One of the most iconic stars of the cultural zeitgeist, Marilyn Monroe has inspired countless retellings of her life and career through films and television shows.
The latest is Netflix’s Blonde, in which Ana de Armas plays Monroe. The film, which debuted at the Venice Film Festival earlier this month and premiered on Netflix on September 28, received rave reviews for de Armas’ performance and his transformation into Monroe, which lasted several hours each day.
Directed by Andrew Dominik, Blonde hired costume designer Jennifer Johnson, head of hair Jaime Leigh McIntosh and head of makeup Tina Roesler Kerwin to help transform de Armas into Monroe.
Every morning on set, de Armas would spend about two to three hours in the makeup chair with Kerwin and McIntosh, who began their transformation with a bald prosthetic cap to hide de Armas’s dark hairline and provide a base for her blonde wigs. Kerwin then bleached and minimized de Armas’ natural brows and applied false lashes to match the actress’s eye shape with Monroe’s.
“We went through everything we could — every movie, every research book, every fansite — everything we could get our hands on,” Kerwin said of her approach to de Armas’ makeup. We always start with the script and what the director is specifically looking for and how many recreations we had to do. Then just dive in and hit the floor and see how many you can get right. It was a big responsibility because Marilyn still has so many fans and everyone knows what Marilyn looks like to some degree, but there are some people who really know what Marilyn looks like. Honoring Ana, honoring Andrew and honoring Marilyn, that was a lot. It was a responsibility we took very seriously.”
“Blonde” is a dramatized retelling of Monroe’s life and career, beginning with her childhood. The film follows Monroe early in her career, highlighting her ups and downs in the film industry and her romantic relationships with figures such as playwright Arthur Miller (played by Adrien Brody) and baseball legend Joe DiMaggio (played by Bobby Cannavale). .
For the hair, makeup, and costumes, authenticity was of paramount importance to the film, as “Blonde” mimicked many of Monroe’s most famous looks.
“As a costume designer, I felt I had to pay tribute to these original designs in a really loving way, which also showed that I cared about how special they are,” Johnson said. “It’s easy to copy things, but it’s much more difficult to recreate them. It’s almost like a different thing, you know? How there’s a spirit to rebuilding it too – like the labor that went into it and the amount of hands that sewed it and made everything the way they originally would have done it.”
Two of Monroe’s most iconic looks recreated for Blonde are the pink dress she wears in the 1953 film Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and the white halterneck pleated dress she wore in the film The Seven Year Itch” from 1955. Both iconic dresses were originally designed by costume designer William Travilla.
With both costumes, Johnson wanted to remain as authentic and true to the original as possible. She examined the actual techniques and fabrics used by Travilla and attempted to pay homage to the designer.
“For the specific looks, my job was to connect the dots and examine missing pieces, particularly in constructing costumes and really immersing ourselves in our recreations. It was incredibly important to do that forensic work and figure out how those designs were originally made,” she said. “Then I also have the ability not to be so wedded to the original that it feels suffocating, so it was always a concern for me to make everything look very naturalistic, even if it was a replica. It had to have a life of its own outside of Marilyn and become part of our film.”
One of the biggest challenges for the department heads was the film’s transition between black and white and color scenes. They explained that sometimes they knew in advance whether a scene would be in color or not, but often they didn’t know or were made aware of it just before shooting. This mainly affected the use of certain colors, which affected Johnson and Kerwin.
“Lip colors were the biggest challenge — finding lip colors that would work in black and white,” Kerwin said. “We had a pre-shoot day where we took about 36 different pictures that day. It was a great crash course trying many, many lip colors. I ended up with some that worked in color, some that worked in black and white, and some that worked in both.”
While de Armas’ beauty look stayed relatively the same throughout the film, Kerwin and McIntosh wanted the beauty to reflect Monroe’s transitions through life and her ups and downs.
“Marilyn is known for being a classic, iconic beauty — and luckily for us, so is Ana,” Kerwin said. “We just had to build on that and find our Marilyn in Ana. It’s also been fun to ruin her at times and not make it perfect or glamorous – there’s a range in her looks. We had to giggle sometimes when we got the chance to ruin her, but it’s Marilyn and there’s no getting away from that with hair, makeup and costumes.”
De Armas’ daily transformations are key to the film, given Monroe’s longstanding status as a fashion icon, the artists said.
“These costumes are in the zeitgeist of the world — especially that white dress with the halter bodice and the pleats — it’s part of her, it’s part of her icon,” Johnson said. “Her icon will never be the naked pinup, although we all know this photo. But it’s really about that white dress. I think that embodies her elegance and that she was part of a Hollywood system that did amazing work and produced beautiful designs.”