The world would truly be a dull place without the extraordinary charisma and talent of American actress and model Marilyn Monroe, born on June 1st 1926, at the Los Angeles County Hospital. She starred in 29 films, and is best remembered for her dizzy blonde bombshell performances in films such as Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953) and How to Marry a Millionaire (1953). But as intoxicating as she was, Marilyn it seemed also had a talent for comedic relief, arguably best remembered in the film The Seven Year Itch (1955). That said, there was also another side to Marilyn as an actress that possibly just wasn’t explored enough. That, of course, involved her dramatic abilities, rarely on show but nonetheless evident in films like Niagara (1953) and Bus Stop (1956).
Hollywood profited greatly from her popularity, but in private Marilyn was a fragile woman. In her early years as a child, she was in and out of foster care after her mother Gladys was institutionalized. She was subsequently exploited and abused (raped as a small child) but at sixteen escaped the clutches of her abusive carers the only way she knew how by getting married. Forging her way in the world she was forced to skimp and felt uneasy for a number of years before being recognized as a budding model late in 1944 by photographer David Conover.
It was during this period in her life that her career in front of the camera truly got off the ground, after quitting work on the assembly line at Radioplane, a munitions factory.
Marilyn would soar to the dizzy heights of fame during the 1950’s, but in a troubled life away from the cameras, her inner demons would bare all too much for the flamboyant starlet, when she was pronounced dead in the early hours of August 5th 1962 from probable suicide.
For students of cinema, film buffs and readers in general, here below is what I believe are the ten essential films that say something about Marilyn Monroe as an actress and screen goddess. I hope that you agree with my choices, but I am always happy for you to persuade me otherwise.
10. The Asphalt Jungle (1950)
Out of all of Marilyn Monroe’s early roles, her performance in Asphalt Jungle as Angela Phinlay in John Huston’s gritty crime drama about a jewel theft gone wrong, is arguably her first significant role that brought her critical acclaim. (It is also the first film that Marilyn changed her hair colour to the more familiar blonde bombshell look.) Despite it being a bit part, Monroe excels under the direction of Huston, making most of her screen time as the sultry but naïve mistress of a corrupt lawyer.
9. River Of No Return (1954)
Both Robert Mitchum and Marilyn Monroe have said that they feared the classic action–oriented western River Of No Return would be an unmitigating disaster. Yet somehow beyond all expectations and despite it failure to catch on at the box office, the story of an ex-con who befriends a saloon singer and their adventure and the trouble they would encounter rafting down a river is still quite riveting. While Mitchum’s performance ranks nowhere near his absolute best, Marilyn puts in a touching performance (with some great musical numbers) despite being behind-the-scenes very depended on her acting coach Natasha Lytess.
8. There’s No Business Like Show Business (1954)
It has been said that Marilyn supposedly never wanted to co-star in an old-fashioned musical film about the life and times of a vaudeville family called the Donahues. To convince Marilyn, who had become a little tired of doing musicals, 20th Century Fox dangled a sizeable incentive in front of Marilyn, namely the starring role in an upcoming picture called The Seven Year Itch. On eventually accepting her supporting role, as the hat-check-girl turned Broadway star Vicky Parker, Marilyn puts in a stellar performance. She outdoes herself notably in two eye-popping musical numbers ‘Heat Wave’ and ‘After You Get What You Want You Don’t Want It’.
7. The Misfits (1961)
The Misfits was Marilyn’s last complete film before her sad and untimely death. It was written by her then-husband, playwright Arthur Miller as a tribute to her. Ironically it was far from a tribute helping cause an even bigger wedge between the two eventually destroying their marriage. Interestingly, Marilyn plays a divorcee in the film alongside two of Hollywood’s greatest actors, Clark Gable as a modern-day cowboy and Montgomery Clift as his rodeo-riding friend. In short, it is the interplay between the ensemble cast and their various problems off screen that makes this melancholy drama set in the Western Nevada desert work better than most.
6. Niagara (1953)
The film follows the story around Rose Loomis (Monroe) plot to murder her weary suffering husband George (Joseph Cotton), a war veteran. In short, Marilyn’s good performance in Niagara, dramatic at times and sultry the next, opened the door for Marilyn in Hollywood like no other film before. The commercial success of the film alone secured her roles she probably never dreamed were possible.
5. Bus Stop (1956)
Marilyn played the role of café singer Cherie, who harboured dreams of a life as a Hollywood star. Unfortunately everything is turned on its head, when she meets a socially blundering idiot (Don Murray), in pursuit of an angelic wife, who whisks (kidnaps) her away on a bus trip back to Montana (his home town). The film plays out to its final conclusion, with Marilyn delivering a rare dramatic performance, which most critics agree is surprisingly brilliant. For the most part, I believe she moves between moments of humour and poignant pause with ease, making Bus Stop a must see Marilyn picture.
4. The Seven Year Itch (1955)
It was Marilyn Monroe and actor Tony Ewell that director Billy Wilder turned to, to bring to life on-screen the story of a husband’s fantasy of seducing a beautiful young model, after his wife of seven years and their son go to a resort in Maine for vacation. In many ways the success of the film was a coup for everyone involved. Marilyn in particular shines with her comedic touch, plushy personality and sultry charm. But for the most part, I believe Marilyn’s cheerful demeanour and poise wins the day as Sherman (Tony Ewell) makes a fool of himself.
3. How To Marry A Millionaire (1953)
The brilliant 1953 trifle, How To Marry A Millionaire saw Marilyn team up with Lauren Bacall and Betty Grable in a comedic hunt for a millionaire to marry, but as the story unfolds the Manhattan gold-diggers instead exchange fortune for true love. The premise of the film may sound shallow but it plays out to be an absolutely charming and fun caper. Monroe is at her captivating best as the short-sighted, Pola Debevo, who refuses to wear glasses, bumping into walls and walking of with strangers instead of her date.
2. Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953)
The film is a musical comedy, taken from the musical stage hit by Joseph Fields and Anita Loos, about two women who know what they want and how to get it. In short, Lorelei (Monroe) and her friend Dorothy (Jane Russell) take a cruise ship to Paris, where Lorelei hopes to marry the wealthy Gus Esmond (Tommy Nooman). There are plenty of laughs, musical numbers and eligible gentlemen along the way that they might meet.
1. Some Like It Hot (1959)
Some have argued that Some Like It Hot is one of Jack Lemmon’s greatest film triumphs, even more so than it being a Marilyn Monroe picture. Even Marilyn apparently made her displeasure clear from the beginning, despite the fact that she was given top billing, that the film’s plot revolved too much around the antics of Lemmon and Curtis. For the record, Monroe is introduced as a chanteuse named Sugar Kane, whom Curtis character has eye for and pretends to be a millionaire to win her over. Yet despite all of her misgivings, Marilyn does herself proud, giving a Golden Globe winning performance proving once again her talent as an exuberant blonde and comedian.
*This article was originally published in April 2018. It has been updated here with a new title and expanded notes.