At its core, Marilyn Monroe was a construct, a relentless dumb blonde bombshell routine by brunette, intellectual Norma Jeane Baker. It was the Method performance of a lifetime — literally. So it’s no surprise that she often played professional performers: singers, showgirls, actresses, models, essentially unknowable women to be looked at and desired from a distance. Monroe gave these parts a degree of self-awareness, the wink in her act accentuated by the contrast of her characters’ unguarded, “off-stage” moments.
In the new film “My Week with Marilyn,” actress Michelle Williams, in a rightfully lauded performance, addresses this complexity in a way that Colin Clark’s original memoir does not. Williams reconstructs the glamorous star perceived by the young, overawed Clark, but, in the enigmatic gaps between the public and private Marilyn, offers a layered portrait of a real woman.
Here are some of Marilyn Monroe’s best meta-performances:
“Gentlemen Prefer Blondes” (1953)
Howard Hawks’ fun musical of Anita Loos’ popular novel starred Jane Russell and Marilyn Monroe as gold-digging showgirls Dorothy Shaw and Lorelei Lee. As Monroe’s breakout role, it’s best remembered for her iconic performance of “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend,” famously appropriated by Madonna’s “Material Girl” video.
“How to Marry a Millionaire” (1953)
Based on two unrelated plays, this witty light comedy stars Lauren Bacall, Betty Grable, and Monroe as three models who borrow a penthouse to land rich husbands (among them William Powell). As funny as Grable and Bacall are, Monroe — a great physical clown — steals the picture as the sweetly ditzy, nearsighted Pola, who snatches off her glasses in the presence of men to comic effect.
“The Seven Year Itch” (1955)
Billy Wilder co-adapted a play about a book editor’s (Tom Ewell) interactions with a model who lives upstairs (Monroe) while his wife and son summer in Maine. Strangely prescient about a particular type of Manhattan life (Upper East Side brownstones, models and “interior decorators” for neighbors, vegetarian diets), “Itch” is nevertheless remembered today for the single most famous image of the actress’ career: Monroe on a subway grate, her white dress blowing up over her knees.
“The Prince & the Showgirl” (1957)
Terence Rattigan adapted his play The Sleeping Prince for Laurence Olivier’s film, the making of which provides the basis for “My Week with Marilyn.” Set during George V’s coronation, it stars Olivier and Monroe in the title roles. Monroe is probably the best part of an adequate movie, her bubbly Elsie Marina proving herself an unexpectedly shrewd political operator.
"Some Like It Hot" (1959)
Loosely based on a German film, Wilder’s screwball classic is considered the greatest comedy of all time. Starring Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis as musicians who dress as women to hide from gangsters, it gave Monroe her best role as Sugar Kane (“used to be Sugar Kowalczyk”), the singer in an all-girl band. Filled with memorable scenes, it features her famous performance of “I Wanna Be Loved By You.”