`Blonde' succeeds at its ambition

Preview: This miniseries reveals the icon's life in her own words, as created by novelist Joyce Carol Oates.

May 12, 2001|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

The most impressive thing about "Blonde," CBS' miniseries on the life of Marilyn Monroe, is how completely it desexualizes one of the most widely known sex symbols of the past century.

For the producers, it wasn't that difficult; all they had to do was stay relatively true to the book of the same title by Joyce Carol Oates on which the film is based. But still, for a May "sweeps" miniseries, this is a surprisingly smart film.

I say that in praise, but even if you're willing to invest four hours starting tomorrow night, you shouldn't read it as a glowing endorsement. "Blonde" can be incredibly depressing when it depicts the abuse and debasement suffered by the actress, which the miniseries catalogs in great detail.

I'm not criticizing the catalog - it's the very point of the film in some ways. It's the hammer used to shatter the eroticized icon that Monroe has become in the popular imagination. Getting beneath the icon by deconstructing desire is the film's triumph, but it can be rough and disturbing stuff.

It starts with physical, verbal and emotional child abuse of Norma Jean Baker by her mother (Patricia Richardson), a film cutter at a Hollywood studio who suffers from paranoid schizophrenia. Viewers will see Baker as a pre-school-age child begging not to be plunged into a tub of scalding water by a crazed mother screaming about the child's "filth." They will also see Baker as an infant stuck in a dresser drawer by her mother - a drawer that is closed, leaving the baby in darkness.

Understand this is a "fictional retelling" of Baker's life based on Oates' book, which is itself a blend of fact and fiction that the author labeled a novel. Both play with the notion of celebrity in modern American life and what we think we know about the personas we see on the screen.

The images of abuse in "Blonde" are powerful symbolic moments, and as a critic, I applaud their inclusion. But, as a viewer, I kept finding excuses to take little "breaks" from the film during the first hour.

The producers clearly understood the potential impact of such images. Just as I was thinking of taking a big break and calling it a night, up popped the adult Baker/Monroe (Poppy Montgomery), speaking directly into the camera, saying that while her childhood might look awful, she was really quite happy.

The film often uses the technique of stopping the action to have several leading characters speak directly to us, as if commenting on what we're seeing. By the end of the film, the artifice was wearing thin with the script repeatedly telling instead of showing us what was happening inside Baker.

"Blonde" does have some fine performances and scenes. Richardson, perhaps best known as the nice suburban mom on the "Home Improvement" sitcom, carries the first half of Part 1 as the victim/oppressor mom of little Norma Jean.

Throughout the rest of the film, Montgomery creates the illusion that we're seeing Baker/Monroe from the inside out. Her performance consistently and urgently focuses our attention on the inner demons, not the outer glamour.

The most daring image shows Baker/Monroe in a white dress on the beach at night with two men caressing her body. The brilliance of the moment is that we see it from the point of view of Baker/Monroe, and there is nothing remotely sexual about it.

The most eloquent visual moment comes near the end of the film, with a drugged Norma Jean Baker sitting passively as a makeup artist pastes on long lashes and then paints on red-red lipstick, a beauty spot and all the other outward trappings we have come to think of as Marilyn Monroe.

The sequence shows not only the manufacturing of desire, but also the ways in which this woman was folded, bent and mutilated to fit a culturally constructed and idealized notion of beauty.

In "Blonde," there is almost nothing beautiful about the life of Norma Jean Baker or the character known as Marilyn Monroe that she became.

`Blonde'

When: Tomorrow and Wednesday night at 9

Where: WJZ (Channel 13)

In brief: Illuminating, uneven and dark look at an American beauty.

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