How ‘Blonde’ tackles Marilyn Monroe’s style legacy

Written by Marianna Cerini

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Few pop culture figures continue to live in our collective imagination as strongly as Marilyn Monroe, and her status as a beauty icon has been pivotal.

From the moment she became Hollywood’s quintessential “blonde bombshell,” Monroe’s distinctive features — the hourglass silhouette, pouty red lips, full lashes, dreamy eyes — defined a type of femininity that’s still prevalent idealized today. That enduring legacy was alluded to at this year’s Met Gala in New York, when Kim Kardashian walked out in the $4.8 million crystal-encrusted nude silk dress Monroe wore to commemorate former US President John F. Kennedy in 1962, ” Happy Birthday” theme of the gala was “Gilded Glamour”; Monroe is still the epitome of it.

Marilyn Monroe poses in Idlewild as she boards an American Airlines plane bound for Hollywood in 1956.

Marilyn Monroe poses in Idlewild as she boards an American Airlines plane bound for Hollywood in 1956. Recognition: Bettmann/Getty Images

Now, a new Netflix biopic starring Ana de Armas is rekindling society’s fixation on Monroe – thanks in large part to de Armas’ uncanny on-screen transformation into the 1950s star.

Based on the novel of the same name by Joyce Carol Oates, Blonde – which debuted at the Venice Film Festival earlier this month – is a fictionalized account of the life of the woman born Norma Jeane Mortenson and best known as Marilyn Monroe. Rather than a traditional adaptation that focuses on historical accuracy, writer-director Andrew Dominik offers a controversial, often brutal account of Monroe’s personal and public struggles, taking a non-linear, highly stylized approach that evokes her troubled childhood and rise to superstardom follows and tragic descent that recreates some of the most memorable moments of her career.
in the "Blond," Ana de Armas recreates an iconic Monroe scene in "The darn seventh year."

In Blonde, Ana de Armas recreates an iconic Monroe scene from The Seven Year Itch. Recognition: Matt Kennedy / Netflix

In a film that’s at times deeply startling in how it bends reality (some of the most outlandish scenes involve talking fetuses and abortions from the perspective of Monroe’s cervix), it showcases the starlet’s style — and how he drove her personal narrative — to be heard the more grounding aspects. It’s perhaps not surprising, then, that de Armas’ stunning transformation into her character was the result of meticulous preparation and daily hair and makeup sessions that lasted nearly three hours and went well beyond the concept of glamour.

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become Marilyn

“Blond” Makeup Director Tina Roesler Kerwin and Hair Director Jaime Leigh McIntosh conducted extensive research to ensure they were able to represent Monroe’s distinctive look as accurately as possible.

“We grabbed every resource we could find,” Kerwin said in a video interview. “We started with the script and the imagery we wanted to recreate, and then moved on to books, movies and fansites. And we never stopped – we researched until the end of the film.”

About 100 looks were recreated for Blonde—from magazine covers starring Monroe to her red carpet appearances—although just over half made the final cut. Wigs, McIntosh said, are essential to ensure de Armas — a brunette in real life — can move quickly from one take to the next. They were also key to making Monroe’s platinum blonde hair come off right on camera.

“We used five wigs that we adjusted to mimic Marilyn’s hairline and fit Ana properly,” McIntosh said via video call. The blondes — Monroe had brown locks before stardom — were hand-tied by Los Angeles-based wigmaker Rob Pickens and his team, using real human hair (including baby hair around the hairline), which could be styled into Monroe’s trademark pin curl set.

Monroe seated at a banquet table during a Photoplay Gold Medal Awards dinner in the 1950s.

Monroe seated at a banquet table during a Photoplay Gold Medal Awards dinner in the 1950s. Recognition: Murray Garrett/Getty Images

“We selected different shades of blonde to make each wig with and then further colored them to give them a shadow root,” added McIntosh. (“Shadow root” is a technique used to match color and achieve a perfect blend after lightening.) The idea was to recreate the same texture as Monroe’s hair.

To ensure de Armas’ own hair was completely covered, Kerwin added prosthetic pieces around her natural hairline and airbrushed them to match her skin tone.

The rest of the makeup also required meticulous work, which Kerwin says de Armas was “fully on board with.”

The actress wore blue contacts to hide her natural hazel irises and lots of lashes to accentuate her eyes appear more almond-shaped.

