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Ardustry Home Entertainment // Unrated // January 31, 2006
List Price: $24.99 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by David Cornelius | posted February 22, 2006 | E-mail the Author
I have never read "Blonde," Joyce Carol Oates' fictional retelling of the Marilyn Monroe story, but if the 2001 TV miniseries of the same name is as faithful to Oates' novel as it seems, then it seems I haven't missed much. "Blonde" (at least the miniseries) takes the bare outlines of the Monroe legend and fills them in with clunky, clichéd melodrama; it seems that guessing at the gaps isn't the artistic liberty it claims to be, but instead, it's just a lazy way of doing a biography without actually having to do a biography. Either give us truthful history, or give us pure fiction. The mix of the two simply doesn't click, at least not here.

Perhaps it doesn't work because director Joyce Chopra and screenwriter Joyce Eliason, both longtime TV movie veterans, lack the originality needed to make this fictional Marilyn stand on her own. The filmmakers seem confused as to how to handle the material. Do they treat it like a straightforward biopic? Do they play up the story's fictional elements? Do they present this Marilyn as an icon, with a larger-than-life history, or do they work to keep this as factual as possible? Chopra and Eliason become trapped in the middle; "Blonde" is neither convincing nor compelling as a biography, but it is also too shy to take grander steps in putting forth an idea of Marilyn Monroe as mythological being.

This timidity leaves us with nothing more than a mediocre-at-best movie of the week. There are a few moments of quality that manage to sneak through here and there - mostly involving Poppy Montgomery in the leading role - but for the most part, there is nothing here to separate the film from whatever Meredith Baxter movie might be airing over on Lifetime.

"Blonde" opens with an overlong childhood exposition that borders on the unwatchable. Young Norma Jean (Skye McCole Bartusiak) is being raised mostly by her grandmother (Ann-Margret), because her mother (Patricia Richardson) is a nutcase and a floozy. Let's pause for a moment to reflect on the idea of the mom from "Home Improvement" being asked to portray an chain smoking, mentally unbalanced lulu. This is miscasting of the highest order, and pairing her with young Bartusiak, whose embarrassing hamminess is what gives child actors a bad name, and you've got a miniseries that's practically begging you to change channels.

Anyway, grandma dies, mom gets locked away in the nut house (oh, but we get to see her ACTING!!! in later scenes, as Norma Jean continues to visit her), and Norma Jean gets shipped off to what appears to be the orphanage from "Annie," minus Carol Burnett, but plus a kindly headmistress there who delivers such pearls of wisdom as "save your tears, you may need them." And then we jump ahead many years, with a teenage Norma Jean living in a home with foster mom Kirstie Alley.

Needless to say, things get better once Kirstie Alley is no longer involved with the story.

The rest of the miniseries' first half follows Norma Jean's first marriage, her meeting with greasy photographer Otto Ose (Eric Bogosian), her landing a contract at Fox, and her falling for Cass Chaplin (Patrick Dempsey), the man who introduces her to the wonderful world of drugs and alcohol. For part two, we watch as Norma Jean - now using Marilyn Monroe as almost a split personality - rises to superstardom, gets hooked on the happy pills, lands another husband or two, and pretty much falls to pieces on the inside.

The second half isn't that bad at all, really - at least, not compared to the first part, anyway. Montgomery wisely refuses to deliver a full-on Marilyn impersonation, instead making the character all her own (that is, a confused, desperate woman yearning for acceptance and love, one not connected to any Hollywood icon). There's no intentional breathiness of voice or any other attempt to replicate trademark Monroe. (Of course, this decision leads to some clunky scenes like the one in which the famous "Diamonds Are a Girl's Best Friend" musical number is faithfully recreated, complete with Montgomery lip-synching to Monroe's original voice; it doesn't work because we're suddenly asked to compare Montgomery to Monroe when the movie spends so much time asking us not to do just that.)

That said, Montgomery manages to actually work through the hackneyed dialogue and create a fairly solid performance. She seems unfazed by her lesser costars, while she manages to truly click with the supporting cast members that are actually worth watching. Her scenes with Bogosian and, later, Wallace Shawn have a crackle to them that this miniseries sorely lacks elsewhere. And on her own, she can become quite captivating, if the story only lets her. She's terrific in a sequence regarding Monroe's abortion, and again later in a long, tender moment leading up to JFK's birthday song. Oh, what great work we might have seen if only the rest of the film could have lived up to these bits, instead of cheapening out with rickety TV-movie dopiness.


Ardustry spreads the miniseries out over two discs, one for each 85-minute episode. (The running time is incorrectly labeled on the discs and cover art as 120 minutes per disc.)


The full screen (1.33:1) presentation is particularly muddy and bland, although I'm not sure if this is just the result of a cheap transfer or the poor production values of the miniseries itself. The unimpressive look makes the feature appear about ten years older than it actually is. (The menus, by the way, seem like they were slapped together on someone's home computer. Not the best way to make a first impression.)


The soundtrack is available in both 5.1 surround and 2.0 stereo, although the mix on the surround track is so subtle that I could barely tell the difference between the two. Nothing is impressive about either of them. No subtitles are available.


None, other than a handful of trailers for other Ardustry releases.

Final Thoughts

A lead performance that makes things bearable is not nearly enough to salvage a problematic effort. There's just far too much that fails that you'd have to sit through just to get to a few decent moments that the payoff isn't worth it. Top off a particularly lackluster DVD presentation and you can Skip It… and wait for Montgomery to show up in something else instead.
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