She has just had a nervous breakdown and is lying on the bed crying; cheeks wet, eyes swollen. But then there’s makeup artist Whitey, who leads her to the dressing table. “Please come,” Norma Jeane whispers hoarsely, “don’t leave me.” Whitey reassures her as he powders her face: “She’ll come. She’s almost there.’
And suddenly her reflection transforms, like a ghost. Radiant mother-of-pearl complexion, eyebrows raised, seductive smile on her coral red mouth. Sure enough, there she is: pop cultural phenomenon, sex symbol, icon. She throws her head back and smiles broadly. A kiss in the air and the transformation is complete. There she is, there’s Marilyn Monroe.
It’s one of the few scenes in the movie blonde (2022) in which actress Ana de Armas plays the icon ‘Marilyn Monroe’, the sex bomb as we think we know it. The woman who The Seven Year Itch her white dress flutters sensually above the subway grille. Her contours are thus etched into our pop-cultural memory. White blond hair, puffy halter dress. Mickey’s ears, Che’s beret, Marilyn’s legs.
In essence blonde a movie about dissociation. In the film adaptation of Joyce Carol Oates’s 2000 book, Norma Jeane Baker (born Norma Jeane Mortenson) experiences so much sorrowful misery that she splits herself in two. ‘Marilyn Monroe’ here is not only a part of Norma Jeane, that one very successful pose, she is also an armor, the hairdo is a silver helmet. ‘Marilyn’ as a survival mechanism.
But in blonde we usually see Norma Jeane, a fragile and vulnerable girl who is constantly harassed and hunted. Ana de Armas plays her with nervous gestures, a haunted frown and large, startled eyes, trying to give the ‘icon’ her humanity back.
Who is Ana de Armas?
The new Marilyn Monroe is Cuban-Spanish actress Ana de Armas (34). Her breakthrough role in Cuba was in Una rosa de Francia (2006). She then starred in Spain in six seasons of the popular teen TV drama El Internado. In the US she broke through with the crime comedy Knives Out (2019); after that she was allowed to give shape to Bond girl Paloma in No Time to Die (2021).
Because how do you play her, how do you play ‘Marilyn Monroe’ (the quotes are there deliberately)? It seems an almost impossible task to give depth and credibility to a woman who became a kind of cartoon character in the collective memory. How do you give such a jigsaw archetype a beating heart?
It has been done about twenty times in recent film history. From Misty Rowe in the biopic Goodbye, Norma Jean (1976) to Ana de Armas in blondewith in between, among others, Theresa Russell in Insignificance (1985), Mira Sorvino in Norma Jean and Marilyn (1996), Poppy Montgomery in blonde (2001, an earlier film adaptation of Oates’ novel) and Michelle Williams in My Week with Marilyn (2011). They played her stupid, sexy, seductive, diabolical, tragic, manipulative or unstable.
Record holder for Marilyn roles is lookalike Susan Griffiths, now 62, who played the blonde sex bomb thirteen times between 1990 and 2007, including in Quantum Leap and Pulp Fiction. But that is mainly a matter of the right color hair dye and an hourglass figure in a cellophane-tight dress.
Still, a certain amount of outward imitation is inevitable in a convincing Marilyn rendition. It helps, says actress Karina Smulders (42), who played her at Toneelgroep Amsterdam in After the Fall (2012), a play by Monroe’s ex Arthur Miller. ‘It’s never a matter of just imitating, of course; as an actor you always relate to the text. But such a dress, that wig, the red lips, they do something, they help you on your way. Sometimes I had the feeling that I was halfway there with those attachments.’
It is precisely the travesty that exposes the tragedy of ‘Marilyn’, because it is so necessary. Smulders: ‘I was also wearing a dress in which I couldn’t do anything except fall over. That also helps.’
Whoever plays ‘Marilyn Monroe’ plays Norma Jeane and Marilyn, inside and outside world, person and persona. In the TV movie Norma Jean and Marilyn (1996) this idea of two different women was even taken literally. In it, Ashley Judd plays Norma Jeane, the girl with the disturbed mother and the difficult childhood. That girl is discovered as a fashion model and pin-up, but when a high-ranking studio boss judges that she “has no appreciable chin” and a nose like a potato, she goes under the knife. And lo, there’s Marilyn Monroe, now played by Mira Sorvino. When Monroe doesn’t feel like it anymore, Norma Jeane admonishes her through the mirror.
Striking about the vital portrayal of Sorvino – she was nominated for a Golden Globe – is her high-pitched Minnie Mouse voice. Monroe’s striking voice is an important entry point for actresses, it turns out. Not just as a characteristic gimmick, but because it says something about her state of mind, her insecurity and her ambition. How she uses her voice reveals something of her inner world.
For example, Monroe emphatically modeled her voice according to the wishes of her various acting coaches. In the 1950s she developed the recognizable hoarse girl whisper; later her use of voice became more natural. Ana de Armas listened to all the different Marilyns for a year and rehearsed for two hours daily with her voice coach. It produces a sound that fits her tormented role: small, thin and hoarse, each syllable a sigh.
Marilyn spoke with a lot of breath under her voice, and that quality is especially well matched by Michelle Williams: in My Week with Marilyn she speaks alternately in a girlish whisper or champagne bubbles. Williams won a Golden Globe for her portrayal and was nominated for an Oscar.
Her Marilyn is layered and refined, with searching eyes in a mobile face, on which every emotion is immediately apparent. She always feels the face of the other, looking for appreciation, admiration, recognition. Beneath her sensuality there is always a hint of childlike anticipation.
And also in this film there is such a moment of transformation. “Shall I be her?” Williams asks a flirt. Promptly, one hip sinks crookedly and one shoulder is exposed. Head in the neck, hand pillow in the air. There she is.
Monroe was chameleonic, says Karina Smulders. ‘She always adapted to other people’s expectations. So I played her as a child woman and as a femme fatale, and everything in between, as someone who changes color all the time.’
What Smulders remembers well from her rendition was the specific walk. ‘She has remarkable motor skills, is always a bit unsteady, in a classic ‘save me’ pose. I created that by wearing impossibly high heels that I could barely walk in.’
The real Monroe seemed to have a heel chafed, which naturally gave her a wobbly step, a sprain in her hips; a walk with a wink.
Whoever sees images of Monroe now notices that she has a different pace than the rest, as if she were moving in slow motion. That may have been seen as seductive at the time, a kind of sexy bedroom languor, but it could also have been a result of her pill addiction. Williams shows this duality beautifully, dozing lazily like a cat on the chaise longue, but with a drowsy look and a cloudy voice. Her Marilyn can enjoy, but also suffer, always.
With Ana de Armas, that suffering predominates. ‘Marilyn’ has been played in many ways, but never as fragile as it is now.
Where her predecessors always played something of fun, of the fun of seduction, De Armas completely omits that in the direction of Andrew Dominik. That makes her interpretation in blonde revolutionary, a Marilyn for the #MeToo era. Because wasn’t that “pleasure” of sex bomb Monroe something the world liked to project on her? After all, if the sex symbol itself enjoys it, the outside world is not to blame.
The Armas wants to give Marilyn back her vulnerability. But in the end that is of course also an interpretation, just as every interpreter projects something different onto her in a certain period of time.
That is the most characteristic of ‘Marilyn Monroe’, says Smulders, and also her greatest tragedy: she is a woman caught in someone else’s reality. She was during her life, and she still is today.