In June, we don’t just celebrate Pride. For those in the know, it’s also the time to honor the immortal memory of Marilyn Monroe, born in the dying breaths of spring, June 1926. As a birthday present to her fans, the Criterion Channel organized a sampling of the actress’ best films, making a delicious collection everyone should check out. Inspired by that list, here’s my own selection of Marilyn’s peak, her ten most excellent performances in a career, a life, cut tragically short. After all, one mustn’t confuse the iconographic impact with a lack of substance beyond the surface. Too many have done that already.
Marilyn Monroe was a tremendous thespian, so seamless that people, in her time and our own, still assume character and interpreter were one and the same. In any case, let’s forego defensiveness for joyful exultation. Without further ado, here’s the Marilyn Monroe top ten, in chronological order, unranked…
Honorable mentions must be made to the comic-timing masterstroke that is Monroe’s fantasy-adjacent performance in The Seven-Year Itch. Applause also goes for her cumulative work in many a 1951 flick, all in supporting roles that elevate their movies a great deal. Clash by Night showcases Monroe’s viscerally-felt provocation against Barbara Stanwyck’s earthy stylings, a breath of fresh air in a Fritz Lang melodrama. Bless her best moments in There’s No Business Like Show Business, the small pleasures of Monkey Business, the sheer beauty of Let’s Make Love. In truth, every Marilyn Monroe project deserves attention, made essential by her presence alone. Such is her power.
ALL ABOUT EVE (1950) Joseph L. Mankiewicz
Though her screen time is minimal, Monroe aces her archetypical bit part in this most perfectly cast of Old Hollywood pictures. A shot of dry sweetness, she complements George Sanders’ acidic wit, matching those jab-like line deliveries with the ideal reaction – together, they are comedic gold. As the night wanes, we see the first inklings of her many future variations on the dumb blonde type, sighing weary wisdom in breathy tones, a shrewish glint defying expectation. The last glimpse is more dolorous and sudden, a flash of stage fright given pinup frame, art imitating life as cruel as ever.
All About Eve is streaming on the Criterion Channel. You can also find it on most services, available to rent and purchase.
DON’T BOTHER TO KNOCK (1952) Roy Ward Baker
Many of Monroe’s best performances uncover the latent fragility beneath bombshell glamour, hinting at an inchoate mess hiding just a step away from that visage, polished to perfection by Tinsel Town’s star factory. As a babysitter haunted by her troubled past, the actress is all cracks, trembling in place with a promise of shattering. When that violence comes, because of course it does, she’s less explosion than implosion, rendering a nervous breakdown in waves of internalized ardor. In this flirtation with psychosis, Monroe never fails to keep her distance from exploitation.
Finding grace in a thriller premise that could have easily slipped into being a crass shocker, there’s a sense of untapped discipline in how the star handles her text, how she relates to the gaze upon her. She yearns for an understanding everyone but the camera refuses to give her.
Don’t Bother to Knock is streaming on the Criterion Channel. You can find it on most big platforms, too, available to rent and buy.
NIAGARA (1953) Henry Hathaway
The character of Rose Loomis is a mess of erotic contradictions swathed in lurid color, her film a prismatic noir where every surface looks smeared in the same kind of cosmetics that make lips pop scarlet on screen. Iridescent bright, the garishness turns it all more perverse than reality permits, pulverizing the celluloid fruit into ripe softness, teetering on the edge of rot. It pushes us to the realm of nightmare with the blonde star leading the way. It’s a tale of uncontrollable impulses typified by a desirous temptress whose will is a web of solipsism, seducing a path to oblivion while her man wants to possess her, destroy, kill.
In a circuitous chase so horribly silent when the remembrance of song still echoes in the viewer’s mind, Monroe proves she could have been a scream queen if ever given the chance. Her terror palpable, it’s firebrand on flesh, red hot, searing to the point you want to cry out.
Niagara is streaming on the Criterion Channel, Hoopla, Plex, and FlixFling. It’s also available to rent and buy on most big platforms.
GENTLEMEN PREFER BLONDES (1953) Howard Hawks
The dumb blonde persona perfected to a pinprick point, ready to burst the balloon of anyone who dares to come for Lorelei Lee. A perfect movie character, she reveals Monroe at the peak of her comedic skill, able to sell every joke and funny business while surprising you at every turn. Her wonderment at the ship’s cabin is riotous stuff, but so is every bit of physical comedy, from a simple shimmy to her little windowtrap predicament. And if all that weren’t enough, Monroe takes on the musical’s last act like an Amazon to the battlefield, performing the hell out of the iconic ‘Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friends’ before out-arguing a curmudgeon tycoon for the right to marry his son. Sensuality satirized, Marilyn and Lorelei are more than meets the eye.
Gentlemen Prefer Blondes is streaming on the Criterion Channel. You can also find it on most major platforms, available to rent and purchase.
