Movie Stars: Monroe, Marilyn–14 Best Films

In July, BAMcinématek celebrates the star of stars with Marilyn!, a retrospective of 14 choice films from Marilyn Monroe’s tragically abridged career. The series’ selections, all presented in 35mm prints, offer a chance to appreciate the actress’ complexity and evergreen lovability.

The starlet boasted many top collaborations and worked with directors Cukor, Hawks, Huston, Mankiewicz, Preminger, and Wilder—a list of greats who cannily realized that no matter what else they put on screen, eyes would be drawn magnetically to Marilyn.

In nearly every Monroe picture, there are at least two stories—the actual plotline and the ongoing conceptual art piece that is the manufactured Marilyn persona. Born Norma Jeane Mortensen in Los Angeles, Monroe was raised alternately by a mentally unwell mother, at an orphanage, and by a revolving cast of caregivers including a family friend who taught her to pattern herself after Jean Harlow. She learned early the malleability of identity. Not only was Marilyn Monroe curvy, sexy, and fun on the surface, but she also offered a mocking self-awareness that invited the audience to be in on the joke. While her trampy, gold-digging characters were outwardly dumb, Monroe actually made it “chic to be smart” (Maureen Dowd, The New York Times). That she was one of the funniest and most meticulously subtle comedic talents of Hollywood’s Golden Age is confirmed anew in this series, featuring her best-known films, while vulnerable, affecting turns in movies like Don’t Bother to Knock (1952—screening Jul 1) and Bus Stop (1956—Jul 5) exhibit her startling dramatic range.

Bookending the series is her first film, The Asphalt Jungle (1950—Jul 1), and her final film, The Misfits (1961—Jul 17), both directed by John Huston, a mentor whom the actress frequently credited with boosting her career.

As a crooked lawyer’s mistress (she calls him “Uncle”) in the classic heist-caper procedural The Asphalt Jungle her role is small, but she ignites the screen with an insolent, kittenish seductiveness. In The Misfits, Arthur Miller’s film adaptation of his own short story, he hoped the role of conscientious divorcée Roslyn would be a challenging and praiseworthy one for his then-wife. There are indelible moments featuring Montgomery Clift and Monroe, who is somehow lovelier than ever and who, according to Norman Mailer in his biography of Monroe, found “the fulfillment of her art” in this film.

Monroe developed her trademark dumb-savvy persona in small roles in Joe Mankiewicz’s All About Eve (1950—Jul 16), as George Sanders’ naïve cocktail party accoutrement, a “graduate of the Copacabana School of Dramatic Art,” and in Howard Hawks’ Monkey Business (1952—Jul 6), as a flirty secretary. In the latter, she bonds giddily with Cary Grant’s chemist, but only because he’s ingested an elixir (mixed by a chimpanzee in a virtuoso bit of animal acting) that makes him act like a hyperactive, libidinous youth.

By the time she reteamed with Hawks in 1953 for Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (Jul 10), Monroe had perfected this type, playing the shameless gold digger Lorelei Lee on a manhunting expedition with Jane Russell to a pasteboard Paris via an ocean liner. A talented singer (and a charmingly amateurish dancer), Monroe performs her famous “Diamonds are a Girl’s Best Friend” in this “landmark encounter in the battle of the sexes” (Dave Kehr, Chicago Reader).
Monroe trotted out the blond ditz again as a nearsighted sweetheart in How to Marry a Millionaire (1953—Jul 7), for which she teamed up with Betty Grable and Lauren Bacall in a pact to land rich hubbies and does some of her best physical comedy. More than a mere comedy of contrasts, Billy Wilder’s The Seven Year Itch (1955—Jul 2) is also a study in madness and sexual dementia—and features Marilyn’s iconic walk over a subway grate in a billowy white dress.

Insecure and critical of her own talent, Monroe constantly strove to improve her acting. She took classes with Lee Strasberg at the Actors Studio in New York and employed a coach on sets. She tended to take more pride in her dramatic turns, like her roles as an unstable babysitter alongside Richard Widmark in Don’t Bother to Knock (one of Manny Farber’s 10 best films of 1952) and as a café singer who becomes attached to an eager cowboy (Don Murray) in Bus Stop, “a film in which she seldom puts a foot wrong, where she seems central instead of just a dirty joke or a curiosity” (David Thomson).
In each of these 14 films, there are enduring poses, outfits, and moments, like Monroe’s pink dress in Henry Hathaway’s Niagara (1953—Jul 8) that seems like an audacious Technicolor affront to the natural surroundings, or her leotard-clad rendition of “My Heart Belongs to Daddy” in George Cukor’s Let’s Make Love (1960—Jul 15). There’s her stylish blouse and sprayed-on jeans, anachronistic but fetching, in Otto Preminger’s Canadian Rockies-shot ’Scope drama, River of No Return (1954—Jul 14), and her spirited ukulele shimmy-and-strum in Some Like It Hot (1959—Jul 3 & 4).
To coincide with the BAMcinématek series, Posteritati will host SHOWGIRL: Marilyn Monroe Film Posters (1950-1961), a new exhibition of vintage poster originals, both domestic and international. SHOWGIRL will be on display at Posteritati’s SoHo gallery from Saturday, June 18 through Friday, July 29.