A young woman walks down a Manhattan street. She is wearing a stark white halter sundress almost the same shade as her platinum blonde hair, and her lips are kissed by red lipstick. Suddenly, the young woman stops in her tracks, gasping in surprise. The young woman is standing over a subway grating and the wind created by passing trains is lifting up her dress. She laughs and giggles in delight.
A stage lit with a fire engine red background. Chandeliers hang from the ceiling. Stairs raise from the center of the stage. Couples waltz until a beautiful blonde appears on the stage. All of the men rush toward her, offering boxes of chocolates and jewelry. The blonde is clad in a tight, hot pink satin dress with a large bow in the back. She wears matching opera gloves, a diamond necklace and diamond bracelets around each of her wrists. The blonde bursts into song proclaiming that “Diamonds are a Girl’s Best Friend.”
Marilyn Monroe, the icon
If you haven’t spent your life underneath a rock you will have seen images of Marilyn Monroe in these two scenes. Even if one has never seen a Monroe movie you know what she looks like, you know that she sang “Diamonds are a Girl’s Best Friend” and had her skirt lifted up while standing over a subway grate.
Monroe has become a statue, an icon, someone who is engaged with in static images. She has become a symbol of female sexuality, female madness, Old Hollywood glamour and the romanticized tragedy of movie stardom. Monroe has been parodied and referenced, turned into a Halloween costume and slapped onto cardboard cut-outs.
Photos of her can be found on aesthetic Pinterest boards and instagram accounts. At the 2022 Met Gala, Kim Kardashian wore the Bob Mackie dress that Monroe wore to sing “Happy Birthday, Mr. President” to John F. Kennedy.
Monroe is further turned into a statue by Andrew Dominick’s new Netflix film “Blonde.” A movie that has been referred to as “necrophiliac entertainment” vulgarly designed to exploit Monroe by Mahnola Dargis of The New York Times.
According to Justin Chang of the Los Angeles Times, “Blonde” is a remarkably cruel movie that “lays the most betrayed, abused and vulnerable parts of her out across the screen and chucks the rest away: her talent, her magnetism, her smarts, her guts.” Richard Brody of the New Yorker writes that “the film has a single idea — that Monroe was a victim — and is happy to victimize her, over and over again.”
In order to counter the one note of “Blonde” I would recommend watching some of Monroe’s movies. More than a dumb blonde or a tragic victim, Monroe was a genuinely brilliant actress.
Particularly gifted with comedy, Monroe displayed a terrific command over her body, physically visualizing her character’s inner life with such an effortlessness that you don’t notice her doing that. She knew how to connect with a camera better than many actors could even dream.
Below are five movies that will provide a more fully rounded look at Monroe than “Blonde,” Margot Robbie recreating the “Diamonds of a Girl’s Best Friend” musical number in “Birds of Prey,” a photo on Pinterest or a cardboard cut out of Monroe standing over a subway grate could ever hope to do.
All of them are appropriate to watch with the family.
Marilyn Monroe movie recommendations
1. “Some Like It Hot” (1959)
Voted the funniest movie ever made by the American Film Institute, no one should go their entire life without having seen “Some Like It Hot.” It’s a breathtaking, joyous, energetic good time of a movie.
“Some Like it Hot” is made out of a million different tones and genres, with a new joke thrown at the wall every other frame, but the script is so clear and precisely constructed that it never feels overwhelming. Sugar “Kane” Kowalczyk, the ukulele player who gets mixed up with two musicians who disguise themselves in drag in order to avoid murderous Depression-era mobsters, is one of Monroe’s most enduring roles.
She cuts an enchanting figure as the melancholy girl who “always gets the wrong end of the lollipop,” vulnerable, charismatic and glowing with joie de vivre. There’s a moment during the section on the train when Monroe turns to the camera, smiles a genuinely happy smile and says, “Goodnight, honey.” It’s impossible to not smile back.
2. “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes” (1953)
“I can be smart when I want to, but most men don’t like it.” Despite what Andrew Dominick believes, “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes” is incredibly smart about the ways that women can find power and agency within a patriarchal society.
The movie features one of Monroe’s most deftly performed comic performances as the scheming gold digger Lorelei Lee. As “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes” was helping to establish Monroe’s screen persona, she was breaking it down and interrogating the trope of the “dumb blonde.” She slyly imbues the character with dignity, grace and intelligence.
3. “The Misfits” (1960)
The last completed movie Monroe ever appeared in. Written especially for Monroe by her then-husband playwright Arthur Miller, “The Misfits” is a deconstruction of Monroe’s screen persona of a dumb blonde. As a recent divorcee in Reno who comes into contact with two aging cowboys (Clark Gable and Montgomery Clift), she gives an astoundingly powerful dramatic performance.
It’s a bleeding heart of a performance: raw, vulnerable, beautiful and shockingly modern. “The Misfits” points toward new avenues that Monroe’s career could have taken and the ways her talents could have continued to develop. What could she have done during the New Hollywood era of the late 60s and 70s?
4. “Bus Stop” (1956)
In 1955, fed up with the vapid sexpot roles and unequal pay, Monroe broke her contract with 20th Century Fox and formed her own production company, Marilyn Monroe Productions. It was a move that has been hailed as fundamental to the breaking of the Old Hollywood studio system. At the same time, Monroe moved to New York City and studied the Method Acting technique at the Actor’s Studio under Lee Strasberg.
The first movie produced under the MMP shingle was “Bus Stop.” Truly, the only reason to watch “Bus Stop” is Monroe’s deeply emotional performance as a dive bar singer, one of the best of her career. Speaking with a broad Ozark accent and letting her blonde hair darken,
Monroe paints a portrait of a gentle, desperate woman struggling against the limitations of a patriarchal society. One can feel Monroe pushing against the limits of the very movie, which focuses too much attention on its obnoxious, abusive male lead.
5. “Don’t Bother to Knock” (1952)
Filmed before Monroe became famous, in “Don’t Bother to Knock” she doesn’t have to worry about her star persona and subverting or deconstructing the idea of the “dumb blonde.” Monroe is able to simply play the character.
And the results are thrilling. She stars as a vulnerable, shy young woman who babysits for a rich family staying at a Manhattan hotel. It quickly becomes apparent that Monroe’s character is rather mentally disturbed, the last person you would want taking care of your children.
A lesser actress would have played the character cartoonishly, painting in the psychology using broad strokes. Not Monroe. She plays the character with sensitivity and understanding, demonstrating a restraint that gives it a real power.
Monroe gracefully moves between a genuinely frightening villain and a fragile young woman whom you feel the need to protect. It’s an astoundingly layered performance — tremulous, tender and raw. Exhibit A that Monroe had genuine acting talent.