HOW TO MARRY A MILLIONAIRE (1953) Jean Negulesco
Dumbness is an overstated element of Marilyn Monroe’s screen persona, often exaggerated beyond its actual presence in the actress’ repertoire. Moreover, when it manifests, it’s usually subverted by text or thespian, made to be a deliberate projection rather than naïve accident. Almost every Monroe character has one thing over those who’ll look down on her – intelligence, often bubbliness tempered by sorrow, or mayhap insecurity. This particular example, the third merry gold-digger in this Cinemascope romp, combines facets of the stereotype at face value with that trademark Monroe twist.
Myopic Pola is performed as someone keenly aware of the world’s expectations, constantly manufacturing an image of glass-less allure to better catch male attention and, hopefully, her ticket to easy wealth. The way Monroe combines charm and calculation feels like a repeat of Lorelei but more innocent and openly farcical.
How to Marry a Millionaire is streaming on the Criterion Channel. You can also find it on the major platforms, available to rent or purchase.
RIVER OF NO RETURN (1954) Otto Preminger
Hated by everyone who worked on it, Monroe, above all else, River of No Return still features one of the star’s most thought-provoking turns. The romance between her Old West saloon singer and Robert Mitchum’s rugged farmer may never truly work, not least of which because of some scenes’ rapey undertones. However, the character’s devotion is heartfelt, if not to the man, then to his son, with whom she establishes a maternal dynamic. Monroe never got to explore similar traits in her other films, making for a fascinating curiosity, dripping with earnestness whether in scenes of comfort or thunderous shame.
River of No Return is streaming on the Criterion Channel and Hoopla. It’s also available to rent and buy on most major platforms.
BUS STOP (1956) Joshua Logan
Marilyn Monroe’s method acting studies are on full display across this overbaked drama, a stodgy stage adaptation made to feel livewire nervous through the lead actress’ presence. When she’s away, the whole thing falls into shambles. When she’s framed, it’s like the directorial duties are ripped away from Logan’s hands, the very rhythm and sound of scenes dictated by a performance sweating to be noticed in all its underlined complexities. It’s messy, alright, but off-screen despair contaminates on-screen drama, enlivening the exercise as far as the leading lady’s concerned.
In the pursuit of realism, Monroe concedes to effortful mannerism, hitting a fever pitch that strikes an impression of insightful incoherence, like a lost soul trying to find themselves though they know not where to start the search.
Bus Stop is streaming on the Criterion Channel. You can rent it on Amazon, Google Play, VUDU, and the Microsoft Store.
THE PRINCE AND THE SHOWGIRL (1957) Laurence Olivier
Backstage gossip enshrines the production, clouding modern perspectives on Marilyn’s work most of all. Still, if you try to forget tabloid fodder, Olivier’s whining, ‘My Week’ and derived media, a precious gem lays there, ready to be admired. Playing a Ruritanian love story whose contrivances are hard to swallow, Marilyn Monroe blows her esteemed director-costar off the screen, living in the frame with such ease one supposes she was born with a camera fixed on that most iconic of faces. The great gag continues from that dynamic, for Monroe’s low-class Yankee seems so much better fit to the Palace than the prince, her sincerity the all-access key.
A particular scene, played on the actress’ face as she silently reacts, is Birth before Birth, a testament to the thespian’s oft-ignored genius and Jack Cardiff’s luminous lensing. Try to watch that and say Marilyn Monroe was a lousy actress. I dare you!
The Prince and the Showgirl can be found on Apple TV, Amazon Video, Google Play, Youtube, VUDU, Red Box, DirecTV, and the Microsoft Store, available to rent and buy.
SOME LIKE IT HOT (1959) Billy Wilder
From my Almost There write-up on Marilyn Monroe’s closest brush with Oscar:
“…a celebration of joy, funny and full of warmth, a sense of ebullience that carries you from the movie’s frantic plotting to its quiet interludes. Such marvels relate closely to the star’s unique presence, usually attributed to a singular mixture of vulnerability and provocation. But to reduce Monroe to that is erroneous. Moreover, it doesn’t begin to explain her comedic triumphs, chief among them Some Like It Hot. Consider that, despite on-set clashes, Billy Wilder had good things to say about his leading lady, stating that ‘She is a master of delivery. She can read comedy better than anyone else in the world…'”
Some Like It Hot is streaming on Max, Kanopy, DirecTV, and the Cinemax Amazon Channel. You can also find it on most big platforms, available to rent and purchase.
THE MISFITS (1961) John Huston
Hollywood’s brightest stars go to die in the western landscape, ghost-like, they’re specters of long-lost Americana whose last vestiges slowly slip away from this earthly realm. Bruised, bereft, beaten down by life, Marilyn Monroe plays a woman in agonized love, clawing tight to the promise of a happy ending until her fingers bleed red rivers. It’s impossibly sad, a twilight of the screen gods buttressed by notions of classic artifice collapsed into themselves. Realer than real, she’s a haunting already, full of such pain the screen seems to vibrate with it. Come too close, and you’ll have a zap of desolation running through body and soul. Monroe’s final feature is a pit of existential horror, centered around a star turn for eternity.