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The Seven Year Itch
Photograph: 20th Century Fox

8 performances that will change the way you think about Marilyn Monroe

Get prepped before Netflix’s new movie ‘Blonde’ hits the screen

Phil de Semlyen
Written by
Phil de Semlyen
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It’s 60 years on from her death and still not enough respect is put on Marilyn Monroe’s name as an actress of substance – although Netflix’s new awards-tipped film about her, Blonde, should help remedy that. She wasn’t always easy to work with, suffering anxieties that could manifest in all sorts of director-exasperating ways on set, but filmmakers of serious stature still queued up to work with her, hoping to tap into her star quality and limitless charisma.

The camera, as the oft-quoted cliché goes, adored her, but her work with acting guru Lee Strasberg helped refine her craft too. And it’s there to see across an acting CV that features 29 completed movies and one unfinished effort, with plenty of performances that belie any perceptions of her as purely a sex symbol there to dolly up the picture. With Ana de Armas’s take on her in Blonde not on screen until September, here are seven of the real deals to show just what Monroe could do.

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Best Marilyn Monroe performances

  • Film
  • Action and adventure

A film – and film set – that’s likely to feature in Blonde is Billy Wilder’s gold-plated comedy classic. (Wilder himself and Monroe’s co-star, Tony Curtis, are both characters in the film.) Her performance as ukulele-playing singer Sugar ‘Kane’ Kowalczy won her a Golden Globe, just desserts for a comic turn that’s as light as air and ridiculously charming. Sure, she burnt through a lot of film stock – many of her lines requiring 40 or more takes – but the end result had Wilder raving: ‘All I can tell you is if Marilyn was around today, I’d be on my knees, saying: “Please, let’s do it again!”’

  • Film
  • Comedy

A film – and film set – that’s likely to feature in Blonde is Billy Wilder’s gold-plated comedy classic. (Wilder himself and Monroe’s co-star, Tony Curtis, are both characters in the film.) Her performance as ukulele-playing singer Sugar ‘Kane’ Kowalczy won her a Golden Globe, just desserts for a comic turn that’s as light as air and ridiculously charming. Sure, she burnt through a lot of film stock – many of her lines requiring 40 or more takes – but the end result had Wilder raving: ‘All I can tell you is if Marilyn was around today, I’d be on my knees, saying: “Please, let’s do it again!”’

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  • Film
  • Comedy

As flirty and fun as any musical committed to the screen, Howard Hawks’ comedy of excess has Monroe knocking it out of the park as material girl Lorelei Lee, who travels to France with her less money-centric pal Dorothy Shaw (Jane Russell) to marry wealthy fiancé Gus. When she delivers a jazzy ‘Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend’ in an electric pink ball gown, it could just be the perfect four minutes of cinema. If there was a downside to this cinematic joyride, it’s that it reinforced lazy perceptions of her as a ‘dumb blonde’ on-screen. 

  • Film

Monroe broke through in the later heyday of Hollywood noirs, and while she never got the kind of plum roles Gloria Graham, Gene Tierney and Barbara Stanwyck were blessed with, she did give pretty good femme fatale in Henry Hathaway’s overheated thriller. She plays Rose Loomis, unhappy wife to a traumatised Korean war veteran (Joseph Cotten), whose idea of a romantic getaway to Niagara Falls involves bloody murder. The film – and its costume department – leans in hard on Monroe’s sex appeal, but she brings satisfying grit to the role of scheming wife. Niagara lives on most vividly via Andy Warhol’s famous ​​’Marilyn Diptych’, which uses a single publicity shot of Monroe promoting the film.

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  • Film
  • Comedy

‘She had the greatest sensitivity of any actor that I’d seen’, said Monroe’s acting mentor, Lee Stasberg, who’d often compare her with Brando. Not a lot of that sensitivity is called on in this fluffy romcom which has her showing off her comedy chops in a role so archetypal, the character is literally called ‘The Girl’. Made under the constraints of the Hays Code, the romance itself is about as sexy as a cold kipper, but the coquettish Monroe is a lightning bolt of radiance – as captured in that famous blowy-dress shot above a subway vent. Ultimately, though, the vent was the only thing airer than the movie that even its director, Billy Wilder, dismissed as ‘a nothing picture’

  • Film

A hotel-set psychodrama that has Marilyn Monroe in the ‘psycho’ role as a troubled babysitter who lures Richard Widmark’s airline pilot on the rocks with her feminine wiles. Yep, it’s that movie – although the actress fleshes out this portrayal of mental illness effectively to bring extra shades to the role, drawing on her experiences with her own schizophrenic mother.

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  • Film
  • Thrillers

One of two memorable collaborations with John Huston, Monroe appears in this moody noir in a small but distinctive role as the luminous young moll to Louis Calhern’s clammy lawyer-turned-robber. It’s an early showcase of her ability to embody a rare kind of freighted innocence (she’s sweet, but she’s trouble), and it manifests here as a necessary shard of light to briefly pierce the enveloping gloom of Huston’s fast-souring heist flick. 

  • Film

Another breakout supporting role in a film that turned out to be an all-time great, Monroe (and her agent) hit her stride early as Broadway ingénue Claudia Casswell, who finds herself caught in a crossfire of catty put downs at a party put on by Bette Davis’s Margo Channing. It’s tempting to think that the young Monroe must have felt a lot like her character, suffering imposter syndrome among the cast of established greats, but she brings poise and balance to this classic scene. Wearing all white among the black ties and dresses, she’s an obvious outsider who has zero chance of breaking into this jaded, jealous clique.

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