Given her status, it’s easy to forget that Marilyn Monroe’s career lasted for just 15 years, a brief moment in film history. While her legacy persists, the focus on her looks and much-copied style often overshadows her fine work as an actor.
This week’s rerelease of The Misfits, Monroe’s last finished film, is a tragic reminder of her talent, as she plays a divorcee who strikes up a relationship with an ageing cowboy, played by Clark Gable. It serves as a necessary reminder that she wasn’t always playing a dizzy blonde, something that’s often forgotten. Here’s our pick of her career highlights:
Gentlemen Prefer Blondes
Although Monroe had seen her star steadily rise in Hollywood, it was the one-two punch of her roles as a femme fatale in Niagara and a showgirl in this Howard Hawks musical that really turned her into a superstar. She showed off her charm as well as her singing and dancing prowess, especially in this endlessly rewatchable performance of Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend. It’s particularly impressive given that Monroe was apparently a victim of stage fright throughout production.
The Seven Year Itch
It delivered Monroe her most memorable and most parodied moment but her role in Billy Wilder’s frothy comedy was more than just one scene in a white dress. Due to the restrictive Hays Code at the time of release, a film about infidelity was a difficult task and while the film doesn’t always succeed, Monroe is never anything less than utterly charming. Exuding a light comic touch as the object of a married man’s affection, it’s never difficult to see why.
The Prince and the Showgirl
The production of Monroe’s British romantic comedy became the inspiration for the plot of My Week with Marilyn, the drab drama that brought Michelle Williams an Oscar nomination. Academy attention never made its way to Monroe however, despite another impressive turn in Laurence Olivier’s patchy 1957 film. Again, she rises above it all, and although the film was a box-office disappointment, it’s one of her most engaging performances.
Some Like It Hot
After the commercial failure of The Prince and the Showgirl, critics cruelly suggested that Monroe was washed up, something she disproved quite fantastically with her role in Billy Wilder’s 1959 classic. After The Seven Year Itch, Wilder swore he would never work with her again, something he changed his mind for when casting this perfectly pitched farce. It was a rare occasion of the material rising to Monroe’s comic skills and is still effortlessly funny to this day.
Monroe’s last completed film (Something’s Got to Give was unfinished when she died) allowed her to return to the dramatic side of her career, thanks to director John Huston who previously cast her in noir The Asphalt Jungle. Her role as a young divorcee hinted at great things to come for her as an actress, with a cruel look at how she might have developed into mature roles. This scene is particularly bittersweet with Clark Gable describing Monroe’s inner sadness.