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Blonde: Director Andrew Dominik's Decade-Long Journey to Bring the Hollywood Bombshell Back to Life

MovieWeb 9/26/2022 Kyler Knight
© Provided by MovieWeb

In the decades following her untimely death from a barbiturate overdose in 1962, Marilyn Monroe has lived on as an enduring phantom of pop culture and has since been subjected to documentaries and biopics galore. The latest of such efforts from Netflix is nearly upon us as the streaming company recently dropped an official trailer for its upcoming original film, Blonde. If so many in Hollywood have attempted to bring the blonde bombshell back to life before (from Michelle Williams’ Oscar-nominated turn as Monroe in the 2011 film My Week with Marilyn to several made-for-tv blunders), what makes this film so special?

For starters, in spite of re-edits commissioned by Netflix to tone down the sexually explicit content, the film is rated NC-17, making it the first mainstream Hollywood film since the 1990s to accept the rating, which was once regarded as the MPAA’s kiss of death. Ana de Armas, who plays the fictitious Marilyn Monroe in Blonde, recently expressed her surprise at the rating the film has received. But Blonde's writer-director, Andrew Dominik, is understandably blasé about the NC-17 rating. The New Zealand-born Australian filmmaker is weathered from a decade-long fight to get his film made in a Hollywood system that has never embraced him as fully as it has other critically acclaimed directors of his generation like Paul Thomas Anderson, Steven Soderbergh, or Quentin Tarantino.

Then there is also the notably fictional departure from Monroe’s actual life, something which originated from the source material.

Dominik Explored the Dark Side of Being a Celebrity Before Blonde

Back in 2000, Joyce Carol Oates’ released her epic novel of the same name, insisting that her over-700-page long Blonde was not a biography of the late actress. Recently, the author gave the upcoming Netflix adaptation of her novel two thumbs up and praised Dominik, who, also in 2000, made his directorial debut with Chopper, an Australian prison drama starring Eric Bana as a real-life inmate. The role propelled Bana into working with some of Hollywood’s greatest working directors: Ridley Scott, Ang Lee, Wolfgang Peterson, and Steven Spielberg, to name a few. Though Dominik received just as much praise for Chopper as Bana did, the road to Hollywood prestige was much rockier for the director.

Related: Best Mainstream NC-17 Movies, Ranked

In 2007, Dominik released his second film, the epic Western, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, whose title sets up audience expectations perfectly for its contemplative, novel-like pace along with its nearly three-hour run time; something Blonde has in common with Jesse James to say nothing of how both films share themes on the dark nature of celebrity. (Though Jesse James' cinematographer, Sir Roger Deakins, confirmed the existence of a four-hour cut to Collider.) Some critics loved Jesse James, but it should come as no surprise that the film did not perform at the box office in spite of Brad Pitt’s name at the top of the poster. If Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid gave audiences in 1969 the feeling of a wild night out drinking, the somber Jesse James hit audiences in 2007 with a morning-after hangover.

Naomi Watts Was Originally Attached to Star as Marilyn Monroe in Blonde

In 2010, reports first surfaced that for his third film, Dominik set his sights on adapting Oates’ novel Blonde with Naomi Watts attached to star as Monroe. Interestingly, Dominik’s Blonde is drawing comparisons to David Lynch’s 2001 film, Mullholland Drive, which starred Naomi Watts in her breakout performance as a starry-eyed young blonde who moves to Hollywood with big dreams of becoming a famous actress, only to find herself drifting off into a Tinsletown nightmare.

It is no accident that this sounds a bit similar to the plot synopsis for Blonde, as Dominik is an outspoken fan of Lynch, citing Mullholland Drive as one of his favorite films when he sat down with IndieWire in 2017. And the comparisons to David Lynch keep cropping up. When asked at the Venice premiere earlier this month about whether some of the “dreamy music” from Blonde was an intentional homage to Twin Peaks, Dominik said, "No," adding:

“I think Blonde fits into a long tradition of female anxiety films. And David Lynch makes ‘Women in Trouble’ movies and Hitchcock did so before him. Films like Marnie. Films like Suspicion.”

Eventually, Namoi Watts moved on after Dominik failed to obtain Hollywood studio backing. Soon after, Dominik appeared to have moved on as well, setting his sights on another adaptation, George V. Higgins’ 1974 crime novel Cogan’s Trade, concerning a hitman contracted to kill the perpetrators of a poker robbery. Dominik retitled it Killing Them Softly and updated its setting to the 2008 financial crisis with Detroit replacing Boston. Brad Pitt starred as the hitman among a supporting cast as impressive as that of Jesse James. Not only was the film embraced by critics, it even made a moderate return at the box office.

Related: Blonde Review: Ana de Armas Completely Disappears into the Role of Marilyn Monroe

But try as he might to forget about Marilyn Monroe, Blonde never left Dominik. New ideas for the film would intermittently flood his mind and renew his determination to one day get the film made. So when Brad Pitt suggested that his redhead co-star from Terrence Mallick’s 2011 film, Tree of Life, Jessica Chastain, could play the blonde bombshell, Dominik again tried to get the funding together.

Jessica Chastain Was Also Attached to Star as Marilyn Monroe in Blonde

In 2014, Chastain was on a hot streak of star-defining roles from Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty two years earlier to Christopher Nolan’s sci-fi epic, Interstellar and J.C. Chandor’s anti-gangster film, A Most Violent Year. If there was any leading actress that could garner studio interest in a film back in 2014, Chastain was it. Yet, for years, even with Chastain and even with Brad Pitt producing, Dominik still could not raise enough funding to get the project going. Then Netflix came along, announcing they would distribute the film.

Andrew Dominik Finally Found His Marilyn Monroe After Seeing Ana de Armas on TV

In 2019, Netflix announced that Ana de Armas would play Marilyn Monroe, replacing Chastain. Dominik was watching TV when he saw the Cuban actress for the first time, tormenting Keanu Reeves’ character in Eli Roth’s 2015 horror film Knock Knock. Dominik likened it to “love at first sight,” finding that he couldn’t look away from the Cuban actress whenever she was on screen. In the years since Knock Knock, de Armas has been on a cinematic hot streak to match Chastain’s, from Denis Villeneuve's Blade Runner 2049 in 2017 to Rian Johnson’s 2019 whodunit, Knives Out.

The current buzz suggests that Blonde is de Armas’ finest role yet. But the film itself has been met with less enthusiasm, with early reviews echoing what Dominik described as the initial reaction to Mulholland Drive while speaking to IndieWire in 2017, saying:

“When [Mulholland Drive] first came out it was greeted with a kind of confusion and now most people seem to agree that [it] is one of the most significant, if not the most significant, film of the current century. And I think it’s because it describes a very distressing emotional situation which everyone can relate to. Maybe that’s the reason why people didn’t like it.”

Perhaps Dominik’s latest film, like Lynch’s, will outlast its current lukewarm reception and achieve cult classic status in the years to come among the “long tradition of female anxiety films” from the likes of Lynch and Hitchcock. The test of time is about to begin as Blonde will be streaming exclusively on Netflix starting this Wednesday, September 28th.

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