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Few pop culture figures continue to live as large in our collective imagination as Marilyn Monroe, and her status as a beauty icon has been pivotal to that.
From the moment she became Hollywood’s quintessential “blonde bombshell,” Monroe’s unmistakable features – the hourglass silhouette, pouty red lips, full eyelashes, dreamy eyes – came to define a type of femininity that’s still widely idealized today. That enduring legacy got a nod at this year’s Met Gala in New York, when Kim Kardashian showed up in the $4.8 million crystal-covered nude silk gown Monroe wore to sing “Happy Birthday” to former US President John F. Kennedy in 1962. The theme of the gala was “Gilded Glamour”; Monroe is still the epitome of that.
Now, a new Netflix biopic starring Ana de Armas is resurrecting society’s fixation with Monroe once again – thanks largely to de Armas’ uncanny onscreen transformation into the 1950s star.
Based on Joyce Carol Oates’s novel by the same name, “Blonde” – which debuted at the Venice Film Festival earlier this month – is a fictional account of the life of the woman born Norma Jeane Mortenson, who rose to fame as Marilyn Monroe. Rather than a traditional adaptation focused on historical accuracy, writer-director Andrew Dominik offers a controversial, often brutal portrayal of Monroe’s personal and public struggles, adopting a nonlinear, highly stylized approach that follows her troubled childhood, ascent to superstardom and tragic descent, recreating some of the most memorable moments from her career along the way.
In a film that’s at times deeply startling in the way it bends reality (some of the most out-there scenes include talking fetuses and abortions from the perspective of Monroe’s cervix), its portrayal of the starlet’s style – and the ways it drove her personal narrative – is among the more grounding aspects. It’s perhaps unsurprising then that de Armas’ stunning metamorphosis into her character was the result of meticulous preparation and daily hair and makeup sessions that lasted nearly three hours and went far beyond the concept of glam.
“Blonde” makeup department head Tina Roesler Kerwin and hair department head Jaime Leigh McIntosh did extensive research to ensure they could achieve the most accurate depiction of Monroe’s unmistakable look.
“We reached for every resource we could possibly find,” Kerwin said in a video interview. “We started with the script and the images that we were going to recreate, and then moved onto books, movies, fan sites. And we never stopped – we kept researching until the very end of the film.”
Some 100 looks were recreated for “Blonde” – from magazine covers featuring Monroe to her red-carpet appearances – although just over half of those made the final cut. Wigs, McIntosh said, were essential to ensure de Armas – a brunette in real life – could change quickly from one take to the next. They were also key in ensuring that Monroe’s platinum hair would come off right on camera.
“We used five wigs, which we customized to mimic Marilyn’s hairline and fit Ana correctly,” McIntosh said via video call. The blonde ones – pre-stardom, Monroe had brown curls – were hand tied by Los Angeles-based wigmaker Rob Pickens and his team, using real human hair (including baby hairs around the hairline) that could be styled into Monroe’s trademark pin curl set.
“We chose different shades of blonde to make each wig with, then colored them further to give them a shadow root,” McIntosh added. (“Shadow root” is a technique used to customize color and achieve a perfect blend after lightening.) The idea was to replicate the same texture as Monroe’s hair.
To ensure de Armas’ own hair would be completely concealed, Kerwin added prosthetic pieces around her natural hairline, and airbrushed them to match her skin tone.
The rest of the makeup, too, required painstaking work, for which de Armas was “fully on board,” Kerwin said.
The actor wore blue contact lenses to hide her natural hazel irises, and lots of lashes to make her eyes appear more almond-shaped.
“The eyes were probably the biggest difference (between de Armas and Monroe),” Kerwin said. “So we did a lot of layering of the lashes on the ends to make them slightly ‘straighter,’ as well as shadowing and contouring around her face, to make it look more like Marilyn.” She also took de Armas to an eyebrow specialist to minimize and bleach her brows.
