The Best Marilyn Monroe Movies—Ranked
Although Marilyn Monroe appeared in more than 25 films over the course of her career, these classic flicks stand out as her very best.
Photo: Bernard of Hollywood / Instagram.com/marilynmonroe
The Top 10 Marilyn Monroe Movies
For most celebrities, fame is fleeting. Their star burns brightly, then gradually fades away until they become footnotes in filmmaking history. It’s only the rarest talent that can continue to captivate audiences decades after the cameras stop rolling. A talent like Marilyn Monroe.
Even if you’ve never seen a Marilyn Monroe movie, you know who she is. The mere mention of her name probably conjures up the image of a pleated ivory halter dress fluttering above a Manhattan subway grate. Bottle-blonde hair and a beauty mark. A breathy voice singing “Happy birthday.”
That archetypal blonde bombshell persona has ensured Marilyn Monroe’s immortality as a pop culture icon. On the flip side, it also tends to overshadow her considerable achievements as an actress—a craft that she was continually seeking to refine.
Looking back at Monroe’s film career, it’s clear that Hollywood was more than happy to cash in on that star image, but some of her greatest triumphs as an actress would come from playing against type. Although less well-remembered than the musicals and comedies that would be her mainstay, the dramatic roles she’d take on in the likes of Bus Stop and The Misfits are a revelation. They show another side of Marilyn—an ambitious performer relishing the opportunity to expand her range in spite of deep-rooted insecurities which would contribute to her tragic death at the age of 36.
The 10 Marilyn Monroe films listed here represent her biggest—and best—roles. If you’ve only ever seen Some Like It Hot and Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, it’s well worth tracking down some of the more obscure titles, which may not have enjoyed the legendary status of their leading lady, but nevertheless remain a testament to her skill, screen presence and timeless charm.
10. Bus Stop (1956)
First things first: Bus Stop is not a great movie. It is, however, a great Marilyn Monroe movie.
Although anything filmed 70-odd years ago is bound to be dated, few films of this era have aged more poorly than Bus Stop. There’s an ugly, misogynist streak running through the picture that makes for several deeply distasteful scenes. Despite that, it features a groundbreaking performance from its lead actress that transcends its (many) shortcomings.
In the role of Chérie, a down-on-her-luck saloon singer, Monroe delivers her first—and many would argue, best—Method acting performance. She’s hopeless, but hopeful; her character’s unlikely dreams of making it big in Hollywood perhaps reflecting Monroe’s own.
As Charles Casillo writes in his superb Marilyn Monroe biography, The Private Life of a Public Icon: “When Bus Stop was released, it looked as if all of Marilyn’s ambitions to be considered seriously were beginning to be realized. The media tentatively began to acknowledge that her talent just might equal her sex appeal.”
Unfortunately (for the audience), Bus Stop saddles Monroe with one of the most annoying leading men ever committed to celluloid. Don Murray’s loud, cartoonish cowboy is the albatross around the film’s neck; a performance so irritating, you’re left hoping Chérie runs a mile after the film fades to black.
9. The Prince and the Showgirl (1957)
It’s London, 1911, and the visiting Prince Regent of Carpathia sets his monocle on a pretty music hall performer, who he figures will make a welcome—and very temporary—distraction from politics. Instead of the one-night stand he’s planned, however, he ends up with a street-smart houseguest who simply. Won’t. Leave.
There’s a lot of fun to be had with The Prince and the Showgirl‘s fish-out-of-water premise, and the script plays it smart by making a mockery of Laurence Olivier’s snooty Prince rather than Marilyn Monroe’s common-as-muck showgirl. Throughout the clumsy attempted seduction, it’s she who maintains an air of class and elegance, while the increasingly pathetic Prince learns a valuable lesson in humility.
Sadly, their fireworks end up fizzling in the film’s second act, which trades the dynamic interplay between the leads in favour of political intrigue. It’s an awkward shift in tone for what was shaping up to be a classic rom-com, and places The Prince and the Showgirl firmly in the bottom half of our list.
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8. How to Marry a Millionaire (1953)
1953 was a big year for Marilyn Monroe, with the release of no fewer than three career-defining films: Niagara, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and How to Marry a Millionaire. That this final release in a year of back-to-back productions still ends up being wildly entertaining speaks volumes to both Monroe’s talent, and 20th Century Fox’s confidence that they had a bona fide star on their hands.
If there’s one flaw in the gem that is How to Marry a Millionaire, it’s simply that there’s not enough Marilyn Monroe. Of the three gold-digging models scheming to land husbands by squatting in a swanky penthouse, Monroe’s Pola Debevoise is by far the most charming. Throughout the film, she has a sweet, wide-eyed innocence that sets her apart from the more cynical characters played by Lauren Bacall and Betty Grable. The role also allows Monroe to showcase her considerable flair for physical comedy, with the nearly-blind Pola refusing to wear her spectacles out of vanity—and suffering plenty of hilarious mishaps as a result.
