Marilyn Monroe was so much more than Blonde: a retrospective of Norma Jeane’s best films

While Ana de Armas is justifiably earning rave reviews for her stunning performance as Marilyn Monroe in Blonde, Netflix’s take on the screen icon has come under heavy fire for a myriad of reasons. Unlike The Crown, complaints have little to do with historical accuracy as Blonde does not claim to be a biopic  – it is, in fact, based on a fictional novel by Joyce Carol Oates. Instead, the issues stem from director Andrew Dominik’s insistence on brutally portraying Monroe as a victim in need of saving, and only as a victim in need of saving. 

No one doubts that Monroe was cruelly used and abused by Hollywood’s misogynistic motion picture machine – but for a film designed to spotlight a young star’s exploitation, Blonde itself seems to revel in exploiting Monroe’s anguish for tawdry sensationalism. By reducing Monroe’s entire life to a series of miseries and torments – the film totally ignores the funny, intelligent and wonderfully talented woman that gritted through it all to accomplish so much. Blonde makes no effort to reconcile the fuller realities of a complicated figure. Instead, it unimagitavely defines Monroe as a tragic sex bomb, and little else.

This lack of empathy comes as no surprise when one reads this interview with Dominik from BFI’s Sight and Sound magazine. When asked how the movie ignores many of her accomplishments (starting her own production company, challenging HUAC, fighting for civil rights), the director openly admits that making a film about a powerful woman was “not so interesting to me.” Furthermore, the filmmaker seemed callously dismissive of Monroe as a person and an actress, while reiterating that it was her sadness and suicide that fascinated him. To cap it all off, Dominik outrightly states his indifference to Monroe’s talent and body of work: “She’s someone who’s become this huge cultural thing in a whole load of movies that nobody watches, right? Does anyone watch Marilyn Monroe movies?”

In response to Andrew Dominik, or others who might seek to diminish Marilyn Monroe, we’ve rounded five of her finest films that continue to resonate over a half century later. Yes she was a star and a sex symbol – but she was also a serious actress capable of she subverting expectations. From the early 1950s, when Monroe broke big to her 1961 swan song directed by John Huston and written by her husband Arthur Miller, these are the Marilyn Monroe roles worth savoring and celebrating (in chronological order). 

Don’t Bother To Knock (1952)

Don’t Bother to Knock is one of the first roles where many took notice of Marilyn’s acting ability. The title and trailer imply a more salacious type of story, but really it’s a rather sad film. Marilyn plays Nell Forbes, a shy young woman babysitting in a local hotel. She catches the eye of Jed Towers who believes she’s a guest. While marketed as a Fatal Attraction-esque story of a girl who becomes obsessed with a man she’s just met, Daniel Taradash’s screenplay always reminds the audience that Nell is troubled more than anything. She’s lost her boyfriend in a plane crash and clearly hasn’t processed it. On top of that, she wants nice things and her uncle just tells her to get a new boyfriend to buy it for her. 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.

Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953)

There’s perhaps no more tantalizing duo than Monroe and Jane Russell, paired together in Howard Hawks’s delightful adaptation of Anita Loos’s Broadway classic. Gentlemen Prefer Blondes centers on two showgirls who set sail for Paris, where Monroe is scheduled to marry a young millionaire. On the way, they encounter a private detective hired to investigate whether or not she’s just another gold digger. Russell, meanwhile, finds herself flirting with a wealthy diamond merchant. The film is perhaps best known for Monroe’s signature number, “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend”, which has become an iconic sequence in film history.

Bus Stop (1956)

After years of musicals and light comedies, Monroe proved herself a capable dramatic actress with this adaptation of William Inge’s Broadway play. In a lot of ways, her performance is better than the film itself, which casts her as a saloon singer who catches the eye of an obsessive rodeo performer. He pursues her relentlessly, trying to force her to marry him and live on his ranch in Montana. Monroe’s performance sizzles with comic wit and demonstrates hilarious timing, like in the slow demolition of her face as Beauregard tells her that, once married, he plans to buy her all the appliances in the world. 

Some Like It Hot (1959)

Monroe was never more tantalizing than she was in Some Like It Hot, which provided her with the perfect role for her unique charm and charisma. The film has a premise of almost Olympian silliness that’s executed with wit, sex, and style by Billy Wilder. Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis star as Chicago musicians who have to go on the run after witnessing a mob hit. Desperate to not draw attention to themselves, they decide to don dresses and join an all-women’s band, led by the alluring Sugar Kane (Monroe). While Curtis tries to romance Monroe by also playing a Cary Grant lookalike, Lemmon finds himself being chased by a wealthy bachelor, leading to one of the all-time greatest final lines (“Well, nobody’s perfect” says Brown when he finds out his beloved is actually a man). Monroe won the Golden Globe as Best Comedy/Musical Actress, but was unfortunately ignored at the Oscars.

The Misfits (1961)

John Huston’s The Misfits occupies a sad place in cinema history due to the fate of its three stars: Clark Gable died before its release, Monroe shortly thereafter, while Montgomery Clift would make only three more movies before his own untimely demise in 1966. Written by Monroe’s then-husband, Arthur Miller, it revolves around a beautiful divorcee (Monroe) in love with a past-his-prime cowboy (Gable) who, along with his partners (Clift and Eli Wallach), grinds up “misfit” horses into dog food. A flop in its time, the film has found a second life as a minor masterpiece, thanks in large part to its tragic significance. Monroe is particularly good in a role that casts her against type, playing a wounded woman who seeks solace in other deeply damaged people. It’s especially hard to watch given her own life’s story, which perhaps gave her something to draw on for the performance.