Two towering female performances have recently emerged which I can’t get out of my head: Ana De Armas as Marilyn Monroe in BLONDE and Cate Blanchett as a world renowned conductor in TAR. I predict we’ll see them both nominated for BEST ACTRESS OSCARS this season. Their methods and their madnesses are uniquely suited to the wildly different characters they portray, yet the effect of each is singular and profound.
The actress Ana de Armas does not immediately leap to mind when casting about for someone to play Marilyn Monroe, that radiant archetype of female sensuality. De Armas is a fine actress, but could she conjure Marilyn’s magnetic luminosity onscreen? And could that radiance somehow not blind us, but rather illuminate Monroe’s inner life? This is the territory imagined by Joyce Carol Oates in her novel BLONDE on which this fictionalized cinematic account is based and which de Armas in an astonishing almost three hours, embodies. She is transfixing in the part, wide open to the camera, ushering us inside Marilyn’s brutally sad, conflicted, fierce, tender, courageous self.
Writer/director Andrew Dominik’s screenplay and de Armas’s astonishing performance deliver us into the dark corners of a desecrated soul seeking an outlet for the expression of her enormous imagination and sensitivity, all while navigating a coarse Hollywood system dominated by rapacious male execs obsessed with surface glamor. There was a truncated place for serious actresses in mid-century Hollywood, but no one as physically magnetic as Marilyn was going to find room there; it’s only in hindsight that we see the sly humor and the full-on immersion in the characters she played beneath the whipped cream confection that was her skin and voice. It was perhaps too much to hope that her contemporaries so close to the surface, would see below it.
The film charts a through-line from little Norma Jean’s mentally ill mother (Julianne Nicholson) who abandoned her as a toddler (Lily Fisher) to a series of depressing and abusive foster homes which left her fractured, frightened, and grasping for safe haven, up until and after she adopted her public persona, Marilyn Monroe. She used whatever she had to get by and kept reaching for more. She posed nude, read Dostoyevsky and Freud, married three times, studied at the Actors’ Studio, had many famous lovers including JFK– detailed here in a horrifying scene. Marilyn’s talent, insecurity, charisma. loneliness, and self-destruction unfold in a collage of staggeringly painful scenes, which de Armas delivers raw. It’s an unsparingly vulnerable performance that never shrinks from the complex visceral truth of Marilyn’s short, turbulent life.
There was her “discovery” by a famous studio head which took the form of sodomy on the floor of his office at their first meeting. Her resignation and numbness to the humiliation almost made me faint. More subtle but equally shocking is the scene in which Marilyn’s soon-to-be third husband playwright Arthur Miller (an excellent Adrien Brody) reacts to her referencing Chekhov as she offers her take on a character of his she’s auditioning to play. When he condescendingly asks, “Who told you that?” I watched de Armas’s face slowly contort itself as Marilyn reacts, first in confusion and disbelief, then embarrassment, anxiety, and ultimately enough determination to claim the insight as her own.
In another scene Marilyn is auditioning for a dark, dramatic role and her audition is so real and strange, that it leaves the onlookers stunned and aghast at the rawness of what they have just witnessed–and they have no idea what they’ve just witnessed. Is it acting? A psychotic breakdown? Witchcraft? I’m reminded of Kristen Stewart’s approach to Diana in SPENCER, plumbing the inchoate depths of Diana’s interior life though a series of wildly expressive scenes where we feel her loneliness and claustrophobia under scrutiny within the cavernous confines of her world. In BLONDE, de Armas seems to be using the tools Marilyn might have used herself as an actress, the actor disappearing and becoming a transparent conduit for the character.
