transformation into an icon at the intersection of vulnerability and voluptuousness and, ultimately, into an archetypal tragic heroine for whom (thematically on point) too much – attention, love, fame, talent, sex, drugs -- was never enough.
Even after decades of overexposure, as her image has been wallpapered over t-shirts and posters from Times Square to Tokyo, Marilyn Monroe’s power to hold our attention remains surprisingly undiminished. And in Naomi Watts, Dominik’s chosen a lead actress with the emotional range necessary to hit Monroe’s highs and lows without strain. But the degree of difficulty in pulling off an original take on such an iconic actress remains high, particularly because it’s only been just over a year since Michelle Williams tripped the light ethereal as she paraded around in that famous white halter dress in “My Week with Marilyn.” Dominik and Watts will have to distinguish “Blonde” as a deeper, darker more completist version of the star’s story than the dozen or so previous Monroe eulogies to hit screens big and small since her death in 1962, including the 2001 made-for-TV adaptation of the very same book. However it won’t be hard to clear the bar set by that rambling version of Oates book, which starred another blonde Australian actress, Poppy Montgomery, and slavishly clung to Oates’ most overwrought depictions of Monroe’s manic neediness.
Dominik, who describes the film as an “emotional nightmare fairy tale,” remains confident in the artistic merits of his longstanding dream to create a portrait of Monroe no one’s ever seen before. He’s aiming for a biopic that’s more granular in its detail, more epic in its emotional scope and more emblematic in its tone and theme. In other words, if Dominik succeeds, he’ll have achieved the kind of larger-than-life transcendence befitting of his subject matter. That’s reason enough not to underestimate this Blonde.
Name a few of the most irreverent and inventive biopics to have risen above the hackneyed tropes of the genre. Here’s our top three: “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly,” “American Splendor,” “The Hours and Times.”