We all know the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences likes biopics, but not all biopics are the same. Some like “Lincoln,” “The Theory of Everything,” and “Judy” strive for literalism, while others, such as “I’m Not There,” “Jackie,” “Steve Jobs,” drop all pretense to veracity and paint their revered subjects in broad strokes. Indeed, this distinction is crystallized by the one between photographs and paintings. Andrew Dominik’s fictional biopic of Marilyn Monroe, “Blonde,” fresh off its world premiere at the Venice Film Festival (and coming to Netflix on September 28th), is best classified as an example of the latter.
Rumors have been swirling for months about a feud between Netflix, which expected a traditional docudrama (strange, given the Joyce-Carol-Oates-authored source material), and Dominik, who instead delivered what is a surrealist fever dream filled with controversy and garnering extreme reactions on either said of the love it or hate it camps. Some are awestruck by its vision (“Dominik’s bold and complex imagining of Marilyn Monroe’s life is a fascinating alternative to the traditional biopic”—Vanity Fair), but just as many are decrying what they find to be the same exploitation the movie purports to rail against (“Dominik critiques the world for reducing his subject down to her topline assets, and then treats her in exactly the same way”—Indiewire). Everyone, however, agrees that Ana de Armas turns in career-best work, including Next Best Picture’s own Tom O’Brien.
The trailer Netflix released in late July sparked harsh criticism online, primarily aimed at de Armas’ barely disguised Cuban accent. There’s no doubt she delivered what Dominik was looking for, but will anyone truly buy her as Monroe? Thus far, reviews say she passes the credibility test. Still, the language used to describe her performance is reminiscent of early chatter about Michael Fassbender in “Steve Jobs”—a play, essentially, that cheekily acknowledges its own peculiar framework—and Kristen Stewart in “Spencer,” which was described as “a fable from a true tragedy.” Both performances in and of themselves were praised, but viewers had difficulty overcoming their preconceptions about what the very well-known public figures Stewart (not tall enough) and Fassbender (not bald enough) were portraying ought to look and sound like.
Despite having a widely acclaimed screenplay written by Aaron Sorkin—who’s practically guaranteed a nomination the moment he attaches himself to a project, “Steve Jobs” only scored Oscar nominations for Fassbender in Best Actor and Kate Winslet in Best Supporting Actress. The equally impressionistic “Spencer” premiered in Venice a year ago to far more positive reviews than the ones “Blonde” has received. That film was ultimately lucky to net what at the beginning of the season looked like a surefire Best Actress nomination. Its Oscar-worthy score, cinematography, and costumes were all ultimately ignored while Stewart managed to hold on. It’ll be interesting to see how “Elvis,” which lands somewhere in between cradle-to-the-grave biopic and gonzo fantasy, fares this awards season. Though some may find Baz Luhrmann’s maximalism off-putting, it’s difficult to deny that Austin Butler looks and sounds the part.
After the unsuccessful premiere of Alejandro González Iñárritu’s “Bardo, False Chronicle of a Handful of Truths,” Netflix’s resources this year suddenly seem released from any one juggernaut. Does that mean “Blonde,” despite the pattern observed with similarly experimental biopics, has a better shot? It’s tough to say, especially considering critics are complaining that Iñárritu’s homage to Fellini’s “8 ½” is ponderous and overly cerebral—words that’ve been used to describe “Blonde” as well. If these movies are too heady for festivalgoers, a typically adventurous crowd, older Academy members, and definitely general audience members will almost certainly find them pretentious.
Not all “straightforward” biopics win or even get nominated for Oscars. “Jobs,” headlined by Ashton Kutcher’s uncanny physical resemblance to the late Apple founder, is proof—but biopics that win Oscars tend to be easily digestible, less experimental, and not as provocative as what Andrew Dominik has produced with “Blonde.” Perhaps “Blonde” will undergo some sort of a reevaluation in time as Dominik’s “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford” did (which is today considered a masterpiece despite the lukewarm response it got in 2007)? Still, if past trends are any indicator, the movie will most likely be excluded from the craft and technical categories at this year’s Academy Awards. It’s a shame because the film’s best elements, along with de Armas’ emotionally driven performance, are the varied and spellbinding cinematography by Chayse Irvin and the atmospheric score by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis. The controversial handling of its well-known and beloved subject, the off-putting choices made by Dominik (a talking fetus, lots of daddy issues, and explicit sexual content), and an unwarranted near three-hour runtime all spell doom for “Blonde” in this year’s Oscar race. Don’t expect to see it compete anywhere other than Best Actress.