Top 10 Marilyn Monroe Performances
Updated: Aug 5, 2019
She is one of the most instantly recognized figures in cinematic history. Over fifty years since her death, her name and image continue to be the shining glory of what it means to be a movie star.
But despite being one of the most iconic figures of sexuality of the 20th century, the truth is that Marilyn Monroe, who was the epitome of what it meant to be a Movie Star during the Golden Age of cinema, was a very fragile soul and in an industry that can be so demoralizing and full of hardship, it was easy for her to break.
Perhaps that is why on some level, I admire Marilyn Monroe the way I do. Quite frankly, Marilyn Monroe was the reason I created this blog Some Like It Hollywood. She was the first taste of pop culture I received when I began my interest in films. Even if you haven’t seen a Marilyn Monroe film, you know her. Her image is synonymous with so many representations of art, music, film, and culture. After over half a century since her death in 1962, we are still honoring Marilyn Monroe’s legacy.
There are a lot of people that only know Marilyn Monroe as the “Glamour Girl,” the “Sex Icon.” But she really was a multi-dimensional woman who was dedicated to her craft. She wasn’t raised to be an actress. A true Cinderella story, Norma Jeane Mortenson’s childhood and teenage years gave no indication that she would eventually become the iconic film star Marilyn Monroe.
Norma Jean Mortenson before she became...
I have researched the life of Marilyn Monroe for years. I’ve read dozens of biographies, watched documentaries, seen all of her films and I still find her to be one of the most fascinating women in history. Her life was a complexity all its own and despite the tragedies that often surrounded her when she was alive, it is comforting that after all these years, the public can remember and honor Monroe’s life through watching her films. She was and always will be one of a kind.
LEFT: Marilyn placing her hands in the cement at Grauman's Chinese Theatre on June 26th, 1953.
RIGHT: Me placing my hands in her handprints on October 6th, 2015.
Me visiting Marilyn's grave on October 6th, 2015.
In this article, I will be ranking my TOP 10 Marilyn Monroe performances on film. Having seen all of her films, this was one of the most difficult Top 10 lists I have had to make so far and I hope that in reading this, you will potentially find a film or even a few of Marilyn’s that you have not seen and you will be inspired to watch them so you can experience the beauty of one of Hollywood’s most talented, complex, and iconic stars…Marilyn Monroe.
All About Eve (1950)
After her breakout role in the 1950 film noir thriller The Asphalt Jungle, Monroe’s next supporting role came with Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s Academy Award winning film All About Eve. Though her total screen time in the film is about five minutes, Monroe steals every second she is in, playing a ditzy up and coming Broadway actress who uses her body and seductive charm to get ahead, a character archetype that Monroe would later on try to avoid from playing in her films. This was one of the first major films Monroe acted in but her commitment to her character is evident and she delivers some hilarious one-liners.
Something’s Got to Give (1962) - Unfinished
It is one of the most controversial, most researched and most talked about unfinished films in Hollywood. A remake of the 1940 classic My Favorite Wife, Something’s Got to Give was an opportunity for Marilyn to expand her talents as an actress but also utilize her natural flair for adapting well to a comedic script. She immediately caused controversy on set by calling in sick and not showing up for multiple shoots costing the studio thousands of dollars a day. This all was also going on during the infamous “Happy Birthday Mr. President,” event. Because the studio was so behind schedule, Monroe was eventually fired and production on Something’s Got to Give was officially shut down. A few weeks later, Fox was in negotiations with Monroe to restart production on the film but shortly after that, Marilyn died of an apparent drug overdose. Years later, a team of filmmakers put together the 40-minute finished product of Something’s Got to Give and although we unfortunately will never get to see the film in its entirety, Marilyn delivers a performance that ultimately proves why the public fell in love with her in the first place. The unfinished film is most remembered for the iconic pool scene in which Monroe is skinny dipping. It’s amazing to see what kind of energy Monroe could bring to the set despite what was going on in her personal life.
The Misfits (1961)
Tired of playing the “dumb blonde” in her films, Monroe was determined to star in a serious film and to play a dramatic character. Her husband at the time, famous playwright Arthur Miller wrote a script for Monroe called The Misfits in which Marilyn plays a recent divorcee who develops a romantic relationship with an older man in the Nevada desert. The film itself is a bit slow paced but Monroe delivers a brilliant performance filled with varieties of dramatic undertones that really channeled her chameleonic abilities as an actress. She stars alongside screen legends Clark Gable and Montgomery Clift and in my opinion, completely steals the show.
