Joyce Carol Oates’ 2000 novel Blonde was a big, thick amazement — a fictional biography of Marilyn Monroe that took all the wearily familiar facts and showbiz cliches about the ultimate movie-star bombshell and, in one bold stroke, erased them. In their place, Oates re-created the woman born Norma Jeane Baker as a vibrant, complicated presence: needy and sweet; intelligent yet devoid of self-confidence; ripe with the self-awareness of the power of her sexuality: ”Norma didn’t have a clue who she was,” Oates has one character say, ”and she had to fill this emptiness in her.”
It’s clear that actress Poppy Montgomery really ”gets” Oates’ Monroe from the nuanced, heroic performance she gives in the four-hour TV movie Blonde, but the production fails her in so many ways that Montgomery becomes nearly as bereft of understanding and support as Monroe was in Oates’ tale. Montgomery, who’s had minor roles in short-lived series such as last year’s The Beat and 1996’s Relativity, is remarkable here. Her face may be a bit more angular than Marilyn’s, and her body less lushly curvy, but she possesses crucial attributes that compensate: There’s a bright, searching avidity in her gaze, as if she’s always trying to see whether the next guy she meets will love her, and Montgomery has no problem making Monroe’s fundamental innocence seem genuine — her MM is neither coy nor stupid.
Unfortunately, Blonde — directed by Joyce Chopra (1985’s Smooth Talk) and adapted by Joyce Eliason (who tackled both of Mario Puzo’s Last Don miniseries) — is often both. While Oates’ book dug deep to unearth fresh truths about Monroe, Eliason’s teleplay insists on skimming the legend’s pale, smooth surface. There’s a too-long prologue with a child actress, Skye McCole Bartusiak, playing little Norma Jeane enduring the mental instability of her mother (an atypically stiff Patricia Richardson, from Home Improvement) and her committal to an orphanage (Chopra seems to have rounded up a road-company production of Annie to taunt little Norma Jeane).
Once Montgomery takes over the role, perhaps arriving a tad too early to successfully play Norma Jeane as an oh-so-sweet 16, the TV movie gets a jolt of much-needed verve, and then, jumping ahead a few years, Eric Bogosian proves bristlingly effective as the photographer who takes Norma Jeane’s first nude shots, including the famous feline sprawl against a crushed-red-velvet sheet. Wallace Shawn assays the difficult role of the actress’ agent, alternately avuncular and priapic, and is shown helping a nameless studio executive arrive at the ”Marilyn Monroe” stage name. In spite of the actors’ skills, though, all these scenes have an overriding quality of seen-it-all-before — and you probably have; TV has been doing variations on the Monroe story for years. (In 1980, Catherine Hicks — now the harried matriarch of the ultimate family show, 7th Heaven — did the sprawl in Marilyn: The Untold Story.)
In a narrative strategy that gave her book imaginative breathing room, Oates declined to name some famous names: She referred to Monroe husbands such as baseball’s Joe DiMaggio and playwright Arthur Miller only as ”the Ex-Athlete” and ”the Playwright,” for example. Teleplay author Eliason goes a similar route, but achieves the opposite effect: Instead of freeing up the story to take liberties that deepen the drama and its protagonists’ motives, it reduces Titus Welliver’s DiMaggio and Griffin Dunne’s Miller to bland men, lacking the distinctive manners that made them irresistible ”daddies” to Marilyn.
In the book and TV movie, it’s Monroe’s search for the father she never knew that drives her ambition, her willingness to degrade herself for male attention, and her attempts to become a ”better” person by reading everything from Karl Marx to Emily Dickinson. ”When a man wants you, you’re safe,” Oates has her say, and Montgomery conveys this yearning in all its poignant, pathetic obsession. This actress understands the dignity Oates was trying to impart to Monroe (who died at age 36 under still-hazy circumstances). The author has one character remark, ”Monroe wanted to be an artist…that’s what killed her.” Not wanting to attempt artistic daring is what kills this TV Blonde.