Although she may get short shrift in terms of screen-time, Monroe effortlessly steals every scene in which she appears, and bestows Millionaire with an ingredient that would otherwise be missing: heart.
7. River of No Return (1954)
In The Private Life of a Public Icon, Charles Casillo writes that River of No Return “has the distinction of exhibiting Marilyn Monroe’s worst performance.” Whether or not you agree with that harsh indictment will largely depend on how you feel about westerns in general.
Viewed strictly as a western, River has all the makings of a classic. Between the jaw-dropping location filming in Jasper and Banff national parks, and a snappy screenplay that pits its heroes against a dirty-dealing gambler and the forces of nature, it’s got a firm foundation in the genre. What puts River in a class above, however, is the unlikely trio at its heart: an ex-con farmer, Calder (Robert Mitchum), his long-lost son (Tommy Rettig), and the saloon-singer Kay (Monroe), wife of the villain who’s betrayed all three. The evolving dynamic between the leads is a delight to watch, and ups the emotional stakes considerably—something that helps River through some of its more meandering moments.
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Photo: Public Domain / WikiMedia Commons
6. Don’t Bother to Knock (1952)
Decades before The Hand That Rocks the Cradle, Don’t Bother to Knock had parents anxiously double-checking their babysitter’s references. Monroe is perhaps a surprising choice as deeply disturbed nanny Nell Forbes, but she’s incredibly effective in this early leading role, turning in a performance that’s equal parts sympathetic and unsettling. She certainly holds her own amongst an impressive cast of veterans, including Richard Widmark and Jim Backus, and, making her own feature film debut, a young Anne Bancroft.
The film itself is a taut little thriller that makes the most of its modest budget, using its minimal sets to create a claustrophobic atmosphere. Nell’s mental breakdown largely unfolds in a single hotel room, with only her young charge, a potential suitor, and her hapless uncle playing witness to her harrowing disintegration. Director Roy Baker keeps things moving at a surprisingly rapid pace, and isn’t pulling any punches: the film’s final act boasts a number of scenes that are genuinely shocking to this day.
5. The Seven Year Itch (1955)
Of all the writers and directors to work with Marilyn Monroe, no one “got” her quite like Billy Wilder. In The Seven Year Itch—the first of Monroe’s two collaborations with the legendary filmmaker—Wilder gives her a role that’s essentially, well… Marilyn Monroe (or her public persona, at any rate). As “The Girl” (yes, she actually goes unnamed throughout the picture), Monroe is sweet, sexy and entirely innocent of the fact that she has everyone wrapped around her finger. Given that the character is a distillation of all the elements of Monroe’s “brand,” it’s no surprise that she totally knocks it out of the park.
On the surface, The Seven Year Itch sounds a bit sleazy. Monroe’s nameless role aside, the premise is that every man turns into a sex-addled maniac the moment he sends his wife and kids off on summer vacation. Like The Prince and the Showgirl, however, the story wisely makes the male characters the butt of the joke. Monroe’s co-star Tom Ewell quickly devolves from a cocky, confident summer bachelor, to a jabbering, daydreaming wreck the moment she buzzes her way into his apartment complex. His increasingly outlandish fantasies of seduction eventually give way to a surprisingly sweet mutual understanding with The Girl, prompting one of Monroe’s greatest monologues:
“You and your imagination! You think every girl’s a dope. You think a girl goes to a party and there’s some guy, a great big lunk in a fancy striped vest, strutting around like a tiger giving you that I’m-so-handsome-you-can’t-resist-me look. And for this she’s supposed to fall flat on her face. Well, she doesn’t fall on her face. But there’s another guy in the room, way over in the corner. Maybe he’s kind of nervous and shy and perspiring a little. First, you look past him. But then you sort of sense that he’s gentle and kind and worried. That he’ll be tender with you. Nice and sweet. That’s what’s really exciting.”
Has The Seven Year Itch aged well? Not entirely. But if you had to show someone a single film that summed up the phenomenon that is Marilyn Monroe, it would be this one.
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Photo: Macfadden Publications New York, Publisher of Radio-TV Mirror / WikiMedia Commons / Public domain
4. The Misfits (1961)
Some movies are remembered for all the wrong reasons. Despite being a classic in its own right, The Misfits is infamous for being the final film appearance of not one, but two Hollywood titans: Marilyn Monroe and Clark Gable.
As final bows go, it’s magnificent. Boasting a script by Monroe’s then-husband, playwright Arthur Miller, and directed by John Huston (The Maltese Falcon), it’s a compelling character study that gives its leads plenty to sink their teeth into. Monroe, in particular, gives a performance of astonishing depth, showing a range only hinted at in previous pictures.
