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The Essentials: The 5 Best Marilyn Monroe Performances

The Essentials: The 5 Best Marilyn Monroe Performances

Close to fifty years after to her premature passing at the age of 36, there are few stars, living or dead, who have the same effect that Marilyn Monroe continues to have. An icon the likes of which the starlets of today simply can’t compete with, her legacy continues to loom large, despite a relatively brief time on top (less than fifteen years passed between her first speaking role and her final picture, “The Misfits“) and aided in no small part by her tumultuous personal life — three troubled marriages, including to playwright Arthur Miller and baseball legend Joe Di Maggio, and reported affairs with both President John F. Kennedy and his brother Bobby.

But it’s easy to overlook her screen achievements with the legend, and the woman born Norma Jeane Baker in Los Angeles in 1926 was a star for a reason. Despite being slighted as a weak actress by some, she was an accomplished comic talent, and capable of far more when she was allowed. With the new biopic “My Week With Marilyn,” starring an Oscar-tipped Michelle Williams as Monroe opening this week, it seemed like as good a time as any to pick out five key performances in Norma Jean’s career. Check them out below, and you’ll be able to see how Ms. Williams matches up when “My Week With Marilyn” opens on Wednesday, November 23rd.

Niagara” (1953)
“Niagara” is, to be honest, no great shakes. A melodrama heavy film-noir, interesting mainly because of the ways in which it preempts “Vertigo” which followed five years later, it’s likely a film that would have passed into the ether, to be referred to only by genre obsessives. Except that it serves as Marilyn Monroe’s first leading role (after eighteen supporting turns, in films from “The Asphalt Jungle” to “All About Eve“), and the first of a trifecta of pictures in 1953 that saw her go supernova. “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes” and “How To Marry A Millionaire” are more beloved, but the part of Rose in “Niagara” is more interesting, partly because of how different it is to many of her leads. There isn’t a trace of the comic blonde persona here. As one half of the destructive married couple the Loomis,’ alongside Joseph Cotten, Monroe lives up the trailer billing her as “A Raging Torrent of Emotion that even nature can’t control… a tantalizing temptress whose kisses fire men’s souls!” Canny and conniving, with the pure, naked sexuality that would become her trademark (not least in some scenes that were surprisingly suggestive, for the Production Code era), it’s a role that shows she was more than just a pretty face. Indeed, when she’s *spoiler* killed off before the third act *end spoiler*, the film loses most of its energy as a result. She’s the main reason to see it — it’s a little overblown in places, while nice, normal couple Max Showalter and Jean Peters are milquetoast leads — but there are other pleasures to be found, not least in the glorious Technicolor photography from Mexican DoP Joe McDonald, who went straight on to shoot “How To Marry A Millionaire” with Monroe. 

The Seven Year Itch” (1955)
There’s little doubt that “The Seven Year Itch” is a minor entry from Billy Wilder. The director himself was dismissive of the film, telling Cameron Crowe in “Conversations with Wilder” that “I never liked it,” and that “it was just a play.” And it’s undoubtedly dated and problematic. It’s a comedy about adultery that’s unable to show adultery thanks to censorship by the Hays board, never feeling more than half-achieved as a result, while lead Tom Ewell, who’d played the same part on Broadway, never feels particularly comfortable in the lead (Wilder had wanted to cast a then unknown Walter Matthau, who tested opposite Gena Rowlands, and watching the screen test, found on the film’s DVD, it’s hard not to imagine what might have been). But there’s one great trump card up the film’s sleeve, and that’s Monroe. Playing a part so archetypal that she’s known simply as The Girl (although it’s suggested, in one ill-advised piece of in-jokery, that the character might be Marilyn Monroe herself), it’s the lighter flipside of her part in “Niagara,” and she’s marvelous at it. there’s an inherent comic grace to her turn that’s impossibly winning, and it’s hard to watch anything else when she’s off screen. And that’s without even mentioning the iconic image of Monroe’s dress being blown up by an air vent — an image which, despite being one of the most iconic in cinema, doesn’t actually feature in the film. Again, Wilder and Fox had to use it only for publicity thanks to censorship. The director swore afterwards that he’d never work with the actress again, but when it came time for their greatest collaboration, he realized there was only one choice…

Some Like It Hot” (1959)
It is a mark of the pop-cultural status that Monroe attained (especially posthumously) that so many of her films seem retrospectively to sink under the sheer weight of her legend. And so it is a mark of the utter brilliance of Billy Wilder’s “Some Like It Hot” that it absolutely does not. Whether it’s Monroe’s best performance is debatable, but that it is the best film she was ever in is unarguable. It is after all simply one of the greatest Hollywood films ever made (and, for what it’s worth, probably this writer’s gun-to-head all-time favourite, so expect no objectivity here). Of course, it still comes with plenty of Monroe baggage, if you care about that stuff: the notorious 50+ takes it took to get her to deliver a single three-word line (“Where’s that bourbon?”), the miscarriage she suffered which she blamed on running repeatedly down that jetty, the since-recanted/denied “kissing Hitler” comparison from co-star Tony Curtis. And yet exactly none of the blood, sweat and tears leave even the tiniest mark on the final film. As all great comedies should, it feels effortless. Monroe never looked lovelier and among superb performances from her co-leads (Curtis and Jack Lemmon), as well as the inspired supporting players, her turn is still special. Yes, she plays the archetype of the sexy naif whose good heart is as open as it is frequently broken, but she does so with such an extraordinary sweetness that, even as Sugar throws herself headlong into another unwise love affair with another sax player, we can’t help but believe this time it’ll work out, because how could anyone, properly knowing her, not love her? From the opening frame to the absolutely brilliant final gag (sorry, “Casablanca,” fans, but this is the best last line ever) this is a Monroe film that actually manages to transcend her stardom through the kinetic power of joyous silliness and really, really great jokes.

