Although Marilyn Monroe is credited in about 30 films, she only starred in 12. This modest number is due to two things: her early death at age 36, and a contract dispute with 20th Century-Fox during which she refused to do movies as a way to exert her power and influence and get the production company to give her more money and more creative power.

While I had seen most of her movies previously, I recently watched them all in chronological order, and was struck by the very obvious growth of her maturity as an actor. In 1955, after The Seven Year Itch and before Bus Stop, she began training in method acting with Lee Strasberg, and her improvement in Bus Stop is abrupt and obvious. She was never necessarily a great actress, but she was luminous in front of the camera, had a knack for comedy, and, especially later in her career, was able to display a tragic vulnerability in dramatic roles. If she had been given more interesting, complex characters to play, and if she hadn’t succumbed to alcohol and drugs which led to her overdose, I think she could have been very, very good. As it is, we have these 12 movies to enjoy her energy, wit, and beauty.

Don't Bother to Knock [1952]

This, her first starring role, is one of my favorite Monroe films. She gives a haunting performance as a young woman who is hired by her bellhop uncle to babysit a little girl while the parents attend a fancy party elsewhere in the hotel. It becomes apparent pretty quickly that Monroe’s Nell is disturbed. A man visits her room because he’s seen her from her window and since he’s just been dumped by his girlfriend [played by Anne Bancroft in her film debut], he wants to be around a pretty girl. She begins to think this man is her pilot fiancé who had recently been killed. Nell becomes increasingly unhinged and tries to kill the girl she is babysitting because she thinks the girl is getting in the way of her being with her fiancé. 

This movie doesn’t fit very nicely into what we tend to think of when we think of Marilyn Monroe, which is probably why it’s not talked about very often. It does dovetail into her next role in Niagara in that it’s a psychological thriller, but this role is one of a kind for her. Although she had played the “pretty dumb blonde” character in other movies such as All About Eve and The Asphalt Jungle, she hadn’t yet done the film that would make her famous for that archetype. Instead, she’s convincingly scary, but in a way that makes the viewer sympathize with her. Her trademark breathy voice is largely replaced by a voice much more natural. I think it’s her best performance and it’s a shame she never did anything like this ever again.

Niagara [1953]

In Niagara, Monroe plays Rose Loomis, a woman unhappily married to an unstable husband, who plots with her lover to have her husband killed. The plot goes awry, and Rose ends up dead at the hands of her husband. 

I don’t think the tension in his film is as delicious as the tension in Don’t Bother to Knock, but it is good. Again, this is a pre-dumb blonde role. As in Don’t Bother to Knock Monroe is certainly blonde and beautiful, but she’s dangerous, not dumb. She was getting increasingly popular by this time, aided by her nude photo scandal and the way she handled it. 

The camera is very generous with its time on Monroe’s body in this film, showing all her curves and wiggles in full Technicolor glory. The film was a box office success, even if some critics noted that Monroe’s acting needed refining.

Gentlemen Prefer Blondes [1953]

This was the film that Marilyn Monroe debuted the gold digging dumb blonde character that she would ascend to icon status with and, eventually, come to hate. Up to this point, no one knew that Monroe had comedy chops, and boy were producers and audiences alike delighted when they figured it out.

Although the character seems like a dumb blonde, she’s not actually all that dumb in this film. She knows exactly what she’s doing in her single-minded task to marry a rich man. For example, near the end of the film when her friend Dorothy [Jane Russell] tells her she needs to get about $15,000 from her fiance, she quickly calculates, in hours, how long it will take her to persuade him to give her the money. 

One of my favorite lines from any Monroe film is near the end of this one, when her fiance’s father is berating her for marrying his son just for his money. She says, “Don’t you know that a man being rich is like a girl being pretty? You might not marry a girl just because she’s pretty but, my goodness, doesn’t it help?” She also points out that if she were his daughter, he’d want her to marry a rich man, so why is it wrong when she does it? She expertly, matter-of-factly but also innocently exposes the hypocrisy with which women are treated. I’m not saying this is a feminist film, but it does give an pseudo-feminist twist to the gold digger stereotype.

