Marilyn made 29 films during her 15-year career (excluding the unfinished Something’s Got to Give.) Around half of these were made while she was still a starlet, and her screen-time is often quite limited although she always made the most of her role. In the first of an New York Magazine series profiling classic Hollywood stars, Angelica Jade Bastien has taken on the daunting task of ranking all 29 films from worst to best, with insightful commentary on each one. I don’t agree with all her opinions – for example, I would put The Seven Year Itch (ranked 10th) in my top 5. There’s also a question of whether to judge each movie as a whole, or by Marilyn’s performance – for example , her debut film, Scudda Hoo! Scudda Hay! (ranked 24th) is enjoyable fluff, but Marilyn’s role was cut to ribbons. Whereas her next ‘bit part’, in Dangerous Years (ranked just below at 25th) was more enaging. Let’s Make Love (ranked 22nd) and There’s No Business Like Show Business (ranked 15th) are among my least favourite of Marilyn’s major films, but her musical numbers are superb. However, we all have our own preferences and it’s always great to see Marilyn’s true legacy in the spotlight, where it belongs.
“Hollywood has been creating a mythology around blonde bombshells since its beginnings. But no blonde sex symbol has had a deeper and more long-lasting impact on film and American culture than Marilyn Monroe. You probably had an image of Monroe in your mind long before you ever saw her on film. The dumb blonde. The white-hot sex symbol. The foolish girl-woman. The picture of mid-century femininity — wasp-waisted, platinum blonde, and buxom. The tragic victim. These warring images have lasted long after Monroe’s death in 1962 at 36 years old, and they’re easy to twist into caricature. She’s been flattened onto dorm-room posters, mugs, T-shirts, artist renderings. She’s been linked to falsely attributed quotes, conspiracy theories, and lurid rumors. But Monroe was more complex than her legacy suggests, as both an actress and a woman. This ranking of Monroe’s 29 films — based on her performance in each — gives a sense of what a supremely talented comedian and dramatic actress she was, with a keen understanding of the camera that few actors can replicate.”
Surgical scars can be seen on Marilyn’s tummy in two of her final photo shoots, with George Barris (left) and Bert Stern (right), and in her ‘nude’ swim scene for the unfinished Something’s Got to Give, as Mehera Bonner reports for Marie-Claire. Marilyn underwent an appendectomy in 1952, and had her gallbladder removed in 1961, a year before she died. She also underwent several operations to alleviate her endometriosis and help her to have children, sadly without success. While surgical procedures are considerably more sophisticated today, our expectations have also increased. While there’s something rather liberating about these gorgeous, unaltered shots, it’s also important to remember that Marilyn – who exerted rigid control over her photo shoots, if not her movies – may herself have wanted to airbrush these photos had she lived long enough to fully review them. In fact, she vetoed many of Stern’s images, marking the rejects with an orange ‘X’; but after her death, he published the session in its entirety.
“Though she was famous for her perceived ‘perfection’ and ‘flawlessness’ (all the eye-rolls at the inherent sexism that goes into these terms), Marilyn Monroe had a pretty big scar across her stomach—which appears in both the Last Sitting and in Something’s Got to Give.
The scar itself is the result of gallbladder surgery that occurred before Stern’s famous images were taken. He says Marilyn was self-conscious about it, and called upon her hairdresser George [Masters] for reassurance before shooting. When Stern noticed the scar, he reportedly remembered Diana Vreeland saying to him, ‘I think there’s nothing duller than a smooth, perfect-skinned woman. A woman is beautiful by her scars.’
Diana Vreeland is right: women *are* beautiful with scars. But she’s also incorrect about women without them being dull. Either way, the sometimes-removal of Marilyn’s scar offers a fascinating insight into beauty standards in Old Hollywood—did she ever truly have agency as to how her body was portrayed?
Ironically, Something’s Got to Give was the first time Monroe was ‘allowed’ to expose her belly button on film—as most of her previous swimwear moments were high-waisted. Before her death, she’s said to have quipped ‘I guess the censors are willing to recognize that everybody has a navel.’
FIlmed while she was on the cusp of stardom, Don’t Bother to Knock gave Marilyn one of her most important, yet least-known rones. Over at Birth Movies Death today, Kalyn Corrigan takes a closer look at this remarkable performance.
“For a girl who gained fame as a stunningly photogenic sex symbol, working her dumb blonde persona to her advantage, it’s fascinating to see Monroe play someone who’s so irrevocably cracked. Best known as the steamy naïve seductress in films like Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, How to Marry a Millionaire, The Seven Year Itch, and this writer’s personal favorite, Some Like It Hot, it’s a graceful and gratifying pivot to see Marilyn take on the role of a damsel come undone. Jed tells Nell at one point in the film that she’s ‘silk on one side and sandpaper on the other’, and the description couldn’t be more fitting to Monroe’s performance. As she flutters back and forth between the shy, sweet girl who did everything in truth, to the manipulatively maniacal beauty queen with a screw loose, we really get to see a taste of Monroe’s range, and it’s an invigorating break from the normal romantic comedy routine. Norma Jeane was undoubtedly beautiful, but she was also an actor, and it’s cool to see her given a chance to show off her skills in a rare, multi-layered role for women in cinema in the 1950s.”
Film historian and ‘Noirchaeologist’ Eddie Muller has placed The Asphalt Jungle – John Huston’s 1950 heist movie, which gave Marilyn her first important role – fourth in his list of ’25 noir films that will stand the test of time’ (ahead of The Maltese Falcon and Double Indemnity), reports Open Culture.
