Marilyn Monroe was the ultimate bombshell, but she wasn’t born that way. As photographer Milton H. Greene put it, You do not just wake up in the morning and wash your face and comb your hair and go out and look like Marilyn Monroe. She [knew] every trick of the beauty trade.
A friend of Monroe’s mother, who would later become Monroe’s guardian, told Monroe at a young age that with a different nose and hair she could be like Jean Harlow.31 It seems as though this stayed with her, as the first of the three key moments in Monroe’s transformation from Norma Jeane into the icon we know today was when she dyed her hair (she starred in Howard Hawks’s screwball comedy Monkey Business with full platinum blond hair in 1952). The second moment was when she reportedly had plastic surgery in 1950 on her nose and chin (these rumors have been confirmed by the notes from the office of Hollywood plastic surgeon Dr. Michael Gurdin, which were put up for auction and thus made public knowledge in 2013). The third was when she met her makeup artist, Allan Whitey Snyder.
Snyder was the makeup artist for Monroe’s first screen test for 20th Century-Fox in 1946. She demanded that he do her makeup the same way as she did it for her modeling, even though he told her it wouldn’t work for film. Sure enough, when she appeared on set, the talent director chided Snyder for his work, which made Monroe panic. Snyder reapplied her makeup, calming Monroe and earning her trust.32 He would be Monroe’s makeup artist for the rest of her life, and they had an incredibly close relationship he helped with her much reported stage fright, and even did the makeup for her funeral (at her request), as well as being a pallbearer. Both Monroe and Snyder knew that the appearance of youth was an imperative in Hollywood, where stars, particularly women, had a short shelf life. All of the makeup Snyder used suggested good health and ensured that Monroe literally shone whenever the camera was on her. Coral cheeks, layers of glossed lipstick, fake eyelashes, dewy foundation these elements were responses to the popular commercial fantasies of femininity that expressed the postwar American Dream; health, wholesomeness, and well-regulated erotic pleasure were available to all through the cinema screen.
Once they found the look during preparation for Niagara, a 1953 thriller-noir that was it. Monroe had many different degrees of her look. There was the natural version for personal appearances and off duty PR shots. Then there was the film version, which had to be adapted to the character she was playing, and then the fully made-up, all-guns-blazing version of Monroe. This glamazon look is associated more with the studio publicity machine (think of the promotional shots of her for Niagara in the gold-pleated dress contoured, highlighted, and glossed up to the hilt), very different from her downtime look. Monroe was notoriously keen on protecting and moisturizing her dry skin and reportedly applied a layer of Vaseline or other heavy creams before her foundation. This would have given her a glow under the studio lights, imparting her skin with a beautiful sheen that had the added benefit of making her look ever so slightly soft-focus in front of the camera.
Appearing glowing and dewy were key components of Monroe’s makeup; she always looked clean and fresh and never overly powdered, as she knew that moisture equaled youth. Channeling Greta Garbo’s sleepy, heavy-lidded style for her eye makeup, she always wore a half set of fake lashes at the upper and outer eyelids to elongate her eyes and emphasize a sultry look, and sometimes added brown pencil under her eyes to make it appear as if a shadow were cast by the weight of her luxuriant lashes.
In Snyder’s own words:
I can sit here and do the whole thing in my sleep. Put the base all over, lightly. The formula we used that perfectly matched her natural flesh tone was to mix a quart of Max Factor’s suntan base, a half cup of ivory coloring, and an eyedropper of clown white. Then, highlight under her eyes. Pull the highlight out over and across the cheekbones to widen. Highlight her chin. Eye shadow was toned, and that also ran out to her hairline. Then the pencil on top. I’d outline her eyes very clearly with pencil, but I’d make a peak right up say almost three-sixteenths of an inch above the pupil of her eye, and then swing it out there. And from there on out was where we put eyelashes. Also, the bottom line was shaded in with a pencil to make her eyes stand out fully and good. Her eyebrows came out to a point as far as I could get them to widen her forehead. So I’d bring them to a peak just outside the center of her eyes and then sweep down to a good-looking eyebrow. You couldn’t go out much farther than that or it would look phony. Shading broke the bones underneath her cheekbone. I just brought a little line down there, a little darker shadow, so that it helped her stand out. Lipstick, we used various colors. At first, we had a hell of a time with Cinemascope no reds photographed anything but auburn. We had to go to light pink.
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