Writing for Indiewire, a group of critics have compiled a list of Marilyn’s Top 10 movies, with one notable exception. “These are roles that gave Monroe something deeper to work with — and no, we’re not talking about The Seven Year Itch, which reduces Monroe to the likes of a Barbie doll for director Billy Wilder and star Tom Ewell’s amusement.” I don’t agree with this assessment – and even if you find the film’s premise dated, Marilyn’s performance is poised and charming. Perhaps their view has been soured by Blonde, which “exhausts every cinematic trick in the book showing the film’s infamous scene in which Monroe’s skirt blows up over a subway grate from all angles, gradients, lens filters, and frame rates.”
Setting that minor quibble aside, here’s a taster of their commentary on ten of Marilyn’s finest movies.
Don’t Bother to Knock (1952)
“It’s reductive to say there’s an ‘art imitating life’ quality to Marilyn’s features, but that happens because Marilyn so often understood the character she was playing, that she infused them with her personal experiences. Such is the case with Nell. Marilyn presents her as a tragic figure who ultimately wants someone to understand how she feels. It’s less about love and more about empathy, which Marilyn always gave her characters in spades.” – Kristin Lopez
“Monroe gives a sumptuous femme fatale performance, and she looks stunningly good in Joseph Macdonald’s Technicolor lensing … she’s self-possessed, seductive, deadly, and vulnerable, heralding an early complexity for dramatic roles that other filmmakers sadly wouldn’t tap back into until her late career.” – Ryan Lattanzio
Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953)
“Gentlemen Prefer Blondes was critically acclaimed and has been ever since: in part for the no-nonsense attitude toward work and sex … Monroe and [Jane] Russell are unapologetically sexual and willing to use what they’ve got to get ahead.” – Samantha Bergeson
River of No Return (1954)
“Showing she could handle major action set pieces as well as musical numbers and romance … This is a different kind of movie for Monroe, one in which she’s absorbed into Preminger’s CinemaScope stagings as a character actress more than as a star to dominate the frame.” – Christian Blauvelt
Bus Stop (1956)
“More screwball than romantic-dramedy … This was her first film after beginning to study with Lee Strasberg, and also her first film technically in charge … You can see it in her performance, which blends comedy and tragedy without ever totally exploiting her as a sexual object (though there is some of that).” – Ryan Lattanzio
The Prince and the Showgirl (1957)
“When Olivier is on-screen, it’s stuffy. But Marilyn, as Elsie Marina, brings in life and vitality. The character isn’t presented as another Marilyn ditz, but a young woman who understands that the Prince is a philandering jerk who wants to undermine his son … Marilyn gets to play the character as almost a political spy, weaving her magic to ingratiate herself to everyone and help the young King grow into a proper ruler. She also gets to play the comedy perfectly … Her Elsie playfully mocks the Prince, entertains herself, and gets drunk in lovable fashion. She also has a dance sequence that is one of the most joyous moments on-screen.
And it’s a hot take, but Marilyn is at her most beautiful in this feature. Acclaimed cinematographer Jack Cardiff films Marilyn like she’s a Gibson girl, with a softness that accentuates her so wonderfully. On top of that the dress she wears, designed by Beatrice Dawson, shows off Marilyn’s figure in a way that’s never exploitative. For all of Marilyn’s off-screen struggles, the fact that she could take this movie and make it charming, delightful, and sweet, is proof of her power as an actress.” – Kristin Lopez
The Misfits (1961)
“One of her most mature performances, marvelously unhinged, crestfallen, lovelorn, flinging her way through life. Sound familiar? You can see the pain radiating from her eyes: Roslyn’s, yes, but also Monroe’s, and Norma Jeane’s.” – Ryan Lattanzio