As an actress, how do you give such a jigsaw archetype as Marilyn Monroe a beating heart?

Ana de Armas as Marilyn Monroe in ‘Blonde’ (2022).Image Netflix

She has just had a nervous breakdown and is lying on the bed crying; cheeks wet, eyes swollen. But then there is the make-up 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’s coming. She’s almost there.’

And suddenly her reflection transforms like a ghost. Radiant mother-of-pearl complexion, raised eyebrows, seductive smile on her coral-red mouth. Sure enough, there she is: pop culture phenomenon, sex symbol, icon. She throws her head back and smiles widely. One kiss in the air and the transformation is complete. There she is, there is Marilyn Monroe.

It is one of the few scenes in the film blonde (2022), in which actress Ana de Armas plays the icon ‘Marilyn Monroe’, the sex bomb as we think we know her. The woman there The seven-year itch her white dress flutters sensually over the subway grate. Her contours are thus etched into our pop cultural memory. White blonde hair, raised halter dress. Mickey’s ears, Che’s beret, Marilyn’s legs.

Successful pose

Essentially blonde a film about dissociation. In the 2000 film adaptation of Joyce Carol Oates’ book, Norma Jeane Baker (born Norma Jeane Mortenson) experiences so much sorrowful misery that she splits herself in half. ‘Marilyn Monroe’ here is not only a part of Norma Jeane, the one very successful pose, she is also an armor, the hairstyle 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 big, startled eyes, trying to give the ‘icon’ her humanity back.

Who is Ana de Armas?

The new Marilyn Monroe is the Cuban-Spanish actress Ana de Armas (34). Her breakthrough role in Cuba was in Una rosa de Francia (2006). She then starred in Spain for six seasons of the popular teen TV drama El Internado. In the United States, she broke through with the crime comedy Knives out (2019); then she was allowed to give shape to the Bond girl Paloma i No time to die (2021).

Because how do you play her, how do you play ‘Marilyn Monroe’ (the quotes are there deliberately)? It seems like 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?

Theresa Russell in 'Insignificance' (1985).  Image Getty

Theresa Russell in ‘Insignificance’ (1985).Image Getty

It’s been done about twenty times in recent film history. From Misty Rowe in the biopic Goodbye, Norma Jean (1976) to Ana de Armas i blondewith in between, among others, Theresa Russell in Insignificance (1985), Mira Sorvino in Norma Jean and Marilyn (1996), Poppy Montgomery i 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.

The record holder for Marilyn roles is lookalike Susan Griffiths, now 62, who played the blonde bombshell thirteen times between 1990 and 2007, including Quantum leaps and Pulp Fiction. But it’s primarily a question of the right color hair dye and an hourglass figure in a cellophane-tight dress.

Karina Smulders in 'After the Fall' by Toneelgroep Amsterdam (2012).  Picture Jan Versweyveld

Karina Smulders in ‘After the Fall’ by Toneelgroep Amsterdam (2012).Picture Jan Versweyveld

Still, a certain amount of outward mimicry is inevitable in a convincing Marilyn interpretation. It helps, says actress Karina Smulders (42), who played her in Toneelgroep Amsterdam in After the Fall (2012), a play by Monroe’s ex Arthur Miller. “Of course, it’s never a question of just imitating; as an actor, you always relate to the text. But a dress like that, that wig, those red lips, they do something, they help you on your way. Sometimes I had the feeling that I was halfway through those attachments.’

It is precisely the parody that reveals the tragedy of ‘Marilyn’ because it is so necessary. Smulders: ‘I also wore a dress where I couldn’t do anything but fall over. That helps too.’

Mira Sorvino in 'Norma Jean and Marilyn' (1996).  Image Select image

Mira Sorvino in ‘Norma Jean and Marilyn’ (1996).Image Select image

Whoever plays ‘Marilyn Monroe’ plays Norma Jeane and Marilyn, in and out of the world, person to person. 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 manager judges that she has “no noticeable chin” and a nose like a potato, she goes under the knife. And look, 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 distinctive 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’s whisper; later her voice use became more natural. Ana de Armas listened to all the different Marilyns for a year and practiced for two hours daily with her voice coach. It makes for a sound that fits her tormented role: small, thin and hoarse, every syllable a sigh.

Michelle Williams in 'My Week with Marilyn' (2011).  Picture

Michelle Williams in ‘My Week with Marilyn’ (2011).

Marilyn spoke with a lot of breath under her voice, and that quality is matched particularly well by Michelle Williams: in My week with Marilyn she speaks alternately in a girlish whisper or champagne bubbles. Williams won a Golden Globe for his portrayal and was nominated for an Academy Award.

Her Marilyn is layered and refined, with searching eyes in a mobile face where every emotion is immediately apparent. She always feels the other’s face, looks 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. “Should I be her?” Williams asks a flirt. Prompte sinks one hip askew and one shoulder is exposed. Head on the neck, hand pillow in the air. There she is.


Monroe was a chameleon, 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 that specific walk. ‘She has remarkable motor skills, is always a bit unstable, in a classic ‘save me’ pose. I created that by wearing incredibly high heels that I could hardly walk in.’

The real Monroe seemed to have gnawed her heel, which of course gave her a wobbly step, a sprain in her hips; a trip with a wink.

Misty Rowe in 'Goodbye Norma Jean' (1976).  Image Getty

Misty Rowe in ‘Goodbye Norma Jean’ (1976).Image Getty

Anyone who sees pictures of Monroe now notices that she has a different pace than the rest, as if she were moving in slow motion. It might have been seen as seductive at the time, a kind of sexy indolence in the bedroom, but it could also have been a result of her pill addiction. Williams displays this duality beautifully, lazily lazing like a cat on the chaise longue, but with a drowsy look and a cloudy voice. Her Marilyn can enjoy, but also suffer, always.

In Ana de Armas, that suffering prevails. ‘Marilyn’ has been played in many ways, but never as fragile as now.

Revolutionary interpretation

Where her predecessors always played something fun, of the fun of seduction, De Armas completely leaves it out in the vein of Andrew Dominik. That makes her interpretation blonde revolutionary, a Marilyn for the #MeToo era. Because wasn’t the “pleasure” of sex bomb Monroe something the world liked to project onto her? After all, if the sex symbol himself enjoys it, the outside world is not to blame.

Armas wants to give Marilyn her vulnerability back. But at the end of the day, of course, it’s also an interpretation, just as every interpreter projects something different onto her for a certain period of time.

That is the most characteristic thing about ‘Marilyn Monroe’, says Smulders, and also her greatest tragedy: she is a woman trapped in someone else’s reality. She was that during her life and she still is today.

Poppy Montgomery in 'Blonde' (2001, an earlier film adaptation of Oates' novel).  Picture

Poppy Montgomery in ‘Blonde’ (2001, an earlier film adaptation of Oates’ novel).

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