How to Marry a Millionaire [1953]

This film has the same general premise as Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, but with three girls all after rich guys. Monroe’s character is charming enough but fairly bland. She plays a girl who is too vain to wear her badly-needed glasses out in public. The glasses make it hard to tell if she’s really dumb or if she just doesn’t know what’s going on because she can’t see anything but it’s the same general character as Lorelei Lee.

This movie was a success and proved Monroe a powerful player in Hollywood and an important asset for 20th Century. Even though the move is just so-so, it was a hit because people wanted to see Monroe after the smash success of both Niagara and Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. Monroe would use this power to negotiate a contract that gave her significantly more money and power a few years later. 

River of No Return [1954]

In this western co-starring Robert Mitchum, Monroe plays Kay, a kind of Wild West Mary Poppins. She’s a saloon singer who goes along with her boyfriend to make a claim in Council City when he says he’s struck gold. Kay and her boyfriend are rescued by Matt [Mitchum] and his young son as they try to make the trip on raft. The boyfriend steals Matt’s horse and gun, essentially leaving them to die in the rough world of cowboys and Indians. Kay stays behind, but she ends up traveling to Council City with Matt and his boy to confront the boyfriend. 

It’s a pretty dull movie, and Monroe is miscast. She and director Otto Preminger did not get along and whenever she did not get along with a director, her acting suffered. Monroe allegedly later called this her worst film, and neither she nor Mitchum were impressed with it. It wasn’t a total loss at the box office, but it didn’t do great, either. Monroe got some bad reviews for her inability to pull off a dramatic role, which shook what little self-confidence she had about her abilities.

There is also a disturbing scene in which Matt, out of the blue, attempts to violently rape Kay. And not like a coy, “oh, stop” kind of way you sometimes see in movies from the 50s. She’s screaming and desperately fighting him off. He’s interrupted only because his son yells for help as a mountain lion happens on their camp. Pretty much nothing is said about this attempted rape, except he gruffly says he “didn’t mean it,” whatever that means.

There's No Business Like Show Business [1954]

If I thought River of No Return was the worst Marilyn Monroe movie I had seen, it’s only because I had not yet watched There’s No Business Like Show Business. This one flopped, even with Irving Berlin attached to it, and with good reason. It’s very long and very boring 

Monroe only agreed to do this movie because she wanted to prod 20th Century to do The Seven Year Itch. Producer Charles Feldman and director Billy Wilder were on board to do the movie, and both wanted Monroe for the lead but they had to convince 20th Century to do it in order to get her. She really didn’t want to do another musical or another vamp role, but she was willing to suck it up for The Seven Year Itch

It worked, but the movie is awful and not only did it flop, critics especially picked on Monroe’s performance. In watching it now, it really seems unfair to put Monroe up against such song-and-dance powerhouses like Ethel Merman and Mitzi Gaynor. In a move like this, that’s all about vaudeville show business, there’s no amount of sultry strutting and breathy singing that will get her even close to their level.

The Seven Year Itch [1955]

The Seven Year Itch is about a middle-aged man who, after being married for seven years is getting a little non-monogamous “itch” for his very attractive neighbor played, of course, by Monroe [the character does not have a name and is only billed as “the girl”]. The man’s family is away for the summer, which gives him plenty of time to spend with his neighbor and work himself up in an anxious frenzy about his sexual attraction to her. By the end, he realizes that while his neighbor is a very nice girl, he loves his wife and wouldn’t sacrifice his marriage for a fling. 

The Seven Year Itch is silly in the way that all movies about sex in the 1950s were silly. But it has a wittiness that most movies from this era do not, and that’s why I like it. This is my second-favorite Monroe movie because it’s fun and fascinating. This movie did a lot for Monroe as an icon and not just because it contains the famous white dress above a subway grate scene. In a way, it solidified her status as the sex symbol of the 1950s, because she pulled off a character that is both positively dripping with sex and totally naive about it. Post WWII America was all about good, clean fun but, like every generation in history, they were fixated on sex. Monroe’s sexy-but-innocent persona was the perfect figurehead for this attitude. Itch was a great hit not just because it tapped into this vein, but also because it’s a well-done film with great performances.

