I count only 11 films where Monroe was either the lead or part of a very small ensemble, but even in small roles like Peggy in Clash By Night (1952), Miss Lois Laurel in Monkey Business (1952), or the aforementioned Angela Findley in The Asphalt Jungle (1950), she was always memorable. This list will focus on her leading roles, because they best show her growth as an actress, but also the constricting and manipulative nature of stardom in the waning days of the Hollywood Studio system. Marilyn Monroe was a wholly unique talent who rocketed to fame in such a relatively short time, that her home studio, 20th Century Fox, routinely played it safe by putting her in similarly light comedic roles. Through her determination, however, she was able to carve out some very different roles in serious films, that showed different facets of her talent & illustrate her more nuanced abilities. On with the list!
#10. River of No Return (1954).
River of No Return is really Monroe’s only pairing with a true Hollywood leading man in his prime. Granted, Robert Mitchum was 9 years older than Monroe, but compared to most pairings in the 1950’s that’s nothing (look at Audrey Hepburn, Kim Novak, & Grace Kelly’s romantic partners). Mitchum also exuded rugged masculinity & sex appeal that is missing in Monroe’s later romantic pairings in The Seven Year Itch, How to Marry a Millionaire, & The Prince & The Showgirl. Monroe plays a saloon singing trapped in a mining town, mixed up with a scheming gambler out to steal a gold claim. Mitchum is a dirt farmer with a past, who reunites with young his son, just as natives burn down his home & force him to flee on a river raft, with Monroe in tow. While the evolution of the couple’s romance is enjoyable, if for no other than the fact that it goes through Monroe’s affection for the young son, the film is really an excuse to have 2 beautiful actors exist in a wonderfully scenic Cinemascope vista. Director Otto Preminger makes the most of the surrounding mountain range & raging river, thankfully minimizing the studio shot rear projection scenery. Monroe’s performance is really enjoyable because it illustrates a sincere tenderness in her scenes with the young boy, while also giving her a tough, world-weary veneer as she holds Mitchum at arms-length. The way she snaps “I didn’t go straight from the cradle to the gold camp” reflects back on Monroe’s personae as a fully formed sexual creature dropped on earth, reminding the viewer of the trajectory of the character as well. For me, it stands out among the early performances as a line well read, with loads of meaning. River of No Return was released right after her 2 gold digger films, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes & How to Marry a Millionaire rocketed her to superstardom, but also locked in her naïve, yet sexually charged personae and offers a wonderful counterpoint to those two films.
#9. How To Marry a Millionaire (1953).
After Gentlemen Prefer Blondes exploded at the Box Office during the summer of 1953, 20th Century Fox pulled out all the stops to keep Monroe center stage by rushing release of her follow up film, How to Marry a Millionaire, into theaters just three and a half months later. Playing on the general theme that Monroe only looked at men for their money (and not sexually, but more about that later), Millionaire not only outdrew Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, becoming the fifth highest grossing film of 1953, while in release less than 2 months, but fully enshrined the screen personae that she would fight against for the rest of her life. Monroe & Jane Russell made a formidable duo in Gentlemen, so Fox also increased the stakes by including both Betty Grable (Fox’s biggest female star) and super star Lauren Bacall as co-stars. Together, the 3 form a gold-digging unit out to marry purely for money, who in turn each fall in love with the man of their dreams. Monroe plays her nearly blind nearsightedness for comic gold, while also playing on the simple, yet aware, impact she knows she has on men. Her sexuality is an antiseptic tool used to ‘wave around’, but not actually exercise, in the procurement of a man’s love. In the 1950’s the sex goddess can certainly appear bedazzled and inviting, but she may never actually be dragged down by degrading herself in the actual act itself. How to Marry a Millionaire’s basic premise actually skips the part about love as a natural evolution, and presents it instead as a purely transactional encounter…until the third act, sort of.
#8. Don’t Bother to Knock (1952).