River of No Return (1954)
I have never been a fan of old western films and while this might be a little “edgy” for a traditional 50’s western, Marilyn does a fantastic job at adapting to what must have been unusual surroundings for her. In River of No Return, which also stars Robert Mitchum, Monroe plays Kay, a singer in a saloon who travels with Mitchum and his son downriver and experiences dangerous rapids and Indians before making it to Council City to be reunited with her fiancé. In this film, Monroe displays long hair and elaborate outfits and like her other films, when she steps onto the screen, you can’t take your eyes off her.
The Seven Year Itch (1955)
If I could go back in time, I would go back to September 15th, 1954 to the Trans-Lux 52nd Street Theater in Manhattan to join the thousands that watched as Marilyn, in her beautiful white dress designed by William Travilla stood over the subway grate and watch as the cold breeze blew up her skirt and infamously created one of the most iconic images of the 20th century.
Bus Stop (1956)
The first film Monroe did after studying at the Actor’s Studio in New York with famous method acting coach Lee Strasberg is a real testament to Monroe’s natural talent as a performer. In Bus Stop, Marilyn plays Chérie, a small-town lounge singer with dreams of moving to Hollywood to become a famous actress. In what was her first dramatic role since 1953’s Niagara, Marilyn puts out all the stops in her willingness to convey emotions that many film executives were reluctant to let her do at the height of her fame, thinking she wasn’t capable of playing anything else except a beautiful ditzy blonde. Bus Stop is a great dramatic film that also features Don Murray and Eileen Heckart. Marilyn’s emotional connection to Don Murray’s character is beautifully acted out in comparison to Murray’s over enthusiastic performance.
Some Like It Hot (1959)
Marilyn Monroe was never nominated for an Academy Award. Perhaps in 1959, that was not a shock to most people but fifty years later, it is criminal to find out that The Academy never acknowledged Monroe’s unique talent as an actress. Perhaps the best example of Monroe’s ability to unify elements of comedy and dramatic appeal into a performance is her portrayal of Sugar Kane Kowalczyk in Billy Wilder’s comedy classic Some Like It Hot. This is the film people seem to identify Marilyn Monroe with the most as it is widely regarded as one of the greatest comedies of all time. In this film, Marilyn sings, dances, wears beautiful designs, and like in Bus Stop, throws in elements of that idea of her being a “Blonde Bombshell” while pulling off a performance that displayed different levels of characteristics besides just being funny.
Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953)
This is the movie that transformed Marilyn from being a beautifully recognizable supporting character in films to an idolized leading lady of Hollywood and ultimately created the iconic image that is Marilyn Monroe. Many people often think that this film is called “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend” because the musical number of that name is so iconic in pop culture that Marilyn’s legendary pink dress and dazzling jewels have been reinterpreted throughout the past fifty years by entertainers like Madonna, Anna Nicole Smith, and even James Franco at the Oscars…though that wasn’t executed very well. This is the role that really solidified Monroe’s status as a comedic blonde and many would be surprised to learn that her co-star Jane Russell (not a blonde by the way) was paid a much higher salary than Monroe despite the fact that Marilyn’s character is the enticing factor in watching the film.
1953 was a big year for Marilyn Monroe. She starred in three films that were huge box office successes and the film noir thriller Niagara was the first of the three to be released. In this film, Monroe plays an adulteress wife who convinces her lover to murder her husband while vacationing in Niagara Falls only to have things not turn out the way she planned. There is not an ounce of comedic undertones in this film and Monroe delivers a villainous performance as a femme fatale. Although Monroe would soon become known for her comedic roles, I really think that this film was her genre and I would have loved to have seen Marilyn take on more roles like Rose.
Don’t Bother to Knock (1952)
My favorite performance and in my opinion, Monroe’s strongest performance as an actress is not a comedy and not a technicolor film. Monroe does not sing or dance in this movie. Don’t Bother to Knock was initially a vehicle for up and coming star Anne Bancroft (who would later play Mrs. Robinson in 1967’s The Graduate). However, it is Marilyn Monroe, who plays a psychologically unbalanced babysitter that walks away with the film. This movie is often overlooked due to the fact that it got lost in between all the film noir thrillers that were popular at the time but sixty years after it’s release, it holds up really well and mainly because of Monroe’s thrilling performance. She plays Nell Forbes, a beautiful but dowdy woman who babysits a young girl in a hotel for the night and over the course of a couple of hours falls in love with a strange man played by Richard Widmark. Nell is mentally disturbed and does things that are very unsettling to the viewer. To play such a complex character, Monroe really needed to embrace her own tragic vulnerability and what she does is display a character so self-realized that it becomes one of her greatest triumphs as an actress. Whenever I am asked by a friend who hasn’t seen a film of Monroe’s what they should watch first, I immediately recommend Don’t Bother to Knock. It is a complete contrast to the bombshell image that would surround Marilyn Monroe’s career.
Marilyn photographed by George Barris.
The last photoshoot before her death on August 5th, 1962.