Reading and writing

In ‘Blonde’, Arthur Miller is Marilyn Monroe’s Jewish husband, and we all know what that means (right?)

A few months ago, Joyce Carol Oates, as usual, tweeted something disconcerting:

“When I was first married to my (Jewish) husband, two of my Jewish friends pulled me aside and said with wry smiles, ‘Welcome to the club.’ Soon I understood what they meant.

No one was quite sure what Oates meant. Her attempt at clarification (an uncaptioned photo of her late husband on a bridge near a backdrop of snow-capped mountains) did not help. But watching “Blonde,” the restless NC-17 fever dream of Oates’ best-known novel, about Marilyn Monroe (née Norma Jeane Baker), I couldn’t help but think about what she — and filmmaker Andrew Dominik – meant with their portrayal of Arthur Miller.

While Oates’ novel slightly obscures key names with titles like “Ex-Athlete” and “The Playwright”, Dominik’s film – a punishing Hollywood martyr story – is more direct. Although he was never named as such, Bobby Cannavale plays “Joltin’ Joe” DiMaggio and Adrien Brody is Arthur Miller. Both men serve as polarized totems of Norma Jeane’s love life.

Marilyn (Ana De Armas) divorces DiMaggio, who is possessive and physically abusive. Miller, introduced by knocking over a stack of pages near the Astor Place subway entrance, makes for an all-too-perfect romantic flick.

The brutal, ethnic athlete is replaced by a lanky, bespectacled ethnic writer-type who nostalgically wields a snapshot of an old love. “Magda, Magda,” he repeats. We soon learn that Magda is not just Miller’s “first love,” an immigrant who spoke broken English, but a role in his new play. Imagine Miller’s surprise when he arrives at a reading to see Marilyn Monroe in the role.

“Magda… her?” Miller says, in his familiar “The Boy Grew Up in Brooklyn” accent. But at the end of the play, he is in tears.

After the reading, Miller and Marilyn sit down for coffee and discuss the role. Miller is shocked by her ideas – the connections she makes with Chekhov’s “Three Sisters.” He is absolutely upset that she realizes Magda, who is probably illiterate, is pretending to read Isaac’s character’s handwriting. (Through fictional elements, I don’t think this is a real play, although she, like the ex invented and once mentioned by Miller, “Esther”, seems ostensibly Semitic.)

This note is a breakthrough that staggers Miller and, finally, makes Marilyn a vessel for her lost love.

At this point in the film, we’re entering potentially dangerous territory, with an avatar of soft-hearted New York Jewish scholarship (the kind that won’t raise a hand at you), courting the image of peroxidized Goyish beauty. . Monroe’s own conversion to Judaism is duly glossed over. In a montage of their pre-wedding press tour, a reporter asks what kind of wedding they will have. “Very calm I hope,” replies Marilyn.

Life with Miller is quiet, shifting to some kind of perfume business presentation, as she calls out to him, “Dad, I never want to leave.”

Of course, trouble comes to heaven. While Miller is largely carefree, he has a slight Hitchcockian urge to mold an icy blonde to his liking and use it in his art. She is not Magda or Marilyn but Norma at home, and yet, like every man in her life, he betrays her. One day, Marilyn walks up to her home office, lovingly examining pages laid out on a desk, to find lines of dialogue ripped from a discussion they had. The discussion revolves around a promise he made never to write about their relationship. Oops.

It’s a relief that Miller’s behavior doesn’t fall into anything Svengali-esque or predatory. Her offenses are the most venial of all of Norma’s beaus, with their breakup largely framed following a miscarriage. (There’s a scene where the fetus talks to him; out of context, a number of footage here might just play pro-life propaganda.)

In the end, Miller is the partner who understands her best. He alone appreciates his intelligence. He embodies the common stereotypes of a Jewish husband: educated, caring, and a good provider, even if he’s meek and unequipped for crises. He’s the kind of person who won’t step on your toes or take control when you’re clearly spiraling into drug use. Who only seems the least bit concerned when you trash your room. “What can I do to help you, my dear?” he’ll ask, but it won’t really help.

Dominik’s film, in all its confusing shifts between proportions and black-and-white to color, also ends with a final double exposure: the fractured identities of Norma the victim and Marilyn the pin-up. While skipping the steps leading to a crucial transformation, “Blonde” wants to tell us about the roles we play and the constructions in which we fit.

Ultimately, the role that Miller plays, as another surrogate for Norma’s missing father, is fungible. After crashing her car into a tree, Norma staggers into their house and, seeing Miller there, asks “Who are you?” Miller’s face blurs as he says, “Norma, I’m your husband.

Norma is not recording what this means at this time. But the most important point, in all its blatant banality, is that we can never really know a person if we insist on simple classifications like “Jewish husband”, “ex-athlete” or “blonde”. Oates should know that too – she wrote the book on it.

Margarita W. Wilson

The author Margarita W. Wilson