I will never forget the first time I watched her on screen. She was beautiful. A smile that just radiated beauty with a sweet voice that chirped like a small songbird. She glided down the stairs with the confidence and bravado of a strong woman. An icon, which even after her death fifty-seven years ago has her in the forefront of many admirers whether it be a site dedicated to her photos, a Facebook page singing her praises, or a Hollywood starlet trying to live in her shadow. Marilyn Monroe was many things to many people, but to me, she will always be one of the funniest female actresses of her era and a neverending icon.
The “dumb blonde” has more depth than you would first think. As someone who has played this ingénue of a character, the ‘ditzy’ blonde needs to know herself. She needs to know the jokes but is NOT the joke. She needs to command the scene, but not be so childlike that the audience stops rooting for her and gets annoyed with her immaturity. Marilyn navigated this fine line throughout her career. From one of her first comedy roles in the Cary Grant comedy Monkey Business, where she plays Mrs. Lois Laurel, a secretary at the Oxley Corporation where Cary Grant’s Dr. Barnaby Fulton is employed and discovers the fountain of youth with the help of one of his curious chimps. Her part wasn’t a very big one, but she holds her own with Grant’s dry humor and is quite a standout. Of course she was cast for her ‘bombshell’ beauty, but her interaction with Grant about pantyhose he invented is still one of my favorites. I found this movie by accident one day while at home unwell, and although only a bit part, Marilyn starts to shine and stretch those comic chops.
Her next big comedic role was Lorelei Lee in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. She plays a showgirl next to the definition of moxie, Jane Russell, in this cute buddy girl comedy. The girls head to Paris to perform and are followed by a private investigator hired by Lorelei’s fiance. Hi-jinks and many jokes ensue. It is your typical musical comedy from 1953, but the standout, of course, is Marilyn. What I’d like to call her most ‘recreated look’ era, which has been duplicated but never replicated from Madonna to Britney to Lady Gaga, Marilyn was at the top of her game. Her delivery, especially in this role, shows she gets the joke and she gets who she is. I won’t say that she is a parody, at least not yet, but she definitely was in full form. In the scene below, we see the beauty, humor, and talent married the Monroe way. Only Marilyn could do it so perfectly. It is one of my top five scenes from a movie/musical. This is the role that created Marilyn the icon for me and propelled her to one of the funniest women.
Her next role was similar to her Blondes part: How to Marry a Millionaire. This film paired her with Lauren Bacall and Betty Grable as three beautiful women on the prowl for a ‘suitable’ mate. Again hi-jinks, mistaken identities, and happy endings fill this fun film. It is a personal favorite of mine. It is the type of Golden Oldie that when it is on you have to watch it. Again, my favorite character is Marilyn and her ‘innocent’ delivery of some pretty funny lines.
Though I believe that Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and How to Marry A Millionaire made Marilyn the icon she is today, if you ask many others, her role in The Seven Year Itch is what ignited that Monroe spark and blasted her into superstar status. While I agree the scene with her white dress blowing up over the grate is something that stays cemented in your long term memory, it was her overall performance as “The Girl” that does it for me. She was ‘that girl’. That one desired human being of your inner monologue, like Chris Evans or The Rock are for me. *Sigh*. When she appears on the screen, you stop and don’t watch anything else. Her introduction is charming, and you see why exactly Tom Ewell becomes seven years smitten with “The Girl”. The movie, which was originally a Broadway show, showcased the little nuances that Marilyn played to her strengths throughout her career. The Seven Year Itch was a perfect vehicle for Marilyn and would set up what I believe was one of the best performances of her career.
Now onto what I believe to be the best performance of Marilyn’s career: Sugar Kane Kowalczyk in Some Like It Hot. What should be just a vehicle for the bosom buddy comedy of Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon turned into a character showcase for Marilyn. Sugar was not your run of the mill ‘dumb blonde’ character. I do think a lot of what Marilyn was going through in real life filtered into the performances she gave on the screen. There were many whispers and some loud pontificating from Curtis himself that Marilyn was late to set and took many, many takes to get the shot just right. He may have complained, but the chemistry that came through the screen was dazzling. Although Marilyn’s antics did not fit into Billy Wilder’s directing style—especially not as he had envisioned the part for her—he still felt that regardless of what was going on in her life and the trials of working with her on set, that she still gave a wonderful performance. The role earned her a Golden Globe for Best Actress. Watching her perform again and again, as it is one of my favorite movies, I can see what the Hollywood Foreign press saw. She was again innocent and vulnerable. She played Sugar how I believe she perceived herself sometimes—not too bright, but able to survive in the environments she found herself in. Sugar was a survivor, very much like Marilyn herself.
Marilyn fought for a long time to be taken seriously in the acting arena in which she desperately wanted to excel and to be a true actress, not just a pretty face. I believe all these performance showcase that brilliance. To me, she was more than just a beauty. In fact, the internal struggles she was fighting throughout her life made these performances even that much more poignant. She also inspired many future female comedic performances; Reese Witherspoon in Legally Blonde and Lisa Kudrow in Friends are two that immediately come to mind. Marilyn was a trendsetter without even trying to be. She just wanted to make people happy, sometimes at the detriment of her own well-being. At least we have her bright smile and contagious laughter on celluloid whenever we need to laugh and remember just how funny and beautiful she was; to remind us of who Marilyn Monroe was and the legacy she wanted us to remember.