Marilyn Monroe 90th birthday: 5 women who have played the icon on screen

The actresses who dared take up the challenge of bringing one of cinema's greatest icons to screen

Clarisse Loughrey
Wednesday 01 June 2016 12:20
Michelle Williams played Marilyn Monroe in the 2011 biopic ‘My Week With Marilyn’
Michelle Williams played Marilyn Monroe in the 2011 biopic ‘My Week With Marilyn’

How do you live a myth? It’s the burden placed upon countless actresses who have dared wear the mantle of Marilyn Monroe. Dumb blonde, temptress whore, innocent victim.

To truly capture Monroe in the flesh is to achieve the impossible, as the woman who died alone in the bedroom of her Brentwood home remains so unrecognisable to the carefree, laughing girl we remember standing on a New York subway grate.

So why do we keep making movies about Marilyn Monroe? It seems the impenetrability of Monroe’s mythos has yet to deter Hollywood’s millions, at least for as long as a portrait with the canonical quality of Walk the Line or Ray eludes them. It’s become a siren’s call to filmmakers and actresses alike: as fraught with potential (and a man’s weight in Oscars) as it is with the danger of failure. So, how do these Marilyns measure up?

Misty Rowe in Goodbye Norma Jean (1976)

Worth a mention only for a sense of comprehensiveness, Goodbye Norma Jean would do well to take its own advice and hightail its way into the sunset. Indeed, "this is the way it is" was a bold opening claim for a film whose only raison d'être was to let a very specific brand of audience creep on the perky blonde from TV’s country music show Hee Haw.

If every other scene is going to be intercut with an extended sequence of your leading lady getting changed in and out of little outfits, all while sleaze sax plays in the background, then you’ve made your ulterior motives pretty clear.

Catherine Hicks in Marilyn: The Untold Story (1980)

Readjust your expectations for a lazy Sunday afternoon dressed only in a Snuggie and you might discover a surprisingly nuanced and well-studied outing of the doomed star. Put aside the episodic narrative, the paper-thin sets, and the heartfelt ballads played over scenes of driving: Hicks has her physical performance down to a tee, swiping back her hair and laughing in that same sing-song quality.

However, Marilyn still suffers from its sensitised TV pedigree, refusing to engage with the darker aspects of Monroe’s psyche. Her pill addiction is only briefly touched upon and all psychological anguish is reserved for a single therapy montage. Because everyone knows the mark of quality in drama is a therapy montage.

Yet without those aspects, Monroe is reduced to a mere punchline when she stumbles onto set hours late and swearing she’s learnt the single line that’s pasted up onto the wall in front of her.

MIra Sorvino & Ashley Judd in Norma Jean & Marilyn (1996)

With every actress in Hollywood ready to kill for a chance to play Marilyn Monroe, Norma Jean & Marilyn decides to play fair and split the job in two. However, divide Monroe’s complexities into two opposing vessels and you end up degrading those vessels into mere stereotypes. Ashley Judd’s Norma Jean is cold ambition, who follows her own advice than an actress can only get famous by “fuck[ing] the right people”, manipulating men to gain access to famed Hollywood agent Johnny Hyde.

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Mira Sorvino’s Monroe, on the other hand, is the hollow frame of an addict crippled by self-doubt. Robbed of Monroe’s fierce wit, she lashes out at her husbands and strangles out through sobs a jibe about Elizabeth Taylor having fat arms (no, really); a fury reduced to a child’s temper tantrum.

Poppy Montgomery in Blonde (2001)

Joyce Carol Oates’s epic, imagined account of Monroe’s life is granted the leisurely pace of a mini-series and the unburned image of a relative unknown in the title role. However, as technically faithful as it may be to the 700-plus paged text, Blonde fails to capture nightmarish fairy-tale Oates so carefully weaves in favour of straight drama.

In her abstract prose and insistence on Blonde as fiction, Oates embraces Monroe’s existence as symbolic of the patriarchal nightmare at large, of womanhood destroyed by men’s synchronous disgust and attraction to female sexuality. Perhaps the experiences Oates grants Monroe were not her own, but they certainly belonged to someone.

Montgomery herself walks through enough of Monroe’s basic mannerisms and low, breathy voice to beg comparison yet shies away from faithful recreation; nor does she take advantage of Blonde’s appeal to fiction to dare inventive reinterpretation. Like Joyce Chopra’s direction, the actress simply plays it too safe.

Michelle Williams in My Week with Marilyn (2011)

Whilst lensing Monroe’s experience filming The Prince and the Showgirl through the male gaze of naïve young Colin (Eddie Redmayne) transforms her into the wounded manic pixie dream girl, it at least stands as an admission that Monroe’s psyche has become impenetrable to the world.

Thus, we can only experience Monroe through those around her: to Colin she was the angel with broken wings, yet to Laurence Olivier she was the stubborn child inclined to storm out at the drop of a hat. Sure, it’s frustrating, but any attempt at a complete psychological portrait would be frustrating all the same.

Furthermore, Williams’s performance is a saving grace, as her eyes sparkle with that same innocuous sexuality shielding an ocean of sadness roaring beneath. And while so many other recreations of Monroe’s original performances have seemed strangely robotic, an actress thinking only of hitting her marks, Williams loses herself within The Prince and the Showgirl’s Elsie or in the stage performances of "Heat Wave" and "Old Black Magic".

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