Marilyn Monroe Movies

From Dumb Blonde to Serious Dramatic Actress

More famous as a sex goddess than an actress, her personal fame has far outlived all but a handful of Marilyn Monroe's movie roles. Long before women’s lib, Monroe tired of being typecast as a dimwit sexpot, even as the roles in high-profile classic movies brought her fame and fortune.

Never a truly great actress, the tragic beauty nevertheless delivered a few performances that showed solid comic chops and real dramatic ability. Her skills improved after her late-career studies with legendary coach Lee Strasberg at the Actor’s Studio in New York. Here are a few of her notable films.

Memorable mostly for the oft-imitated, gloriously choreographed number in which Marilyn explains that “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend,” "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes" is a lightweight vehicle that showcases the glamorous attractions of Monroe and co-star Jane Russell. Monroe should have patented the sexy but somehow innocent quality of her performance as singer Lorelei Lee from Little Rock. A must for connoisseurs of ‘50s musicals, it's a bit slow here and there and is mostly just eye candy toned down from the biting satirical novel by Anita Loos.

This Best Picture winner belongs to Bette Davis in a bravura role as a fading Broadway leading lady. Monroe had only a bit part in "All About Eve," but this early performance cemented her status as the go-to dumb blonde and archetypical gold digger in classic Hollywood movies. Despite the limited screen time, her star quality is evident. She sparkles in the role of theater critic George Saunders arm-candy date at a disastrous birthday party for the star.

Director Billy Wilder drew a solid comic performance from his difficult star in this dated version of a stage hit about a businessman tempted by his sexy neighbor while his wife’s away.  Mildly amusing, "The Seven-Year Itch" produced the most famous film image of all time: the skirts of Marilyn’s white halter dress billowing about her as she stands on a New York City subway grate. The ‘50s plot sensibility can be summed up in the fact that her character doesn’t even have a name.  She’s known only as “The Girl.“

Not a great movie, but almost universally seen as the role that allowed Monroe to break through the dumb blonde stereotype and deliver a performance with range, power, and even subtlety. She’s quite good as a below-average singer trying to overcome her hillbilly roots and dreaming of Hollywood fame. She’s touching as she sings “That Old Black Magic” for a rough, rowdy bunch of unappreciative cowboys, but the corny plot ultimately makes the whole movie fall flat.

Four years after "Seven-Year Itch," Monroe hid in her trailer, drank too much, took pills and generally behaved so badly off-screen that director Billy Wilder vowed never to work with her again. Yet despite take after take when the actress couldn't remember her lines, Wilder drew out her finest comic performance in a movie that the American Film Institute has dubbed the greatest American comedy of all time. Her ditzy, bubbly Sugar Kowalski is simply terrific, played opposite Tony Curtis and a brilliantly funny Jack Lemmon in drag.

The last film for Monroe and for costar Clark Gable was a troubled production. Gable was sick, Monroe was drinking and taking drugs and was sent to rehab in the middle of filming. Director John Huston drank and gambled, and everyone suffered in the blistering Nevada heat. Monroe’s husband, playwright Arthur Miller, wrote the script for his wife, but their marriage was crumbling. The film flopped but is nonetheless recognized today for its fine performances and haunting beauty. Not satisfying or uplifting, but somehow indelible.