During the early part of Monroe’s career her home studio, 20th Century Fox, had no idea what to do with her. They gave her uncredited roles in forgettable films like Scudda Hoo! Scudda Hay (1948) & Green Grass of Wyoming 1948), before dropping her contract altogether. Her part in MGM’s Asphalt Jungle (1950) brought her back home, but it wasn’t until Clash By Night (1952) that they began to have an inkling of what they had under contract. At that point they didn’t hesitate to finally hand her a lead role, albeit in a B-level film with Richard Widmark headlining, called Don’t Bother to Knock. Monroe plays a mentally ill war “widow” tasked with babysitting a young girl in a hotel room. When she spots a handsome young man, played by Widmark, across the transom, things start to shift. At first timid and unsteady, Monroe’s character slowly unravels throughout her encounter with Widmark. What is really amazing about the performance is that underlying her emotional spiral is a base desire for intimacy; to replace her dead boyfriend with a man, in this case a fellow pilot. In what would be further explored in Niagara 2 years later, Monroe’s ability to lead men to their ruin with her sexuality, would be only fully only be teased in Don’t Bother to Knock. Couched in mental illness, that sexuality becomes first dangerous, then pitiful, removing the threat to both man & child. This performance also hints at Monroe’s potential skill because it is largely free of the mannered speech foisted on her by acting coaches in the early portion of her career. Budget constraints & an impatient director (Brit Roy Baker), led to single takes & improvisation throughout the filming, freeing Monroe from the withering glare of her off-stage acting coach & allowing her to act & react, instead of perform.
#7. Let’s Make Love (1960).
Suave French actor Yves Montand stars opposite Monroe is yet another example of masquerade & deception in love. Instead of poor girls acting rich (HT Marry a Millionaire) or boys dressed as girls (Some Like it Hot), Let’s Make Love has uber-wealthy businessman Montand pretending to be a poor actor, out to join the cast of Monroe’s cabaret. The major difference in the plot here, however, is that his love is sincere. What I liked about Let’s Make Love is its lack of cynicism regarding love and money. The comedic romance still plays out in laughs, rather than sensuality, muting the dangerous sexuality of Don’t Bother to knock’s early scenes for instance, but its growth is pure and the ending, while of course contrived, not feel as fake as some of Monroe’s other films. Granted the rest of the film is fairly weak, with ridiculous cameos by Milton Berle, Gene Kelly & Bing Crosby, all playing themselves tutoring Montand’s millionaire in comedy, dance & song, respectively. I like this film because Monroe plays against her ditzy type casting to play a woman capable to carrying her own show, willing to voice her opinion, but still funny enough to miss of all Montand’s amorous clues.
6. Bus Stop (1956).
As in Let’s Make Love, Some Like it Hot, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes & several others, Monroe once again plays a singing performer, but here, like in River of No Return, it’s on the lowest level of entertainment, a two-bit cowboy bar. While there is grim resignation in her plight in River of No Return, her Cherie dreams of travelling in a straight line to Hollywood stardom. There’s only one problem; she has no talent & Monroe’s willingness to go off key & linger inappropriately on inconsequential lyrics makes for a sad and pathetic character. She not only pulls it off, however, but adds great pathos to the sincerity of her dreams. This is a maturing Monroe, free from the tics & over-annunciation of her earlier performances, settling into a more naturalistic acting style that conveys sincere emotion. Essentially a play (by William Inge) in a movie setting, Don Murray’s Oscar nominated role as an exuberant cowboy out to win over Cherie’s heart & mind, gets most of the attention, but It’s really Monroe’s performance that grounds the film. While Murray is over the top naïve, rowdy & impetuous, it is the sensitive and focused Cherie who holds the stranded bus passengers together. The plot borders at all times on the ridiculous because of Murray’s antics, but it always circles back to a tender scene with Cherie. The final apologies by Murray, culminating in his attempt to let Cherie go, put a nice bow on the proceedings, but it is the penultimate seen of Cherie’s confession to the cowboy that signals the potential for a future between the cross-purposed dreamers.
5. Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953).
Director Howard Hawks crafted this winning bit of cotton candy that featured Monroe alongside Jane Russell in the film that forever cast Monroe as the ditzy innocent out to better herself through whatever means necessary. As with How to Marry a Millionaire, the quest to find a rich husband is only a pretext for several dazzling show tunes, including the iconic “Diamonds are a Girl’s Best Friend.” I like this one better because it seems less cynical & the screenplay by legendary writer Charles Lederer (His Girl Friday, Kiss of Death) & based on an Anita Loos musical comedy, allows for a more well-rounded cast, giving the leads more room to breathe. Charles Coburn takes a wonderful turn as a geriatric diamond mine owner, whom Lorelei (Monroe) exploits for a sparkly tiara, only to have it reported stolen by his jealous wife. The more sensible Dorothy (Russell) falls for a private dick out to prove Lorelei’s gold-digging nature, which complicates their plans and leads to temporary homelessness, jobs as chorus girls & finally an appearance before a judge, all before a happy ending. What stands out in making this an entertaining bit of confection is the aforementioned “Diamonds are a Girl’s Best Friend” number, which shows off Monroe’s double threat talents as a comedienne and a easy to listen to singer, and her speech to her betrothed’s father, who put the PI in the girls tail to start all the confusion. Monroe’s innocent logic (“I’m not marrying him for his money, I’m marrying him for your money.”) and sincere honesty (Father: “You’re not fooling me, young lady!” Lorelei: “I’m not trying to, but I be I could.”) ultimately wins him over, while yielding several of the best lines in the film.
4. The Seven Year Itch (1955).
The first of 2 collaborations with writer/director Billy Wilder, The Seven Year Itch, was the most pleasant surprise in my review on Monroe’s work. I had ignored the film previously, put off by the absurd idea of stage actor Tom Ewell being a legitimate romantic pairing with Monroe. I should have trusted Monroe’s brilliant comic timing and overwhelming sex appeal to surmount any obstacle and Wilder’s incredible skill with language (he adapted screenplay with playwright George Axelrod) to turn a cautionary tale of a married man’s lust into something unique and wholly enjoyable. Ewall plays Richard Sherman, a publishing editor left in the city while his family summers in Maine, who meets his upstairs neighbor, who happens to be the tempting and naively seductive Monroe, referred to as “the girl.” Sherman’s wild imagination fuels mental gymnastics that have him suavely seducing the girl, deathly afraid of her as a femme fatale, and overwhelmingly guilty for his indiscretion. Ewall is fantastic, but not surprisingly its Monroe’s talents that are on full display. Once again, she could not be better as a verbal and physical comedienne as she twists and undermines the insecurities, expectations and fantasies of the middle-aged man. The pair’s scene at the piano is a comedy of inuendo and misunderstanding, until they topple over. But not for the iconic scene above the subway grate, which literally takes the air out of every other discussion of this film, The Seven Year Itch would be more widely seen and enjoyed. As it is, Vice versus virtue has never been as enjoyably flipped on its head.
3. Niagara (1953).
This is the film that changed the trajectory of Monroe’s career, not because it was a box office smash or garnered stellar reviews, but because it cast Monroe as a sexually dangerous killer. Rose Loomis is an unhappy wife, married to an older, brooding man who she secretly despises. On a purported vacation to Niagara Falls, she plots his demise by enlisting a young lover to do the deed. Rose seduces not one, but 2 men overtly and every other man covertly, as she sashays, smiles and preens, drawing constant attention to herself. She exudes sex and uses it to manipulate the men in her orbit, treating her husband with cruel disregard and creating an unquenchable desire in her lover. This part captures the essence and reality of everything Monroe’s public personae stood for; unbridled sexuality, a knowing power over men & an innocence that could be dangerously exploited. Made in the throws of the Production Code era, but close enough to the end of the Studio era of Hollywood filmmaking, Niagara was as far as a mainstream film could go in mixing an emerging star like Monroe, with a ravenous sexual killer. She is still wildly captivating and disarming, but instead of being tied to a safe and saccharin sexuality, she becomes the mythical vagina dentata, destroyer, castrator and killer of men. Needless to say, Hollywood would never give her a character with this much power again. Instead, she was cast as a safe and naïve comedienne or needy waifs for the remainder of her career, which is sad because Rose Loomis is a wonderful combination of everything that was good about Monroe as a performer.
