“Blonde” Ambition: Looking Back on Marilyn Monroe’s Films

Netflix’s ”Blonde” is one of this season’s buzziest new movies. Before you watch, consider revisiting some of Marilyn’s most unforgettable roles.
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Having turned the story of America’s most mythologized outlaw into a languorous high-plains fever dream with the acclaimed Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, Aussie filmmaker Andrew Dominik moves on to America’s most mythologized sex symbol in the very buzzy Blonde, based on the novel by Joyce Carolz Oates. If somehow you have no idea who Marilyn Monroe was, then before you see Blonde, premiering September 28 on Netflix, let me recommend these movies, all streaming on Prime, Apple, and Criterion, that constitute the Essential Marilyn:

Niagara (1953) Following supporting performances in The Asphalt Jungle, Clash by Night, and Monkey Business, Monroe caught the attention of audiences as an unhinged babysitter in 1952’s Don’t Bother to Knock before emerging as a full-fledged femme fatale in this Technicolor noir. The scene where she thrashes in her sleep to the ominous tolling of distant bells unspools like something from the id, and the only thing on-screen that could compete with her was Niagara Falls itself.

Gentlemen Prefer Blondes  (1953) Released within six months of Niagara, this film sealed Monroe’s image and stardom. She may have been second-billed, but she was the only blonde in sight; this is the one where, as a “dumb” gold digger in vivid pink, she sings “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend.” She also coos a knowing warning to anyone dumb enough to dismiss her: “I can be smart when it’s important, but most men don’t like it” — a line she wrote herself.

The Seven Year Itch (1955) Middle-aged exec Tom Ewell ships his wife and son off to the country in the depth of summer, only to find Monroe is his new upstairs neighbor with a connecting staircase. Barely a handful of years since the first notable glimpse of her in All About Eve, the Marilyn Phenomenon was now famous enough to be meta: When someone inquires suspiciously if Ewell has a blonde in the back kitchen, he answers indignantly, “Wouldn’t you like to know? Maybe it’s Marilyn Monroe!” Standing over a subway grate, white dress billowing up around her, she brought Midtown Manhattan—plus her marriage to baseball legend Joe DiMaggio—to a standstill.

I can be smart, but most men don’t like it
– Monroe in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes

The Prince and the Showgirl (1957) Her most underrated film. Monroe is at her loveliest here, her beauty lyrical and soft. Although none of it shows on-screen, her instabilities were catching up. She drove to distraction leading man and director Laurence Olivier in the same way her showgirl drives to distraction his prince. When Olivier fumed to costar Sybil Thorndike about Monroe’s lack of professionalism, Dame Sybil reportedly shot back to Sir Larry, “Then why is she stealing every scene from you, old boy?”

Some Like It Hot (1959) Monroe’s one indisputably great film and one of the half dozen greatest American comedies. Her comedic talents perfectly coexist with a sadness barely below the surface, which somehow informs her role as a Prohibition-era singer; her rendition of “I’m Thru With Love” sounds like it’s from the heart. Costar Tony Curtis couldn’t stand her because, as writer-director Billy Wilder later explained, if Curtis’s best take was his second and Marilyn’s best take was her 32nd, a director always had to choose the Marilyn take—because when she was on-screen, no one looked at anyone else.

The Misfits (1961) Monroe’s abilities as a dramatic actor are on their best display here. The movie’s power derives as much from the tragedy of its endeavor as from its story of broken-down modern-day cowboys (including broken-down Montgomery Clift and Clark Gable, the latter surviving the shoot by less than two weeks) and their broken-down women, as written by Arthur Miller, Monroe’s husband in their broken-down marriage. This was Marilyn’s final finished film. Sixteen months later, she would be dead from a drug overdose at the age of 36.

This story is featured in the October 2022 issue of Los Angeles