“The eyes were probably the biggest difference (between de Armas and Monroe),” Kerwin said. “So we layered the lashes a lot at the ends to make them ‘straight’ a bit, as well as shaded and contoured her face to make it look more like Marilyn.” She also took de Armas to an eyebrow specialist to minimize her brows and to bleach.

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“The assignment we got from (director Andrew Dominik) wasn’t just to put Marilyn’s makeup on Ana, but to turn her into Marilyn,” Kerwin said.

Glamor vs minimalism

“Blonde” costume designer Jennifer Johnson received similar guidelines when she began working on de Armas’ wardrobe. Like Kerwin and McIntosh, she initially approached the project from a research perspective.

“Andrew had this incredible amount of archive, mood, and image research — about 800 pages total,” she said in a video interview. “I plastered them all over my office like they were wallpaper and just 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 make replicas that also felt authentic and not costumed,” she said. “I wanted to give the clothing a sensibility that works in the 21st century.”

To do this, Johnson worked with Jose Bello, head tailor at Western Costume, a century-old Hollywood costume store. Together they reproduced some of Monroe’s most iconic looks, including the pink strapless dress in which she performed “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend,” the white halterneck pleated dress from “The Seven Year Itch,” and the black soufflé and nude silk jersey with beads and sequins from “Some Like It Hot”.

Monroe signs an autograph for a US soldier in Korea as part of the USO program.

Monroe signs an autograph for a US soldier in Korea as part of the USO program. Recognition: Greg Mathieson/Getty Images

“These original designs are so clever and it was important to honor them with the same level of couture, technique and quality,” said Johnson.

However, when it came to Monroe’s everyday outfits — her Norma Jeane “uniform” — it was a different story. Away from the limelight, the star’s fashion choices were remarkably stripped down, centered on a few pieces she wore over and over again.

“She was very minimalist,” Johnson said. “She was interested in being taken seriously as an artist and creator, not as a pinup. She wanted her clothes to reflect that.”

Indeed, as Norma Jeane, de Armas wears black turtlenecks and capris, beatnik sweaters and simple shift dresses. Her makeup is toned down, too—a nude lip instead of the alluring red. It’s a compelling juxtaposition and an important narrative device that “Blonde” uses to bridge the gap between the icon the world has seen – the souped-up “dumb blonde” who exuded sex appeal – and the misunderstood, insecure woman who represented her was to further emphasize below.

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Ultimately, Johnson says, De Armas’ performance is so compelling because it captures that duality perfectly. “It doesn’t feel like she’s in a costume,” Johnson noted.

The decision not to use prosthetics or padding on de Armas’ body also helped make the illusion more believable. “[For Ana]being able to use her body, I think it makes her feel more like Marilyn,” Johnson said. “She’s not a caricature.”

Blonde will be available on Netflix on September 28th.

Add to Queue: Five More Marilyn Monroe Essentials

READ: “Norma Jean: The Life of Marilyn Monroe” (1969)

This authoritative biography by Fred Lawrence Guiles features interviews with some of the people who have been closest to Monroe throughout her life (including her third husband, playwright Arthur Miller, her Some Like It Hot director Billy Wilder, and director of The Misfits John Houston). . It’s a must-read for the die-hard Monroe fans out there.

CLOCK: “My Week with Marilyn” (2011)

Michelle Williams plays Monroe in this true story-based film from Simon Curtis, which – as the title suggests – zooms in on a week in the starlet’s life in 1956 when she was in England filming “The Prince and the Showgirl” and developed a personal relationship with a younger man who worked on the set.

READ: “Marilyn: Norma Jeane” (1986)

Feminist icon and activist Gloria Steinem paints a complex, multi-layered portrait of Monroe through previously untold stories in a biopic that really helped change stereotypes about the Hollywood star.

CLOCK: “The Outsiders” (1961)

John Huston’s western marks Monroe’s final on-screen role — and it’s one of her more powerful performances. The actor plays the divorced Roslyn Tabor (her then-husband Miller wrote the role) who falls in love with Clark Gable’s cowboy character. Spoiler alert: it’s not a romcom.

LISTEN: “You Must Remember” (2017)
A storytelling podcast (now paused indefinitely) that explores — in the words of host Karina Longworth — the secret and forgotten histories of Hollywood’s first century, You Must Remember This dedicated a series of episodes to Monroe in 2017.

Pictured above: Ana de Armas as Marilyn Monroe in Blonde.

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