The film industry has long been defined by its stars, and no star shines brighter than Marilyn Monroe. She only made 31 films during her 16-year career, but her lasting social impact remains unsurpassed. As pop culture historian Keith Badman says, “She moved millions…Marilyn appealed to everyone on many different levels: emotionally, psychologically, sexually, physically and intellectually.”
Remarkably, Monroe resonates today as much as ever. Case in point: Kim Kardashian made headlines in May 2022 when she borrowed the late actress’ Jean Louis gown for her Met Gala appearance. It just never goes out of style. She is remembered for her enormous aesthetic influence and colossal cultural significance, but her own aspirations remain unfulfilled. The thing Monroe wanted most was to be taken seriously as an actress.
Her life ended before she could realize her ambitions.
Marilyn died on August 4, 1962, aged 36. In the 60 years since the icon’s death, her legend has only expanded. Yet, she never got the credit she deserved as an actress. Her talent extended far beyond a curvaceous figure and perfect smile, as she was a shrewd on-screen performer of immense moment.
Most remember her as the stereotypical blonde bombshell in roles like Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and Some Like It Hot. These are great movies, but not the best representation of her skills. Some of her best performances came in less prestigious films. Sixty years since Monroe’s death, we pay tribute to some of them here, with five underrated films starring Marilyn Monroe.
1. The Asphalt Jungle (1950)
Directed by legendary director John Huston, The Asphalt Jungle is a smash classic with a Rotten Tomatoes rating of 97%. It’s also one of the best noir films of all time. The plot focuses on a group of thieves and the aftermath of their botched heist. Monroe plays Angela Finley, mistress of the gang’s financier.
The picture was released in June 1950 and represented Monroe’s first extended speaking role of any substance. Until this film, her output consisted mostly of throwaway lines in forgettable films. It was a serious project with a major part. Her screen time is limited, but she steals every scene she’s in. Of her work on The Asphalt Jungle, she said, “I don’t know what I did, but I know it felt great.”
2. Don’t Bother Knocking (1952)
This psychological thriller stars Monroe as Nell Forbes, a stunning vixen who catches the eye of a pilot played by Richard Widmark. However, it soon becomes clear that Nell is mentally disturbed as the hunter becomes haunted.
The role was quite a departure for her because it contrasted with her carefully crafted champagne image. According to film critic Geoffrey Anderson, the film succeeds because it “dared to look at the dark side of Monroe’s giggly sexiness”. She is undeniably terrifying in the best way. She shows fantastic range, moving seamlessly from vulnerable to sinister.
Don’t Bother to Knock is Monroe’s best-reviewed film, currently holding a 100% score on Rotten Tomatoes. Unfortunately, she is routinely overlooked because she lacks the glitz and glamor identified with her caricature.
3. Niagara (1953)
Henry Hathaway directed this unique film noir, and although it’s shot in color, it lives up to many hallmarks of the genre. Monroe plays Rose Loomis, an adulteress who plots for her lover to kill her husband while on vacation at the epic natural wonder. Of course, things don’t go as planned and fatal complications ensue.
Niagara presents Monroe as a thoroughly unlikeable character. This was considered a gamble at the time because the producers thought she would turn audiences off as a villain. It was studio head Daryl Zanuck who insisted that Monroe play the murderous, cheating wife. The gamble paid off. Marilyn was fantastic in the role. Femme fatales just don’t get any more malevolent… or gorgeous.
4. River of No Return (1954)
This film was shot during Marilyn’s most prolific period as an actress. It is sandwiched between two cinema classics, 1953’s How to Marry a Millionaire and 1955’s The Seven Year Itch. Starring Robert Mitchum, River of No Return is an action/adventure western directed by Otto Preminger. The story is set in 1875 with Monroe as Kay Weston, a sultry saloon singer who joins her husband to cash in on the gold rush. When Kay’s husband abandons her and robs Mitchum, the mismatched pair set their sights on revenge.
Monroe gives an impressive performance and showcases several aspects of her talent that were previously suppressed. She proved that she can inhabit a multi-dimensional character that doesn’t depend on looks. It also showcases Monroe’s immense ability as a physical performer.
5. The Misfits (1961)
This was Marilyn Monroe’s last film. Again paired with director John Huston, the film also stars fellow Hollywood immortals Clark Gable and Montgomery Clift. It tells the story of a newly divorced woman (Monroe) who falls in love with an aging cowboy (Gable), changing the course of her life.
The role was challenging because it required such complex tonal shifts, but it stands out as one of her best works. Film scholar Joe Zentner states, “Marilyn Monroe’s performance in ‘The Misfits’ is superb. Under Huston’s guidance, she transforms her stunning looks into something more vulnerable than sexuality.”
Unfortunately, this is an example of art imitating life. At this point in her career, Monroe was considered unstable and a professional liability due to her addiction to drugs and alcohol. But despite significant obstacles, Monroe turns in a tragically brilliant performance.
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