“Hollywood is a place where they’ll pay you a thousand dollars for a kiss and fifty cents for your soul.”—Marilyn Monroe
Arguably one of the most iconic figures of the last century, Marilyn Monroe (born Norma Jeane Mortenson) was an American actress, model and singer. Her roles were often referred to as “blonde bombshell” parts and she played a big part in the movement away from the ’60s conservative views on sexuality towards a more liberal outlook. Although she was a top-billed actress for only a decade, she remained significant in popular discourse long after her untimely death in 1962 and the works of famous artists like Andy Warhol further popularised her status as one of the greatest on-screen presences in Hollywood.
Marilyn Monroe had a traumatic life before she made it big. As a child, she had been in the foster care system because her mother was institutionalised. She was exploited and sexually abused by her guardians and the only way she could make it out was by getting married at sixteen. However, after she was recognised as a model of note by photographer David Conover in 1944, her career began to soar. Her fame was unprecedented and she became an instantly recognizable symbol of beauty.
On the 58th anniversary of her tragic death, we take a look at some of her finest performances in fond remembrance of the great actress.
Marilyn Monroe’s 10 best films:
10. The Asphalt Jungle (John Huston – 1950)
Her performance in The Asphalt Jungle as Angela Phinlay in John Huston’s gritty film noir about an unsuccessful jewel heist was one of her early roles and the first one that brought her critical acclaim. This was also the film where she changed her hair colour to the familiar blonde look that everyone immediately associates her with. Monroe had a small part but a memorable one, playing the naïve mistress of a corrupt lawyer who gets herself entangled in a world of crime.
Filmmaker John Huston reminisced about Monroe’s audition for the part, “She read beautifully. If you recall the role in the film, she played most of the part on a sofa and there was no sofa in the room. So she got down on the floor.”
He continued, “She did it very well. I instantly said, ‘Yes, by all means!’ This was the first role, I think, Marilyn had ever played and her interpretations were more than I had expected.”
9. River Of No Return (Otto Preminger – 1954)
This 1954 action-adventure drama was director Otto Preminger’s first Western that was set in Canada during the 19th century Gold Rush. It paired two well-known sex symbols on screen, Robert Mitchum and Marilyn Monroe. Even though both of them were afraid of the film being unsuccessful, both their performances are captivating.
Monroe employs her trademark blonde charm as a saloon singer and is great in the musical numbers. She heavily dependent on her acting coach Natasha Lytess for this one but she makes the part her own, sharing good on-screen chemistry with Robert Mitchum.
8. The Prince And The Showgirl (Laurence Olivier – 1957)
Olivier’s film is set in 1911 London. George V is supposed to be crowned king in a few days and in anticipation of that, a lot of aristocrats arrive for the occasion. Amongst the eminent guests are Prince regent Charles of Carpathia (played by Laurence Olivier himself). Marilyn Monroe plays the part of an American chorus girl who interests Prince Charles.
There were a lot of disruptions during the shoot, as Marilyn and co-star Sir Laurence Olivier were constantly involved in minor disputes. These conflicts translated to the film as well and it ended up being a failure. However, Marilyn puts up a wonderful performance as showgirl Elsie Marina.
7. Niagara (Henry Hathaway – 1953)
Marilyn Monroe is striking as a femme fatale in Niagara, a film described as “underrated shocking pink, fake gold, candy-apple red noir”. Rose Loomis, Monroe’s character, plans to murder her weary suffering husband George (Joseph Cotton) who is a war veteran. Her performance in Niagara showed the world her potential as a great dramatic actress.
The film was a success, especially commercially, and got Monroe a lot of great roles thanks to Niagara. The cinematographer Jack Cardiff praised her performance, saying, “She wasn’t an actress. She was a genius.”
6. The Misfits (John Huston – 1961)
Written by acclaimed playwright, Arthur Miller (Monroe’s husband at the time), John Huston’s 1961 film features an attractive divorcée (played by Marilyn Monroe) who falls for a down-on-his-luck cowboy. The two “misfits” grow increasingly disillusioned in an atmosphere of pain.
This was her last film before her untimely death. The problematic material also ended up destroying Miller and Monroe’s marriage. Looking back on it, it is precisely because of these reasons that The Misfits was one of the most significant films in Monroe’s career.
5. Bus Stop (Joshua Logan – 1956)
A film adaptation of William Inge’s Broadway hit, this romantic drama follows the story of innocent cowboy Bo who falls for cafe singer Cherie (played by Marilyn Monroe) in Phoenix. Despite her efforts to run away to L.A., he finds her and makes her board the bus to his hometown in Montana.
The film works mostly because of Monroe’s poignant presence on the screen and it marked a deviation from the type of roles she usually played. She certainly delivered a powerful dramatic performance because of which many believe this is her finest work. Marilyn was also very involved in the production side of things for this film. She helped to design the costumes and the make-up.
4. The Seven Year Itch (Billy Wilder – 1955)
Billy Wilder’s 1955 comedy-drama features Marilyn’s most iconic scene in her entire career, the one where her white dress flies up as she stands over the subway grate. The film is about a family man (played by Tom Ewell) who sends his wife and children away for summer vacation. While he is all alone at home, he makes up his mind to seduce his beautiful neighbour who happens to be a model (played by Marilyn Monroe).
Monroe’s presence on screen is very arresting and keeps the audience engaged. She is brilliant as the girl next door, making a fool of the lecherous husband with her naiveite and her subtle comedic touch.
3. How To Marry A Millionaire (Jean Negulesco – 1953)
The 1953 comedy-drama, How To Marry A Millionaire, had a sufficiently simple plot. Three New York models set out to find eligible millionaires to marry because they grow tired of cheap men and the constant need for money. However, in the process, they end up finding true love. The film is primarily memorable because of the wonderful performances from all three leading ladies, Marilyn Monroe, Betty Grable and Lauren Bacall.
Monroe plays the role of Pola Debevoise, a short-sighted model who refuses to wear glasses. She is charming and hilarious as she keeps bumping into walls and walking off with strangers instead of her own dates, defiantly blind.
2. Some Like It Hot (Billy Wilder – 1959)
Billy Wilder’s 1959 gem of a classic is set in 1920s Chicago and follows the story of two struggling male musicians who accidentally witness a lethal mob hit. They decide to go into hiding, in order to avoid serious repercussions, as members of an all-female travelling band.
Although the film’s plot revolves around the actions of Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis, Monroe sparkles as a chanteuse named Sugar Kane. Her stunning performance won her a Golden Globe. Billy Wilder’s hilarious and outrageous comedy drama is brilliant and Marilyn Monroe is irresistible in it.
1. Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (Howard Hawks – 1953)
The character of Lorelei in the 1953 musical comedy Gentlemen Prefer Blondes is Marilyn Monroe’s most memorable role. The film is about two small-town lounge singers, Lorelei and Dorothy (played by Jane Russell), who work their way to Paris on a transatlantic cruise while meeting a lot of eligible gentlemen.
Marilyn showcases just how talented she was, with great comedic timing and a lot of delightful musical numbers. This film also had one of her most famous lines, “I can be smart when it’s important, but most men don’t like it.”
Although a lot of the stereotypes and concepts that the film explores are dated now, it is worth watching just for Marilyn Monroe’s charming performance.