The Prince and the Showgirl” (1957)
The film for which the making of forms the backdrop of “My Week With Marilyn,” Laurence Olivier‘s “The Prince and the Showgirl” is, like many of the films in which Monroe gave her best performances, far from a classic, but perhaps worth evaluating now that it’s back in the headlines. Penned by “The Deep Blue Sea” writer Terence Rattigan (whose frequent themes of repression and thwarted love lend a little texture to the film’s glossiness), based on his play “The Sleeping Prince,” it follows Elsie (Monroe), a chorus girl in London in 1911, who catches the attention of Prince Charles of Carpathia (Olivier), who’s in town for the coronation of King George V. Whisked off to the Carpathian embassy, she soon discovers that Charles’ young son, the King-in-waiting, is planning a coup, which she manages to thwart, helping to bring democracy to the nation. It’s an odd, uneven mix of rom-com and political intrigue, and Olivier (who rarely directed on screen again, having being maddened by his co-star — and the lack of chemistry shows a little) can’t quite get it all on the same page. But despite troubles in her personal life during filming (as seen in “My Week With Marilyn”), Monroe is a delight, typically warm and sexy, while able to play a little cannier than she was usually allowed to. To match up to a man often called the greatest actor of the 20th century is no mean feat, but she pretty much blows him off the screen — one wonders if his emnity partly stemmed from that. While the film doesn’t have an awful lot more to recommend it, besides Jack Cardiff‘s typically lush photography and Sybil Thorndike‘s witty performance as the Dowager Queen, it’s worth it to see a prime, late-period turn from its star.

The Misfits” (1961)
So if “Some Like It Hot” is a film so robust it can absorb the supernova-level starriness of Monroe and emerge intact, perhaps “The Misfits” is that film’s mirror image: here too, we get a star-studded ensemble in front of the camera and big names behind it, and here too, we have a monochrome Monroe playing a been-around-the-block gal reaching out for a probably doomed love. But, aside from the massive tonal/genre disparity between the films, the truth is “The Misfits,” despite some career-best performances, verges on the tedious — it is only in its real-life context that it truly grips the imagination. Because, well, what a context. Written for Monroe by her then-husband, famed playwright Arthur Miller, it co-starred her childhood idol Clark Gable,  was shot by an ever-inebriated John Huston, from a script that Miller was constantly rewriting, even as his marriage to Monroe crumbled (is it any wonder the film, with its concerns of loss, aging, dissolution and the fragility of human connection, cannot escape the metatextuality of its origins?) And if that weren’t enough, “The Misfits” also has the dubious legacy of being the last completed film of both Gable (himself the biggest star of his day) and Monroe, lending the already portentous themes extra tragic resonance. Still, within the film, there is much to admire: the script meanders but is never unintelligent; the photography of swirling dust and snorting mustangs is evocative and darkly beautiful; Gable, playing a craggy, slightly broken has-been, gives one of those beautiful, seemingly self-aware grace-note performances; and Marilyn, despite notorious lateness, breakdowns, hiatuses and looming divorce, is at her glimmering, tender best. But even so, it’s her death that casts the longest shadow, and it’s hard to resist ghoulishly reinterpreting the film in light of it. And here, at least, “The Misfits” does not disappoint. In a stroke of macabre serendipity, just moments before the film ends (with no credits, no outro, no “the end”), Marilyn delivers her goosebump-raising last words in a feature film: “How do you find your way back in the dark?”

Honorable Mentions: Of those early supporting turns, it’s “The Asphalt Jungle” and “All About Eve” that make the most impact, the former as Louis Calhern‘s beguilling mistress in John Huston‘s excellent noir, the latter as an aspiring actress, a graduate of “The Copacabana School of Dramatic Art.” Her supporting performance in Howard Hawks‘ “Monkey Business,” with Cary Grant and Ginger Rogers, released just before she became a star, is also worth checking out.

She reteamed with Hawks, joined by Jane Russell, to far greater effect on “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes,” arguably the film that cemented her stardom, even if the film doesn’t hold a candle to “Some Like It Hot,” something doubly true of the same year’s “How To Marry A Millionaire,” although the central trio of Monroe, Betty Grable and Lauren Bacall is undeniable. Finally, she was nominated for a Golden Globe for “Bus Stop,” as a small-town singer who’s borderline-stalked by a rodeo rider. The film is a somewhat uncomfortable watch, but it’s a good showcase of Monroe’s range. – Jessica Kiang & Oliver Lyttelton

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