No one has seen the film yet, but the internet is already flooded with opinions about Blonde, Netflix’s upcoming fictionalized biography of Marilyn Monroe: on everything from Cuban star Ana de Armas’ suitability as the lead to the potentially offensive film’s allegedly explicit sexual content. Sixty years after her death, 36, Monroe still inspires a kind of protective instinct in the public, even among generations who missed her life by decades. Yet such discussions tend to frame Monroe only as a tragic icon, rather than a bland, sly and ever-underrated actor. There could hardly be a better time to catch up on her abbreviated but often joyous filmography, almost all of it available to watch in the streaming realm.
Newcomers to her work can go straight for the hits, none more delicious – or, thanks to BBC iPlayer, more freely available – than Billy Wilder’s raunchy cross-dressing comedy Some like it hot (1959), the best of all showcases for Monroe’s innocent sex appeal and deceptively deft comic timing. Wilder had previously mined these assets for his spray, then spicy romantic comedy The seven-year itch (Amazon Prime), with its subway lattice dress scene that ultimately dwarfed the film’s entire pop culture currency. Monroe is still a delight in it, even if her all-literal male fantasy character – not even given a name – isn’t as generously conceived as Some like it hotis Sugar Kane.
Competing with the wind-blown white dress for immortality is her pink-satin-and-diamonds ensemble from Howard Hawks’ bright, cheery cannibal musical Gentlemen prefer blondes (1953; Amazon). If you’ve only ever seen Monroe’s Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend number out of context, you might be surprised by the wit and buoyancy of the entire film. Released the same year, How to marry a millionaire (Apple TV) aimed for much the same charm, fueled by female desire and solidarity, but minus the songs. The otherwise unforgettable revue musical There’s no business like Show Business (Google Play) gave her one of the sassiest moments on screen in the sultry, tropical kitsch number Heat Wave; see it for that alone.
Monroe gets less credit for her lithe, cool smarts as a femme fatale, though the sleek, atypical technicolor noir Niagara (1953; Google Play) and the hugely influential bathroom-babysitter thriller Don’t bother knocking (Amazon) is among her top vehicles. Later films split the difference between her brashness, her vulnerability and her mystery. She’s just wonderful as an Ozark lounge singer who resists the violent compulsions of a marriage-minded cowboy in the surprisingly bittersweet Bus stop (1956; Apple TV), and best Laurence Olivier in the strange, tone-deaf comedy The prince and the showgirl (Chile). Starring opposite Clark Gable and Montgomery Clift in the exquisitely melancholic Arthur Miller script Misfits (1961; Apple TV), Monroe’s air of cruel, self-aware exhaustion makes you wonder what the tougher, edgier new Hollywood of the late ’60s and ’70s would have done to her.
Look for it with the white-hot energy and sense of possibility she brought to her earliest roles, many of them in inconsequential films that probably wouldn’t be online if not for her supporting presence. Best to seek out her brave, Stanwyck-matching attitude throw in the very fine Fritz Lang 1952 noir Clash By Night (Chile); her striking streetwalker in the curious Steinbeck-narrated anthology film Oh Henry’s Full House (1952; Amazon); or, best of all, her brief but alluring appearance as a manufactured ingenuity in the blood-curdling showbiz satire All about Eva (1950; Amazon), biding its time as Bette Davis chews up the screen: no role was ever more precise.
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