A nearly three hour epic, centered on a fictional* female protagonist at the height of their status, with a lead performance to match the the character at the center, that is crafted masterfully by an exalted male director who hasn’t made a film in over a decade, who writes and weaves a controversial narrative of our current times through the lens of their lead character’s station in their own lives.
That description above easily (and rightfully) describes the new film, TÁR, the marvelous third feature by Todd Field and starring an incredible Cate Blanchett; in arguably her best performance to date. But it also describes Blonde, Andrew Dominik’s 4th and long gestating adaptation of Joyce Carol Oates’ book of the same name (a *fictional take on the story of Marilyn Monroe’s life and death) with a fantastic and nuanced performance of its title blonde played by Ana de Armas.
TÁR is being hailed as one the year’s best films, while Blonde has been derided as one of its worst.
While I would easily agree TÁR is the better film of the two, they aren’t that far apart if you’re asking me, but the parallels between the two stuck right out with me.
Blanchett, long considered one of our greatest actors, is incredibly impressive in TÁR. She plays a person at the height of status and power, more successful in the entertainment industry than nearly anyone in history and has the ability, intelligence and space to display her skills. Blanchett holds everyone’s attention as Tár, she’s endlessly captivating, pulling you into her orbit and onto her side. Blonde’s version of Marilyn Monroe, de Aramas as Norma Jeane, is equally engrossing and captivating, though she is unleashed into the world of 1950’s Hollywood that didn’t care about her except for what she could do for them at the studio. Where Blanchett gets to play her role from a pedestal of greatness, de Armas builds off our sympathy/empathy for Norma Jeane, who is depicted as a product of a traumatic childhood, navigating the potential volatility lurking around every corner by her mentally unstable mother. When de Armas arrives on the screen, she’s navigating the world of Hollywood, rightfully, with the same caution she had around her mother. An industry full of misogyny and predators, de Armas’ Marilyn knows not to ruffle the feathers of the power structure if she dares to have a career, with everyone in her ear telling her to do the same.
That doesn’t mean Marilyn’s genius doesn’t get to break through, it does quite powerfully on a few occasions, and both actors in these two films get amazing showcases early in their respective films to show off their characters’ genius. De Armas is spellbindingly great as she unlocks everything Norma Jeane’s experienced to pour into her audition for the film Don’t Bother to Knock. Told in a pair of long takes, we easily can see her (Marilyn and de Armas) talent and ability blast off the screen and de Armas gets to show us how overwhelming this exercise can be, even if it produces some incredible results. She breaks down and has to run out of the audition, being reduced to a “great piece of ass” by the studio dolts who don’t even register her brilliance. This happens time and time again in the film, as we watch de Armas wither and be forced to stay in her place as she tries to show her intelligence and love for the craft of acting, being instantly disregarded by the misogynistic patriarchy at almost every turn.
Blanchett’s stand out scene on the other hand is one told from a place of the highest respect and reverence, as she debates and pontificates with a student about the power of the art itself and its sway over our feelings and emotions, no matter the artist who makes it. Where de Armas flourishes as she tries to poke through the blanket of power over here, Blanchett gets to toss the blanket over whomever she pleases. Told in an impressive single take, Tár eviscerates a student for disregarding a master artist’s work based on their status and behavior as a powerful white man, as the young student cowers uncomfortably and can barely muster a word before a send off of “You’re a fucking, bitch,” as they storm out of the classroom. Unphased, Blanchett lets this offense slide right off her back, as she feels that she stands to lose nothing from this exchange as she gets to carry right along with her life.
While both of these performances are rooted in fictionalized films, I can’t help but wonder what the reaction to Blonde would be if it actually had no real life corollary attached to it. On the one hand, it might never have been made if it wasn’t related to the life of Marilyn Monroe, but a depiction of a fictional character navigating the underbelly of Hollywood could then be taken on its own merits and not held up to people’s preconceived notions about what this film is supposed to be about. TÁR soars as high as it does because we don’t know all the details of her possible transgressions and are never given explicit examples of Tár behaving badly, allowing us to make up our own minds as we watch this story unfold. Blonde has so much emotional baggage for many viewers as a potential portrait of a possibly/probably harrowing journey of one of Hollywood’s most beloved stars. Blonde’s inspiration didn’t ride off into the sunset on a mount of glory though, she tragically died, arguably at the hands of a system that felt they could/should control her. Making a film that explicitly shows this and the trauma it caused to one of the most popular and powerful stars of all time feels more informative to me than a pat on the back biopic that shows us the greatest hits of someone’s career.
I understand the impulse to want to watch a celebration of a star, but Dominik’s choice to race through the parts of the story of Marilyn Monroe everyone knows about works on two levels. For one, this is a fictionalized history of his star and by spending too much time in the moments burned into our memories the story would be even more confusing as a piece of fact vs. speculative fiction. Second, the critical community bemoans the the trope of biopics that just take a stroll down memory lane, Blonde tries to avoid that whenever possible (and when it does re-create the past, I think Dominik isn’t getting enough credit for how immaculate they insert de Armas into it).
***Spoilers for both Blonde and TÁR below***
Where Blonde dives right into the mess of trying to piece together the gray areas of malice that surround Monroe to this day, Todd Field leaves all of the mess around Tár just off screen; leaving the viewer in a state of unknowability between the fact and fiction of the story. This allows Field’s film to be a bit more mischievous as we watch his lead fall from the top, never knowing who to believe and challenging viewers to wonder if they should be cheering on or sympathizing with Tár’s tumble from grace (I found myself in the former). Dominik doesn’t have this luxury in Blonde. He’s bound to a reality, even if this is a fictionalized take, that his lead character doesn’t make it out on the other side in any shape, way or form beyond their legend. Legends tend to sand off the rough parts of the story and I can appreciate wanting to remind the world of those easily forgotten edges that were far sharper than people want to remember. Dominik even cheekily winks at the end of Blonde, as our dead heroine comes back to life in a ghostly overlay of sultry seduction, knowingly acknowledging Marilyn will never be forgotten while Norma Jeane died trying to keep her alive. Field gets to send Tár off to the other side of the world, most likely forgotten to time, while ending with a joke of his own at his lead’s expense.
Blonde and TÁR make for an interesting double feature that you might find closer in quality than the consensus currently stands at. Both directors are firing on all cylinders and their stars are doing the same. Both films find interesting takes on the tried and true famous person’s fall from grace story, but find unique lenses to tell their respective tales. A pair of lead performances worth the price of their respective admissions alone, there is a level of craft and food for thought waiting for you on the other side as well. Let’s not lose these films to obscurity the way the work of these two great directors has been previously. Hopefully the great performances at their respective centers will help.