Bus Stop [1956]

I really hate this movie. I know a lot of people love it, and Monroe liked the story enough to choose to produce with her newly-formed company, Marilyn Monroe Productions. But I really hate it. I tried to watch it years ago and couldn’t get past the insufferable git that is the male lead, Bo Decker [Don Murray who, inexplicably, was nominated for an Oscar for the role].

When I watch movies from a bygone era, I try to suspend my feminist judgement as much as possible, but I just can’t do it with this one. Bo, a 21-year-old cowboy who is completely ignorant about anything except cattle wrastlin’, travels with his father to Phoenix to compete in a rodeo. There he meets saloon singer Cherie [Monroe] and falls flat on his face in love. He assumes she will marry him despite her numerous protests. When she finally flat-out refuses, he kidnaps her by literally lassoing her and forcing her on a bus back to his ranch in Montana. She tries to run away before and during the kidnapping, but he always catches her. Eventually, his father and the bus driver kick the shit out of him to get him to stop “molesting” Cherie, and I guess that means he’s changed his entire personality. Cherie decides she does want to marry him after all [gag] and they live happily ever after. See? Awful. 

That said, Monroe gives a very good performance in it. This was her first film after working with Lee Strasberg of the Actor’s Studio and it shows. Even her southern accent is good, if a little annoying. She sometimes has trouble staying in that character and not switching back to her old standby, the Marilyn character. Monroe had a particular way of moving and talking when being the Sexy Marilyn. Her voice gets low, she draws her mouth down as she speaks, and tips her head back enough that her eyes look almost closed when she’s looking ahead. These are not Cherie’s characteristics, so it’s a little jarring when it happens. Otherwise, if you ignore almost everything else about this movie, she’s fun to watch.

The Prince and the Showgirl [1957]

This is what happens when the plot of a movie relies on the two leads having romantic chemistry, and that chemistry just is not there. The result is a pretty boring movie. However, I think it’s interesting for where Monroe was in her life at the time of filming. Also, she’s great in it.

Her marriage to Arthur Miller was beginning to fall apart, although they’d remain married until 1961. She hoped Laurence Olivier might provide male attention she was lacking and Laurence Olivier hoped she’d be fawning over him in the way that his own wife, Vivien Leigh, had not done for some time. They both hoped the film would help their careers. They were both wrong on all counts. Monroe and Olivier did not get along at all and as a result Monroe became progressively more difficult to work with. The Prince and the Showgirl was also produced through Marilyn Monroe Productions, which Monroe mistakenly believed would give her some respect and creative power. This was a theme throughout her career, and her desire to be taken seriously and respected intensified toward the middle of the decade. Unfortunately, Olivier, who also directed the film, refused to concede power and she rebelled by being uncooperative and frequently not showing up to set. Their scenes together are tense in a very not-sexy way.

But really, I think Monroe is fantastic in it. Just as in Bus Stop, she drops the purry, breathy voice and sounds much more natural and human. Her character is fairly bland in the way that ceaselessly cheery characters tend to be. But it’s obvious she’s maturing as an actress; again, as in Bus Stop, her performance is the only good thing about this movie.

Some Like It Hot [1959]

The first time I saw Some Like It Hot, I wasn’t crazy about it. On a second viewing I appreciated it more as a film, but I wish they had given Monroe more to work with. Sugar Kane Kowalczyk is basically Lorelei Lee, if Lorelei were less smart and shrewd about marrying a millionaire. Or, she’s the same character she plays in How to Marry a Millionaire, but this time she’s in an all-girl band rather than an all-girl scheme to catch rich guys. She really didn’t want to do this movie, for that exact reason. She was sick of playing girls who sing and chase rich men. But Arthur Miller convinced her it would be good for her career and he was right. 

She’s good, though. A lot of people call this her best performance, and there were cries that she was robbed when she didn’t get nominated for an Oscar [she did win the Golden Globe, though]. All her time working with Lee Strasberg and his wife was clearly paying off, judging by her increasingly impressive performances, even with what little personality her characters were given. 

Some Like it Hot is a charming, entertaining movie, but not as good as Gentlemen Prefer Blondes or The Seven Year Itch.

Let's Make Love [1960]

A lot of people really don’t like this movie, but I don’t think it’s so bad. It’s got charm and unlike The Prince and the Showgirl, Monroe and her leading man, Yves Montand, actually have chemistry. They were also having an affair, so that probably helped. 