“‘I wouldn’t cross the street to see garbage like that,’ said the head of the studio that made this [Louis B. Mayer at MGM], the granddaddy of all caper films. A pure ‘crime’ film, with every character indelible.”
In an intriguing article for the feminist magazine, Bust, author Dana Burnell suggests that Marilyn’s reputation for ‘difficult’ behaviour was a manifestation of her suppressed anger at the Hollywood system’s exploitation and disregard of her talent.
“The sense of watching a trapped butterfly permeates her best performances; it’s the quality that the starlets set up to compete against her were missing. They might have had more professionalism, but they lacked Monroe’s self-lacerating perception. That Monroe was angry, there can be no doubt. All of her actions speak to it: The lateness, the passivity, the pills and the booze, the relationships. The paralyzing depressions that are the rage of those who feel they are not allowed rage. The pills just damped down the anger and became the only thing that killed it — and her. For only half a moment did fame do what she thought it would, and make her happy.”
Marilyn in Manhattan author Elizabeth Winder has written an excellent article for Marie-Claire about Marilyn’s escape to New York and triumphant battle with Hollywood. It’s well worth reading, and a great preview of the book. (However, as MM: A Day in the Life author April VeVea points out, Marilyn wasn’t, as is sometimes claimed, the first woman in Hollywood to start her own production company – the Talmadge Sisters, Rita Hayworth and Ida Lupino all preceded her.)
“Years ahead of her time, and dead at the age of 36 in 1962, Monroe wouldn’t live to see the changes she made possible. But her reach went far beyond the machinations of Hollywood and shifted the way women around the world viewed themselves: Bra-less and never in girdles, Monroe didn’t apologize for her raw sensuality and frankly admitted to posing nude in the past; she’d been a penniless starlet and whose business was it anyway? At the same time, she wasn’t afraid to appear ‘unsexy.’ She loved being photographed in grimy boas and ripped fishnets, or puffy-eyed and makeup free, hair tangled from hours of fitful sleep. Monroe wanted to express herself, no matter the risk.”
Over at The Wrap, Rosemary Rossi picks ten movie clips showcasing Marilyn in her prime, with praise from leading critics.
“It has been observed that no matter how a scene was lighted, Monroe had the quality of drawing all the light to herself. In her brief scenes here, surrounded by actors much more experienced, she is all we can look at.” – Roger Ebert on ‘All About Eve’
“The reality was that she was a great, natural comedienne. She took superficial, cut-out roles and elevated them to whole new levels.” – Peter Bogdanovich on ‘Monkey Business’
“Monroe’s inflections and expressions have a deliciously clever and sharply experienced irony” – Richard Brody on ‘Gentlemen Prefer Blondes’
“So arresting is Monroe’s presence that when she’s not on-screen, we wait impatiently, wondering, Where have you gone, Mrs. DiMaggio?” – Melissa Anderson on ‘The Seven Year Itch’
“Monroe steals it, as she walked away with every movie she was in. It is an act of the will to watch anyone else while she is on the screen.” – Roger Ebert on ‘Some Like It Hot’
Among the recent tributes to Marilyn, many have focused on emulating her style (Vogue) and beauty (including Alyssa Morin at Hello Giggles.) Novelist Heather O’Neil went step further, living all week as Marilyn for The Kit. What better way to start your summer in the city?
“There’s always something attractive about looking as though you’re not trying. Marilyn understood that. She knew that a black dress never goes out of style, that it’s beyond style. It’s the ideal time-travel outfit: You could turn up in the 17th century looking more or less okay; you could travel anywhere in the future and women will still be wearing black dresses, especially when the world is overpopulated and we all live in small pods and keep our few clothes in a paper lunch bag.”
The question of whether or not Marilyn had plastic surgery has long been controversial. Over at Immortal Marilyn, Marijane Gray sets the record straight.
“The truth of it is that Marilyn had extremely minimal work done- so minimal that it’s undetectable in before and after photos, so minimal that when her chin implant was reabsorbed it didn’t alter her stunning face in any perceptible way. However, even if every single claim of plastic surgery were true, it does not diminish Marilyn’s remarkable beauty … Let us appreciate her for how she chose to look without picking apart what was natural and what may have been enhanced, and let us stop trying to assuage our own insecurities by feasting on the flaws, real or imagined, of other women.”
Film historian Karina Longworth, who recently devoted three episodes of her ‘You Must Remember This’ podcast to Marilyn (which I’ll be reviewing soon), has compiled a list of ‘9 Movies You Need to Watch To Understand Old Hollywood‘ for Harper’s Bazaar. All nine films can be streamed via Warner Archive. Her choices, including Jean Harlow’s Bombshell (1933), are interesting. Last on the list is The Prince and the Showgirl (1957), which is surprising because it’s not really a Hollywood film, and Longworth considers it ‘boring.’
She compares it unfavourably to Bus Stop, stating that Marilyn produced both films, but in fact, Showgirl was her company’s only production to date. Although rather slow-paced, ithas plenty of old-world charm, and even Sir Laurence Olivier would later admit that “Marilyn was quite wonderful, the best of all. So what do you know?”
“This is definitely one of my least favorite Marilyn Monroe films, but it’s a fascinating period in her life. It was a very troubled production … though she did it through her production company, she had a very difficult time wielding power … Because this was such a pivotal point in Marilyn’s career, this is the artifact that comes out of that—out of a lot of struggle and sadness … her performance in [Bus Stop] is super great, and she was really excited about it because it was a way of her depicting her struggle in this industry where men are objectifying her. To go from that to The Prince and the Showgirl is kind of a letdown.”