Marilyn Monroe is, perhaps, Hollywood’s greatest and most enduring icon. She was a star and acting force to be reckoned with, a surprisingly versatile actress whose career would have likely flourished far more under the right guidance and away from the pernicious forces manipulating her.
Netflix’s Blonde, starring Ana de Armas, paints a fictional portrayal of Marilyn that will surely be controversial; it has already divided critics, and audiences will probably react similarly. Still, if anything, Blonde should be the perfect excuse to revisit Monroe’s career under a new eye, one less preoccupied with her demons and more interested in her vibrant and undeniable talent as an actress. Monroe made relatively few films, but they all contributed to building her legend, and these five paint a pretty good picture of who she was as a performer.
The Misfits (1960)
If you only see one Marilyn Monroe picture, please let it be The Misfits. Marilyn co-stars with Montgomery Clift, one of the greatest queer icons of Hollywood’s Golden Age, Clark Gable, and perpetual Oscar bridesmaid Thelma Ritter in a story written by her then-husband, renowned playwright Arthur Miller. Directed by the legendary John Huston, the story centers on performer Roslyn Tabor and her time in Reno, Nevada, with her landlady and a trio of friends.
The Misfits might be best known for its troubled and now-infamous production, but it’s the perfect encapsulation of Marilyn’s persona, quite on purpose. The film demands the most from Marilyn as an actress, deliberately subverting her blonde bombshell reputation while still referencing many aspects of her personal life, thus creating a blurred line between her character, Roslyn, and Marilyn herself. With Roslyn desperately trying to move away from the pin-up version of herself, Marilyn challenges audiences to do the same.
The Misfits is a deconstruction of Marilyn Monroe, a showcase for her unsung acting abilities featuring the tragic dichotomy of a star longing to reach the next stage of her life and the unfortunate truth that she’d never be able to. Above all, it’s a reframing of who Marilyn was and what her true and enduring legacy is.
You can stream for free The Misfits on Pluto TV and rent it on major streaming platforms.
Some Like It Hot (1959)
Billy Wilder directed Monroe opposite Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon in the classic 1959 comedy Some Like It Hot. The plot follows two musicians who, after witnessing a mob hit, disguise themselves as women so they can travel with an all-female band on a Miami-bound train. There, they meet Sugar Kane, the band’s vocalist and ukulele player, played by Monroe.
Some Like It Hot is among the best comedies of all time, largely because of the chemistry between its three leads. The film has one memorable scene after another, never once losing the rhythm that makes it so timeless. It’s also surprisingly transgressive, offering one of the earliest condemnations of the now-infamous male gaze so prevalent throughout cinematic history. Marilyn plays the apex of her dumb blonde persona, but, for once, she’s laughing along with the audience at the stereotype instead of being the butt of the joke. Some Like It Hot feels fresh and daring, even by today’s standards, delivering a setup that never stops being funny. Plus, that ending. Need I say more?
You can rent Some Like It Hot on Prime Video and on other major streaming platforms.
Bus Stop (1956)
The Seven Year Itch turned Marilyn into a timeless cinematic icon, but it’s her next film, Bus Stop, that deserves more attention. Marilyn plays Chérie, a performer from the Ozarks dreaming of becoming a Hollywood star, who gets relentlessly pursued by Beauregard Decker, a socially inept cowboy obsessed with her.
Bus Stop is not a great movie; it drags in parts and is too afraid to go all-in on the themes lingering beneath its seemingly comedic surface — its ending is also problematic under a 2022 eye. However, it’s a brilliant showcase for Monroe. Running away from her previously established image, Marilyn dips her toes in dramatic waters as Chérie, a role that remains one of her most underrated. She elevates the film with a committed performance that more than makes up for the film’s many flaws. The fact the Oscars snubbed her should anger any cinephile — Don Murray makes it but not her? For shame.
You can rent Bus Stop on Prime Video and on other major streaming platforms.
Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953)
Paired with Jane Russell, Marilyn gives one of her most iconic performances in Howard Hawks’ 1953 comedy Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. The story centers on a pair of showgirls, Lorelei Lee and Dorothy Shaw, trailed by a private detective and a slew of male admirers on their way to Paris, where Lee will marry the wealthy and unassuming Gus Esmond Jr.
A lush and escapist musical, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes is the film that made a star out of Marilyn. Her performance, along with Russell’s, earned considerable acclaim, with critics and audiences praising their vibrant chemistry. Still, it’s Marilyn who ultimately walks away with the film. As the shameless and materialistic Lorelei, Marilyn is irresistible, charm brought to life. Putting a twist on the dumb blonde persona, Marilyn creates a character of pure agency and remarkable wit, a confident upstart who perfectly embodies the film’s satirical tone. Come for Marilyn’s celebrated Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend number, stay for her delicious connection with Russell.
You can rent Gentleman Prefer Blondes on YouTube and on other major streaming platforms.
How To Marry A Millionaire (1953)
Gold diggers never looked so great or were so beloved as the trio of Marilyn Monroe, Betty Grable, and Lauren Bacall in Jean Negulesco’s How to Marry a Millionaire. The plot concerns three friends who intend to marry rich by entrapping wealthy men, only to fall in love with three men who are most definitely not what they expected.
In the modern light of day, How to Marry a Millionaire might seem sexist and dated, and it kind of is; its premise alone is an ode to the old-fashioned trope of beautiful women only being interested in money and luxury. However, Grable, Bacall, and especially Monroe are so iridescent that it’s easy to let go of any qualms about the film. As the ditzy Pola Debevoise, Marilyn lights the screen, portraying the dumb blonde to a tee. How to Marry a Millionaire is an exercise in simplicity, but it nevertheless remains a delight whenever its three absurdly talented leading ladies are on the screen together.
You can rent How to Marry a Millionaire on Apple TV+ and on other major streaming platforms.
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