2. Some Like it Hot (1959).
Often listed among the greatest comedies in film history, Some Like it Hot is the pinnacle of Monroe’s comedic performances. Trading on her ‘dumb blonde’ personae, Monroe deftly milks every laugh out of Billy Wilder & I.A.L. Diamond’s brilliant script, using her voice and body as a perfect instrument for comedy. Sugar is both ignorant of Joe & Jerry’s bandmate impersonations of women, equally fooled by Joe’s masquerade of Shell Oil Junior, but deft enough to get what she really wants in the end: love. In the end Monroe’s performance is a perfectly nuanced mockery of her public personae, while a reflection of her personal desires. While much has been written, by Curtis and others, of the difficulties Monroe inflicted on the shotting of Some Like it Hot, it never detracts for the seemingly effortless performances on screen. There is a constant lightness, an effervesce, that overrides Wilder’s sometimes caustic take on human relations. Some Like it Hot is brilliance through and through and at it’s center is Monroe’s performance of knowing innocence, of dreamlike wishfullness, elevates the daffy performances by Lemmon and Curtis to create a comic trio unlike anything in film history!
1. The Misfits (1961).Melancholy and regret combine in The Misfits to create one of the saddest movies I’ve ever seen. Monroe plays a disillusioned woman waiting for a quicky divorce in Reno, Nevada, when she comes across an aging cowboy, played by Clark Gable. Along with an assortment of broken and desperate characters, including a failing bronco rider (Montgomery Clift), a cynical landlady (Thelma Ritter) and an amorous dreamer (Eli Wallach), the film ultimately revolves around what has been and what needs to be and how each of the characters come to their own reality. Monroe’s Roslyn is naïve, but world-weary, looking for a love that is comforting and protective, much like Monroe often did in her personal life. Cable is the father figure Monroe always dreamed he would be, but he is also her lover; a relationship with starts with her admission that she doesn’t think of him that way. Gay (Gable), struggles with the end of the cowboy way of life he has lived, in some respects symbolizing the death of the Hollywood studio system which had support Gable throughout his career. He sadness of loss hangs over every frame of this film, but it truly a work of great depth and emotion, with Monroe at its center, trying to understand; trying to find happiness and trying to find stability. As the last film for both Monroe & Gable, The Misfits has taken on almost mythic qualities, with some blaming Monroe for Gable’s death just weeks after filming ended, but in its simplicity the film defines Monroe’s life and her desires, while offering her best and most nuanced performance.
The early and tragic death of Marilyn Monroe in 1962 not only robbed the world of an icon, but short circuited a blossoming career as a serious actress. While she is often remembered for her immense talent as a comedienne in light films like Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, How to Marry a Millionaire and Some Like it Hot, Monroe’s work in serious films cannot be overlooked and hinted at what could have come had she lived to outgrow her studio crafted personae. Even if early films like Niagara and Don’t’ Bother to Knock only hinted at her dramatic abilities, films like Bus Stop and her last completed film, The Misfits, show a dynamic actress capable of great depth and emotion. She was troubled and as evidenced by her dismissal for a final incomplete film, Something’s Got to Give (1962), her future work was not guaranteed, but in her short career she carved out an enormous public personae, but buried beneath it was a filmography of great depth and substance. She was a talented comedienne, an appealing singer and a gifted actress, but in the end her fans wanted her to just be Marilyn and that may have been too large a request.