A word about the controversial abortion scenes about which critics, social scientists, and Planned Parenthood have complained. While these scenes are unusually shot from the point of view of the fetus, are they any more disturbing than imagining Marilyn’s second husband, slugger Joe DiMaggio (Bobby Cannavale), taking a break from his record-setting hitting streak to knock Marilyn around because he disapproved of the wind blowing her skirt up in a movie scene? Marilyn suffered miscarriages, and may not ever have had an abortion, but it’s surely within artistic limits to express her pain and longing for a lost childhood and her frustrated attempts at creating a home, by manifesting these blunted desires thusly in a work of expressive fiction. The filmmakers have chosen to tell this tale subjectively from the inside out; to impose external political motives or literal facts on such an effort seems idiotic, like trying to understand a poem with a ruler.
You can also put your rulers away while watching TAR writer/director Todd Field’s first film in 16 years, and Cate Blanchett’s compelling and enigmatic performance as Lydia Tar a world famous composer/conductor who’s just launched a new book and is preparing to record “Mahler 5″(conductor speak, and there’s a lot of it, for Gustav Mahler’s monumental 5th Symphony) as the first female conductor of the Berlin Orchestra. Blanchett’s performance is as revelatory as de Armas’s in BLONDE, but almost entirely opposite in style and substance. Whereas de Armas inhabits a vulnerable character who was often at the mercy of others despite her star persona, Tar comes well-armed and Blanchett’s performance reflects that: her maestro is in utter control and at a remove; we see her, but through a pristine glass we cannot penetrate. This is Blanchett’s supreme allure as an actress. There is consistently something impenetrable in her performances; nuanced and surprising certainly, but we are almost always held at arms length– which of course, pulls us in.
When we meet her, Tar is at the top of her game, and so is Blanchett who, in preparation for the part, learned to conduct, to speak German, to do her own driving stunts, and to play a few musical instruments. Her Tar is brilliant and imperious. As she explains her role as conductor to The New Yorker magazine writer Adam Gopnik (self-consciously playing himself in the opening scene interviewing the conductor onstage before a live audience) SHE is the one who “starts the clock,” but in the grandest sense. No mere human metronome, Tar hints at almost metaphysical powers to which the entire orchestra is subject, and in the course of the film, we understand she assumes that potency extends to her entire universe. An openly queer woman in a male-dominated historical hierarchy, she wears severely elegant pantsuits, and lives at the intersection of power, fame, and the corruption it is heir to. She deftly maneuvers the players on her board, steers the backstage politicking to her advantage, juggles jealous colleagues (Mark Strong) lapping competitively at her heels, and commands her increasingly resentful personal assistant (Noemie Merlant). She’s in a long term relationship with concertmaster and first violinist Sharon Goodnow (Nina Hoss) with whom she cohabits in a sprawling, starkly elegant, glassed-in bunker of a penthouse with their adopted daughter Petra (Mila Bogojevic).
Tar has mentored many a student, and has perhaps more than mentored some. A new young cellist on the horizon (Olga Metkina) may trigger a crack in the bunker. There are insinuations of impropriety; BIPOC students are challenging Professor Tar’s righteous declarations about traditional musical standards and canon; an errant metronome wakes her in the night; cries and whispers haunt her jogs through the landscape; the time may be out of joint, and she may not ever be able to set it right. Field has orchestrated a mysterious and elegant set of images and sequences carefully calibrated to accumulate psychic and emotional tension and import. Blanchett’s face, like a mask beginning to crack, mesmerizes, and Tar’s hold on us becomes the fulcrum of timely and unanswerable questions demanding re-evaluation: what is the relationship between an artist’s personal moral framework and the art they make? How does one bridge cultural rifts created by systemic historical biases around sex, race, class?
Wisely, the movie’s focus is not on answering or even defining such questions, but rather on inviting us to walk through a world in constant flux and see the earth shifting beneath her feet, Tar now an avaTAR out of synch. At the end, she lands on a podium I barely recognize. Is she out of time or is this what survival looks like? What kind of time is she keeping? The film’s beauty and obliqueness, and Blanchett’s magnetism are an invitation to a mystery we cannot resist.