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The Essentials: The 5 Best Marilyn Monroe Performances

The Playlist By The Playlist Staff | The Playlist November 21, 2011 at 1:22PM

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Marilyn Monroe

Close to fifty years after to her premature passing at the age of 36, there are few stars, living or dead, who have the same effect that Marilyn Monroe continues to have. An icon the likes of which the starlets of today simply can't compete with, her legacy continues to loom large, despite a relatively brief time on top (less than fifteen years passed between her first speaking role and her final picture, "The Misfits") and aided in no small part by her tumultuous personal life -- three troubled marriages, including to playwright Arthur Miller and baseball legend Joe Di Maggio, and reported affairs with both President John F. Kennedy and his brother Bobby.

But it's easy to overlook her screen achievements with the legend, and the woman born Norma Jeane Baker in Los Angeles in 1926 was a star for a reason. Despite being slighted as a weak actress by some, she was an accomplished comic talent, and capable of far more when she was allowed. With the new biopic "My Week With Marilyn," starring an Oscar-tipped Michelle Williams as Monroe opening this week, it seemed like as good a time as any to pick out five key performances in Norma Jean's career. Check them out below, and you'll be able to see how Ms. Williams matches up when "My Week With Marilyn" opens on Wednesday, November 23rd.

Niagara

"Niagara" (1953)
"Niagara" is, to be honest, no great shakes. A melodrama heavy film-noir, interesting mainly because of the ways in which it preempts "Vertigo" which followed five years later, it's likely a film that would have passed into the ether, to be referred to only by genre obsessives. Except that it serves as Marilyn Monroe's first leading role (after eighteen supporting turns, in films from "The Asphalt Jungle" to "All About Eve"), and the first of a trifecta of pictures in 1953 that saw her go supernova. "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes" and "How To Marry A Millionaire" are more beloved, but the part of Rose in "Niagara" is more interesting, partly because of how different it is to many of her leads. There isn't a trace of the comic blonde persona here. As one half of the destructive married couple the Loomis,' alongside Joseph Cotten, Monroe lives up the trailer billing her as "A Raging Torrent of Emotion that even nature can't control... a tantalizing temptress whose kisses fire men's souls!" Canny and conniving, with the pure, naked sexuality that would become her trademark (not least in some scenes that were surprisingly suggestive, for the Production Code era), it's a role that shows she was more than just a pretty face. Indeed, when she's *spoiler* killed off before the third act *end spoiler*, the film loses most of its energy as a result. She's the main reason to see it -- it's a little overblown in places, while nice, normal couple Max Showalter and Jean Peters are milquetoast leads -- but there are other pleasures to be found, not least in the glorious Technicolor photography from Mexican DoP Joe McDonald, who went straight on to shoot "How To Marry A Millionaire" with Monroe. 

"The Seven Year Itch"
"The Seven Year Itch"

"The Seven Year Itch" (1955)
There's little doubt that "The Seven Year Itch" is a minor entry from Billy Wilder. The director himself was dismissive of the film, telling Cameron Crowe in "Conversations with Wilder" that "I never liked it," and that "it was just a play." And it's undoubtedly dated and problematic. It's a comedy about adultery that's unable to show adultery thanks to censorship by the Hays board, never feeling more than half-achieved as a result, while lead Tom Ewell, who'd played the same part on Broadway, never feels particularly comfortable in the lead (Wilder had wanted to cast a then unknown Walter Matthau, who tested opposite Gena Rowlands, and watching the screen test, found on the film's DVD, it's hard not to imagine what might have been). But there's one great trump card up the film's sleeve, and that's Monroe. Playing a part so archetypal that she's known simply as The Girl (although it's suggested, in one ill-advised piece of in-jokery, that the character might be Marilyn Monroe herself), it's the lighter flipside of her part in "Niagara," and she's marvelous at it. there's an inherent comic grace to her turn that's impossibly winning, and it's hard to watch anything else when she's off screen. And that's without even mentioning the iconic image of Monroe's dress being blown up by an air vent -- an image which, despite being one of the most iconic in cinema, doesn't actually feature in the film. Again, Wilder and Fox had to use it only for publicity thanks to censorship. The director swore afterwards that he'd never work with the actress again, but when it came time for their greatest collaboration, he realized there was only one choice...

This article is related to: My Week With Marilyn, The Essentials, Features, Marilyn Monroe, Best Of, Feature


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