LOS ANGELES There is the well-honed Marilyn Monroe screen persona the breathy, girlish voice, the glamorous curves and the flirty sex appeal and then there are the films that allowed her to stretch, or at least allowed her to try. A devout Method actress, Monroe took her craft seriously, dug deep in search of motivation and worked harder than her effortless screen presence would suggest. For a while, that is, until her demons took over.
On the 50th anniversary of her death, heres a look at five of her most memorable film performances, the ones that stand out over her prolific but sadly short career:
Some Like It Hot (1959): This was the first title that came to mind when I began pondering this list. Maybe because its the best film she was ever in the Billy Wilder classic is listed as the greatest comedy ever by the American Film Institute but also, the role of Sugar Kane Kowalczyk is just so quintessentially her. Monroe is totally magnetic, with innocence and sexuality in equal measure. As the lead singer of an all-girl orchestra, she gets to sing, dance, play the ukulele and show off her comic timing. Monroe finds a tricky balance between her otherworldly looks and a down-to earth charm, and plays beautifully off Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis.
Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953): Describing her performance as gold-digging Lorelei Lee as iconic would not be hyperbole. Her rendition of Diamonds Are a Girls Best Friend remains so enduring, it inspired Madonnas Material Girl video, down to the blonde waves, candy-colored pink dress, admiring back-up dancers and tightly structured choreography. Monroe actually gets second billing behind Jane Russell in Howard Hawks musical comedy, based on the Broadway show about a couple of showgirls and best friends who travel to Paris, run into misadventures and revel in all the attention thrown their way.
The Seven Year Itch (1955): Heres Monroe again at the center of one of films most famous images: standing over a New York City subway grate, letting the wind from a passing train send her ivory, pleated halter dress billowing all around her. (The dress itself sold at auction last year for a whopping $5.6 million, including commission.) But the whole performance is a great example of her screen presence in a nutshell: naive, sweet, beguiling and irresistible. Shes such an idealized incarnation of classic female allure, shes known only as The Girl. Working for the first time with Wilder (who famously had difficulty with her), based on the George Axelrod play, Monroe plays the sexy upstairs neighbor who bewitches Tom Ewells character while his family is away for the summer.
Bus Stop (1956): A rare opportunity for Monroe to show some dramatic ability. But really, everything she can do is on display here: Joshua Logans film, based on the William Inge play, offers the full range of Monroes abilities. She stars as Cherie thats pronounced Sher-EE, not Cherry a lousy saloon singer toiling away in Phoenix until she can find a way to get to Hollywood. Yes, her Arkansas accent grates and if were being honest, the way overzealous cowboy Don Murray carries her off and forces her into an engagement would merit a restraining order now. But Monroe also gets some quieter moments that reveal her vulnerability.
The Misfits (1961): A poignant pop culture time capsule: This is not just Monroes final film but Clark Gables, too. Co-star Montgomery Clift would be dead a few years later. Monroes then-husband, playwright Arthur Miller, wrote the script for her to give her a meatier role. But by all accounts, alcohol and pills made her an absolute mess and she was frequently late to John Hustons set. Given that her newly divorced character is drunk most of the time, along with the lost souls with whom she seeks solace in the Nevada desert, its hard to tell where the performance ends and real life begins. In an eerily ironic quote from Eli Wallach as hes toasting Monroes character for her vitality, he says: Heres to your life, Roslyn. I hope it goes on forever.