There were a lot of production problems from the start, though. Originally, Gregory Peck was signed on to play the lead male role; however, Arthur Miller, still married to Monroe at this point, was hired to adjust the script because Marilyn hated it. When Peck saw how her role was amped up and his was diminished, he pulled out. At that point, they couldn’t get anyone else for the role and thought they’d have to delay or cancel but, luckily, Montand stepped in.

Monroe’s character in this movie is different from her other roles in one key way: she is turned off by the prospect of a man’s money. Monroe’s Amanda is a small-time Broadway actress who’s rehearsing a show that will lampoon a few public figures, one of which is Jean-Marc Clermont. The real Jean-Marc Clermont shows up to rehearsal one day to try to protect his public image, and the crew, mistaking him for an actor, cast him as the Clermont character. Amanda says multiple times that she doesn’t like Clermont, the public figure, because he only cares about his money, and the real Clermont who is in love with her, must convince her that he’s not so bad after all. It’s a refreshing change and while Monroe doesn’t look her best in this film, she gives a fun performance. It’s also directed by one of my favorites, George Cukor.

The Misfits [1961]

There is so much sadness jam-packed into this movie, it’s almost unbearable. The plot is sort of convoluted, and more than one actor turned down the male lead because they couldn’t make sense of the story. It follows a young woman, Roslyn, in Reno to obtain a divorce. After the divorce her and her friend Isabelle [played brilliantly by Thelma Ritter] run into two old cowboys played by Clark Gable and Eli Wallach. Roslyn and Gable’s Gay end  up in a relationship, but they run into trouble when gentle-hearted and lost soul Roslyn finds his gruff cowboy ways too harsh for her. 

The story goes that Arthur Miller originally conceived of this story as a love letter to Marilyn, but she was deeply insulted by it. Roslyn is flawed, needy, and overly-emotional, and it was becoming clear that that’s how Miller saw Monroe, and he was disappointed by this reality. As he was writing, he became convinced that it was destined to be an important classic, and as his ego ran away with him, he ceased to pay attention to Monroe, who was in all actuality very needy. Some biographers have speculated that Marilyn gave so much trouble during the production of Let’s Make Love because she was scheduled to begin The Misfits right after and she she didn’t want to do it. By the time the filming of The Misfits was over, so was the Miller-Monroe marriage.

This film is not just sad because of the story although the story is sad; there is a particularly heart-wrenching scene in which a very drunk Gay is sobbing and wailing because he was convinced that his adult children had come to the bar where he was, and he thinks they have left. His children were never there. Gable is heartbreaking, and I think he delivers his best ever performance in this film.

It’s also sad because it was the last completed films of the two main stars. Gable had a heart attack two days after filming wrapped and died ten days later. Monroe would be dead about a year and a half later. And Montgomery Clift, who played soft-hearted cowboy Perce, was a tragic figure who would also be dead six years later, at age 45. Clift famously had gotten into a near-fatal car accident which mangled his face in 1956, and was constantly on a potent cocktail of painkillers and booze. If you watch him closely, one side of his face doesn’t move quite right, and he is frequently filmed with that side away from the camera. Maybe I imagine it because I know what kind of emotional condition these actors were in, and what would happen to them shortly after they made this movie, but it seems they threw all of their sadness into these already tragic characters, and it practically seeps out of their pores. I thought the movie was good, if only because of the performances, but I also found it difficult to watch.

After filming The Misfits, Marilyn wouldn’t begin Something’s Got to Give for another year and when she did, the production was delayed because of the same behavior she displayed during other productions. She was sick and often didn’t come to work. Eventually, she was fired and two months later, she died of an overdose. 

Who knows what she could have done if she hadn’t died so young? She was planning a biopic of her childhood idol, Jean Harlow. If there’s one movie in the world that I wish could have been made, it’s that one because she would have been brilliant as Harlow [who also died young at age 26 and with whom she had many other parallels]. I often wonder how Hollywood and the world would have treated an aging Marilyn Monroe and realize that maybe there’s a cruel blessing in her early death. The world remembers her as young and beautiful, because we don’t know her any other way. And while I don’t believe she intentionally committed suicide, I think having a legacy as eternally beautiful and vibrant would please her.