Marilyn Monroe’s 10 best performances, from Monkey Business to Some Like It Hot

As the famously troubled but talented actor’s last completed film turns 60, Graeme Ross looks back at her greatest performances committed to celluloid

Saturday 05 June 2021 08:04
<p>Icon: Marilyn Monroe as Lorelei Lee in ‘Gentlemen Prefer Blondes'</p>

Icon: Marilyn Monroe as Lorelei Lee in ‘Gentlemen Prefer Blondes'

Sixty years ago on 8 June, Marilyn Monroe’s last completed film, John Huston’s The Misfits, opened in the UK. As with many Monroe films, the actor’s insecurities and personal problems led to a troubled production, but The Misfits presented the opportunity she craved to be taken  seriously as an actor, and she duly gave one of her finest performances. Marilyn’s troubled life and status as a cultural icon and the silver screen’s greatest sex symbol have always overshadowed her considerable talents as an actor, but she offered so much more than the dumb blonde persona to which she played up. This countdown of Marilyn Monroe’s 10 best performances reveals a hugely talented but underrated actor, a comedian nonpareil, but one who was also capable of distinguishing herself in challenging dramatic roles.

10. Lois Laurel in Monkey Business (1952)

In Howard Hawks’ hilarious screwball comedy, Cary Grant’s eccentric chemist accidentally stumbles on the elixir of youth, resulting in a fun day out with Marilyn, his boss’s secretary. After two striking supporting roles in The Asphalt Jungle and All About Eve in 1950, Monroe is in full dumb blonde mode here, deftly demonstrating her skill as a comedian, especially when on the receiving end of the film’s funniest line when her elderly boss instructs her to “find someone to type this”.

9. Elsie Marina in The Prince and the Showgirl (1957)

The meeting of the world’s greatest actor and sexiest female film star should have provided fireworks, but The Prince and the Showgirl fizzled rather than sizzled. Director Laurence Olivier became exasperated by Monroe’s persistent lateness on set and reliance on her acting coach Paula Strasburg. However, her delightful performance totally outshines Olivier and is by far the major reason for viewing the movie.

8. Pola Debevoise in How to Marry a Millionaire (1953)

Monroe, Betty Grable and Lauren Bacall play three gold-digging women on the hunt for rich husbands in New York in this witty and sophisticated romantic comedy, filmed in the all-new Cinemascope process. Despite the obvious talents of her two co-stars, all eyes are on Monroe, luminously displaying her considerable comedic gifts and screen magnetism as the daffy, short-sighted Pola.

Ain’t nothing but a gold-digger: Monroe as Pola Debevoise in How to Marry a Millionaire

7. Nell Forbes in Don’t Bother to Knock (1952)

Monroe’s first dramatic leading role was overshadowed by her ascension to superstar status the following year. Still, it is an illuminating glimpse at just what she was capable of as a serious actor. She elicits sympathy and sadness as a young woman with a tragic past suffering from suicidal impulses. As her character’s mental stability unravels while babysitting a child in a New York hotel, she gives a stunning performance that deserves to be better known.

6. Rose Loomis in Niagara (1953)

This is the point at which Marilyn’s career really took off, playing a femme fatale colluding with her lover to murder her husband while holidaying in Niagara Falls. “Get out the fire hose,” exclaims one character as she smoulders in a shocking pink dress in glorious technicolour while singing “Kiss”.

5. The Girl in The Seven Year Itch (1955)

Director Billy Wilder had to battle the censors over the original play’s plot of a married man fantasising about his sexy upstairs neighbour. The famous subway vent scene, with Monroe’s dress billowing skywards survived intact, but had to be re-shot in the studio backlot after leering onlookers in New York made filming impossible.

A walk on the Wilder side: Monroe in 'The Seven Year Itch’

Unsurprisingly, Monroe stole the film from Tom Ewell with her totally natural performance of innocent sexuality, although Wilder, frustrated by his experience of working with her, swore he would never do so again.

4. Cherie in Bus Stop (1956)

Monroe emphatically proved her worth as a dramatic actor in the role of a third-rate saloon singer who attracts the unwelcome attentions of a naïve, oafish cowboy. She was nominated for a Golden Globe and if the film itself hasn’t weathered well, Monroe’s performance has. It remains one of her most fondly remembered, exuding vulnerability, sadness, and a bittersweet reality to her status in life. And when Cherie sings “That Old Black Magic” (badly), your heart melts.

Barflies: Don Murray as Beuregard ‘Bo’ Decker and Monroe as Cherie in ‘Bus Stop'

3. Lorelei Lee in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953)

Howard Hawks’ sparkling musical comedy is the perfect showcase for everything Monroe could do well. Displaying great chemistry with Jane Russell, Monroe dances and sings with aplomb, and her comedic gifts, combined with her naive sensuality, are in full flow. The film’s most famous sequence – Monroe, dripping in diamonds, in her iconic pink gown while singing “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend” – has become part of pop culture and helped launch her career into the stratosphere.

A girl’s best friends: Monroe, centre, during one of the film’s famous musical numbers

2. Roslyn Tabor in The Misfits (1961)

A sad, intensely moving film that was also co-star Clark Gable’s last, The Misfits starred Monroe as a wounded divorcee involved with three modern-day cowboys, giving a performance as close to her real persona as any she ever gave. This could be because her screenwriter husband Arthur Miller was doing constant rewrites on set, and their disintegrating marriage and Monroe’s fragile mental health clearly informed lines such as, “I think you’re the saddest girl I ever met.” Monroe was hurt by Miller’s insensitivity but rose above it all to give a beautiful, poignant performance.

Lovebirds: Clark Gable and Monroe in ‘The Misfits'

1. Sugar “Kane” Kowalczyk in Some Like It Hot (1959)

A legendary film, with Monroe in the role for which she is most remembered. Billy Wilder was again driven to distraction by Monroe’s behaviour – she often kept cast and crew waiting for hours at a time and blew line after line, but for years afterwards he would praise her talents to the heavens. And no wonder when you see the finished result.

Nobody’s perfect: Marilyn Monroe as Sugar ‘Kane’ Kowalczyk in ‘Some Like It Hot'

Monroe dazzled as only she could, exemplified by her breathless rendition of “I Wanna Be Loved by You”. “The camera loved her,” Wilder said, and as Sugar, Monroe was never so beautiful, so vulnerable, so appealing. Damn near perfect you might say.

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