As Roslyn, she starts the movie as a timid, trembling divorcee; by the end she’s screaming at the top of her lungs, physically attacking Gable’s aging cowboy, Gay, in an effort to free a captured horse. We as the audience share in her outrage: Gay’s scheme to round up wild mustangs for dog food is as repellent as it bizarre. Still, it’s in keeping with the movie’s downbeat tone, and effectively sets the stage for a performance that should have garnered Monroe an Oscar nomination, had the Academy taken her more seriously as an actress.
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Photo: Milton H. Greene / Instagram.com/marilynmonroe
3. Niagara (1953)
Wrongly-convicted man? Check. Blonde bombshell? Check. Climactic showdown at an iconic landmark? Check!
Despite being directed by Henry Hathaway, Niagara has all the hallmarks of a classic Hitchcock flick, and is just as thrilling as anything the Master of Suspense was producing in this period. Where this film noir gem really breaks the mold, however, is its extensive location filming in Niagara Falls—a challenge the notoriously location-shy Hitch would never have tackled.
Seeing the Falls as they were in the ’50s, and shot so impressively from various vantage points throughout the film, is one of the real treats of Niagara. The other treat, of course, is to see Monroe take on a more sinister role as a woman’s whose troubled marriage is distinctly out of place in the Honeymoon Capital of the World. Cleverly cast against type, Monroe is captivating as the sultry, scheming Rose Loomis—a performance so charismatic, you’ll be cheering her on in spite of yourself.
Fun fact: For the true Marilyn Monroe experience next time you’re in Niagara Falls, ask to book suite 801 at the Crowne Plaza—it’s where she stayed during filming back in June 1952.
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2. Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953)
In the promotional trailers, 20th Century Fox boldly hailed Gentlemen Prefer Blondes as “The Most Glamorous Musical of Our Age.” For once, the studio publicity machine wasn’t overselling.
This glossy, bright, big-budget extravaganza is 90 minutes of sheer, unadulterated fun, set to a soundtrack that’ll have you singing right along. Although it’ll always be remembered as “the one with ‘Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend,'” Gentlemen Prefer Blondes serves up one showstopper after another, from “Two Girls From Little Rock,” to “Bye Bye Baby,” to “When Love Goes Wrong.” Taking the lead on these classics is the positively electric double-act of Jane Russell and Marilyn Monroe, the latter of whom gives the vocal performance of her career.
But Gentlemen Prefer Blondes is a treat for the eyes as well as the ears. Filmed in super-saturated Technicolor, everything from the costumes to the sets leap off the screen. Take the iconic “Diamonds” sequence, for instance. Legendary costume designer Travilla (who dressed Monroe in eight of her films) has her draped in pink satin, weaving in and out of black-garbed dancers, set against a lurid red backdrop for maximum contrast. It’s eye-popping stuff; the visuals reflecting a joie de vivre shared by the fun characters, frothy plot and sparkling dialogue.
As man-hungry Dorothy Shaw, Jane Russell gets the very best of those lines, sparking brilliantly off of Monroe’s unapologetically shallow Lorelei Lee. Although Russell is essentially playing straight man to Monroe’s vacuous blonde, her catty quips are comedy gold, and the climax in which she has to impersonate her co-star in court is hilarious.
An absolute joy, from beginning to end.
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1. Some Like It Hot (1959)
It’s ironic that a film that ends with the line “Nobody’s perfect” manages to prove otherwise.
With Some Like It Hot, writer and director Billy Wilder serves up a comedy masterpiece that gets absolutely everything right. Cast, script, soundtrack and visuals conspire to create an all-time classic that’s as funny and fresh on its 50th viewing as it is on its first.
The tale of two male musicians who join an all-girl band to elude the mob could’ve simply derived its laughs from the sight gags of Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon in drag. Some Like It Hot is so much smarter than that, though, building on that premise with line after line of hysterical dialogue and unexpectedly charming romances that further complicate “Josephine” and “Daphne’s” predicament.
One such complication comes in the form of Monroe’s Sugar Kane, lead vocalist, ukulele player and resident troublemaker in Sweet Sue’s Society Syncopators. As sweet as her name implies, Sugar is one of Monroe’s most adorable creations—unlucky in love, and destined to keep making the same mistakes unless her tender heart can inspire Curtis’s philandering Joe to turn a new leaf. She’s utterly charming here—vulnerable, impulsive and admittedly “not very bright,” but somehow all the more lovable because of it. In a way, it’s a distillation of many of her best roles: the forlorn showgirl of Bus Stop, the naive object of desire in The Seven Year Itch and the unapologetic gold-digger of How to Marry a Millionaire—a “greatest hits” performance buoyed by the funniest lines she’d ever be written:
Sugar: I come from this musical family. My mother is a piano teacher and my father was a conductor.
Joe: Where did he conduct?
Sugar: On the Baltimore and Ohio.
Throw in a handful of musical numbers that she absolutely nails (“I Wanna Be Loved By You,” “I’m Thru With Love” and “Runnin’ Wild”), and you’ve got the makings of not only the best Marilyn Monroe movie, but one of the greatest films of all time.
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