“The brief we got from (director Andrew Dominik) was not to just put Marilyn’s makeup on Ana, but to transform her into Marilyn,” Kerwin said.
Glamour vs. minimalism
“Blonde” costume designer Jennifer Johnson received similar guidelines when she started working on de Armas’ wardrobe. Like Kerwin and McIntosh, she first approached the project from a research perspective.
“Andrew had this incredible amount of archival, mood and image research – some 800 pages in total,” she said in a video interview. “I plastered them all on my office as if they were wallpaper, and just kind of absorbed everything.”
She then began documenting Marilyn’s private style and stage persona firsthand, dissecting the construction and pattern-making of her more iconic garments.
“The biggest challenge was understanding how to do recreations that would also feel authentic, and not costumey,” she said. “I wanted to give the clothes a sensibility that would work in the 21st century.”
To that end, Johnson worked with Jose Bello, head cutter of Western Costume, a century-old costume warehouse in Hollywood. Together, they reproduced some of Monroe’s most well-known looks, including the pink strapless gown in which she performed “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend,” the white pleated halter neck dress from “The Seven Year Itch,” and the black souffle and nude silk jersey with beads and sequins from “Some Like It Hot.”
“Those original designs are so clever, and it felt important to honor them by having the same level of couture, techniques and quality,” Johnson said.
When it came to Monroe’s everyday outfits – her Norma Jeane “uniform” – it was a different story, however. Away from the spotlight, the star’s sartorial choices were remarkably pared down and centered around a few pieces she wore time and again.
“She was very minimalist,” Johnson said. “She was interested in being taken seriously as an artist and creator, and not as a pinup. She wanted her clothes to reflect that.”
Indeed, when she’s Norma Jeane, de Armas wears black turtlenecks and capri pants, beatnik sweaters and simple sheath dresses. Her makeup, too, is toned down – a nude lip instead of the seductive red. It’s an arresting juxtaposition, and a key narrative device that “Blonde” uses to further highlight the split between the symbol the world saw – the done-up “dumb blonde” that oozed sex appeal – and the misunderstood, insecure woman she was underneath.
Ultimately, Johnson said, De Armas’ performance is so compelling because she perfectly captures that duality. “It doesn’t feel like she’s in a costume,” Johnson noted.
The decision to use no prosthetics or padding on de Armas’ body also helped make the illusion more credible. “(For Ana) to be able to use her body, I think it makes her feel more in line with Marilyn,” Johnson said. “She’s not a caricature.”
“Blonde” will be available on Netflix September 28.
Add to Queue: Five more Marilyn Monroe essentials
This definitive biography by Fred Lawrence Guiles features interviews with some of the people closest to Monroe throughout her life (including her third husband, the playwright Arthur Miller, her “Some Like It Hot” director Billy Wilder and “The Misfits” director John Huston). It’s a must-read for the hardcore Monroe fans out there.
Michelle Williams stars as Monroe in this based-on-a-true-story Simon Curtis movie, which – as its title suggests – zooms in on one week of the starlet’s life in 1956, while she was in England filming “The Prince and the Showgirl” and forged a personal relationship with a younger man who worked on set.
Feminist icon and activist Gloria Steinem depicts a complex, layered portrait of Monroe through previously untold stories in a biography that really helped shift preconceptions surrounding the Hollywood star.
WATCH: “The Misfits” (1961)
John Huston’s western features Monroe’s final onscreen role – and it is one of her more powerful performances. The actor plays divorcée Roslyn Tabor (her then-husband Miller had written the part), who falls in love with Clark Gable’s cowboy character. Spoiler alert: It isn’t a romcom.
LISTEN: “You Must Remember This” (2017)
A storytelling podcast (now on an indefinite hiatus) that – in the words of host Karina Longworth – explores the secret and forgotten histories of Hollywood’s first century, “You Must Remember This” dedicated a series of episodes to Monroe back in 2017.
Top image: Ana de Armas as Marilyn Monroe in “Blonde.”