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Spend a Sleepless Night and Day with Marilyn Monroe: A Guide to Her Best Roles

Spend a Sleepless Night and Day with Marilyn Monroe: A Guide to Her Best Roles

To mark the 50th anniversary of Marilyn Monroe’s death, TCM rolls out a full 24-hour marathon of Monroe films on August 4 as part of the month long “Summer Under the Stars” festival. The lineup reflects Monroe’s versatility and depth as an actress, including her trademark naughty-nice comedic turns (“Some Like It Hot,” “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes”) and more anguished roles that communicated her underlying sadness (“River of No Return,” “Niagara”).

The programming kicks off with John Huston’s brilliant heist tragedy “The Asphalt Jungle.” Monroe plays Louis Calhern’s kept mistress, periodically bobbing up from a couch to purr “Uncle Lon!” and then returning to her catnap. Though small, her part in Huston’s film looks ahead to a type of role she would revisit throughout her career — the ditzy, unassuming golddigger.

She perfected this could-be thankless stereotype in Howard Hawks’ glittering, feisty “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes,” in which she plays the blonde, diamond-oggling yin to Jane Russell’s brunette, salty yang. Monroe’s comedic chops are on fine display here, particularly in a sequence where she gets stuck attempting to pass her derriere through a ship’s porthole and must enlist a nine-year-old millionaire for help.

(Less successful in Monroe’s golddigger subgenre is Jean Negulesco’s “How to Marry a Millionaire,” which sags under the weight of its own star wattage — Lauren Bacall, Betty Grable and William Powell — and finds Marilyn’s dumb-as-a-Tiffany’s-rock character insecure about her need to wear glasses. As if the men wouldn’t make passes.)

Monroe’s most famous comedic turn is in Billy Wilder’s cross-dressing romp “Some Like It Hot” (which recently made Sight and Sound’s 50 Best Films of All Time poll). She’s a ukulele-playing Chicago gal who’s always getting the “fuzzy end of the lollipop,” on a crosscountry train with an all-girls band (or, at least, almost all girls). More than 50 years after its release, the film is still subversive in its gut-busting approach to gender and sexual fluidity, bolstered by Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis’ brilliant he-she duo. And it’s naughty. Monroe complains about the morning after romantic entanglements with saxophone players: “Guy’s gone, saxophone’s gone… All that’s left is a pair of socks and a tube of toothpaste, all squeezed out.”

Wilder’s other Monroe film in the TCM lineup, “The Seven Year Itch,” hasn’t aged as well. The horny middle-aged man bit comes off as stale, though Wilder finds a recurring visual that works: Breeze! It’s a scorching New York summer, and Monroe situates herself near vents of all sorts, most often next to Tom Ewell’s air conditioner, and most famously over a sidewalk grate that gives her skirt a lift.

“One silver dollar/Endlessly rolling/Wasted and stolen/Changing hands/Changing hands,” goes Monroe’s melancholic croon in Otto Preminger’s “River of No Return,” a cowboys-and-injuns picture with undertones of menace. Monroe seems in tune with her role of sexy but sad saloon girl, Kay, and her performance numbers are some of the most elegantly mournful sequences of the film. In Monroe’s dramatic roles, the prospect of sexually charged violence often simmers under the surface. In “River” this is no different, with rapacious advances made on Kay by frontierman Matt Calder (Robert Mitchum). The film almost goes there, but doesn’t.

In Fritz Lang’s startling, jaded melodrama “Clash by Night,” Monroe hits back in an early role. She plays Barbara Stanwyck’s cannery worker sister-in-law, Peggy, and has a combative physical relationship with her hubby that ranges from plucky to alarming. When Monroe admires another man from afar (brooding masochist Robert Ryan), she gets a towel wrapped around her neck. She returns the favor with a right hook to hubby’s jaw.

Niagara” shot Monroe to superstardom as psych-ward outpatient Joseph Cotten’s unlucky wife. The majestic, cataclysmic waterfalls, which are given plenty of satisfying closeups in the film and beg interpretation as one big, bawdy sexual innuendo, seem like an apt co-star for Monroe. Producer Nunnally Johnson thought the same thing, as he quipped that the actress was “a force of nature, like Niagara Falls and the Grand Canyon.” Monroe wears a famous, curve-hugging pink dress in a key sequence of the film, and Jean Peters’ character notes: “To wear a dress like that, you’ve gotta start laying plans at about 13.”

The full TCM Marilyn Monroe programming, complete with air times, is here, with the complete schedule for “Summer Under the Stars” here.

Not included in the TCM lineup but certainly worth a look: Roy Ward Baker’s “Don’t Bother to Knock,” a good atmospheric noir featuring one of Monroe’s best performances, as a psychologically damaged babysitter who should not be left alone with children; John Huston’s bizarre Western drama “The Misfits,” which is both Monroe and Clark Gable’s final film, co-stars Montgomery Clift after his near-fatal 1956 car accident, and was reportedly one long bender for Huston; and Joseph L. Mankiewicz’ “All About Eve” — one small role for Monroe, one great film for acerbic showbiz enthusiasts everywhere.

More upcoming Monroe 50th anniversary memorial events and programming:

  • The Hollywood Museum‘s “Marilyn Monroe: The Exhibit” / An Intimate Look At The Legend (1926 –1962), the largest exhibit of authentic Marilyn items spanning Monroe’s illustrious life. The exhibit includes a special exhibition of items from Scott Fortner The Marilyn Monroe Collection and The Greg Schreiner Marilyn Monroe Collection as well as an exclusive George Barris Photography collection.
  • LIFE.com publishes a series of black-and-white photos of Monroe.
  • Strand bookstore in New York hosts writer-director-photojournalist Laurence Schiller on August 2 as he talks about his new book, “Marilyn & Me.”
  • Liz Garbus’ documentary “Love, Marilyn” will premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival in September.
  • The American Cinematheque in Los Angeles screens “River of No Return,” along with a book signing by Lois Banner of “Marilyn: The Paradox and the Passion,” on August 5.
  • PBS airs the award-winning 2006 American Masters documentary “Marilyn Monroe: Still Life” on August 5.
  • Palm Springs displays the controversial “Forever Marilyn” 34,000-pound, 26-foot statue of Monroe from “The Seven Year Itch”
  • Barnes & Noble online offers 50% off Susan Bernard’s “Marilyn: Intimate Exposures.”

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