Movie Stars: Monroe, Marilyn–Actress Vs. Sex Icon

Andy Warhol (American, 1928ñ1987) Untitled from Marilyn Monroe (Marilyn). 1967 One from a portfolio of ten screenprints Composition and sheet: 36 x 36" (91.5 x 91.5 cm) Publisher: Factory Additions, New York Printer: Aetna Silkscreen Products, New York Editions: 250 The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Gift of Mr. David Whitney, 1968 © 2004 Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Marilyn Monroe’s tragically abridged career ended in 1962, at the age of 36, when she was at the prime of her career as a comedic and dramatic actress.

Hard to believe that almost half a century has passed since Monroe’s death, in the midst of working on the Fox comedy, Something’s Gotta Give, co-starring Dean Martin, under the direction of maestro George Cukor.

I have researched thoroughly Marilyn’s life and career for my biography of George Cukor, published in 1994 as Master of Elegance: George Cukor and his Movie Stars.

Cukor had also directed Marilyn in the romantic comedy, Let’s Make Love, co-starring the French actor, singer, and icon Yves Montand, in 1960.


If you want to know more about the relationship between Cukor and Monroe, please read my book:




Marilyn_Monroe_1In a series of articles, we have explored Monroe’s life, movie stardom, sex appeal, technical skills, acting range, highs and lows of her career, flops and successes, and legacy.  The series, which was extremely well-read (and syndicated), provide insights into the complexity, likeability, and significance (both filmic and cultural) of Marilyn as a social phenomenon—sort of “What Made Marilyn Run?”


In a career nominally spanning 16 years (1946-1962), as a star and an actress, Marilyn worked with the best Hollywood directors: George Cukor in the aforementioned film), Howard Hawks (Gentlemen Prefer Blondes), John Huston (The Asphalt Jungle), Joseph Mankiewicz (All About Eve), Otto Preminger (River of No Return), and Billy Wilder (Some Like It Hot).

In every Marilyn picture, there are multiple stories—the film’s actual and particular plotline and the ever-changing conceptual art piece and cultural phenomenon that is the manufactured “Marilyn Persona,” the screen image that she (assisted by others) had created.

Born Norma Jeane Mortensen in Los Angeles, in 1926, Monroe was raised by a mentally unwell mother, then at an orphanage, and by several foster parents and caregivers.  She later claimed that a family friend taught her to shape her persona and pattern herself after Jean Harlow, Hollywood’s Blond Bombshell of the 1930s, who had also died tragically at a very young age, of poisoning.

Marilyn learned early the malleability and intricate interface of her personal and public identity.  At the mature phase of her career, roughly from 1953 to 1961, Marilyn took full advantage of  her voluptuously curvy, sexy voice, and fun façade, while at the same time offering a more satirical and mocking self-awareness that invited the sophisticated and savvy members of her audience to be in on the joke–with her..

She often played tramps, gold-digging characters that were outwardly dumb, but as the critic Maureen Dowd pointed out in an essay in the N.Y. Times. Marilyn also possessed the rare talents and skills to actually make it “chic to be smart”

Many co-stars and directors who knew Marilyn have said that she was one of the most meticulously subtle comedic (and later dramatic) talents of Hollywood’s Golden Age (roughly 1930 to 1960), which ended just before her last film and subsequent death.

At the same time, she offered unique vulnerability and openness in a series of affecting turns in movies like Don’t Bother to Knock (1952) and Bus Stop (1956), which exhibited, among other things, her startling dramatic range.

Directed by John Huston

Bookending the best era of her career(all of the 1950s) is her film The Asphalt Jungle (1950), and her final film, The Misfits (1961), both directed by John Huston, a demanding and brilliant director and an indefatigable mentor whom Marilyn always credited with boosting her acting career.

It was Huston who took great risk when he cast her as Angela, the mistress s a crooked lawyer (she calls him “Uncle”) in the classic heist-caper procedural The Asphalt Jungle, a cult movie by nowMarilyn’s her role is relatively small in what is a male-driven narrative, but in her two scenes, she ignites the screen with an insolent and, kittenish seductiveness.

the_misfits_6The Misfits, Marilyn‘s last theatrically released picture, was a screen adaptation of famed playwright and husband, Arthur Miller, of his own short story. Miller later said that he planned the role of the conscientious divorcée Roslyn as a challenging one for his then-wife.  Indeed, the extremely well-acted Misfits contains some indelible moments, between Gable and Monroe and between  Montgomery Clift and Monroe.  According to writer Norman Mailer’s biography of Monroe, the actress found “the fulfillment of her art” in this film.

Marilyn developed her trademark dumb-savvy persona in small roles in Mankiewicz’s All About Eve (1950), as George Sanders’ naïve cocktail party accoutrement, described by him as a graduate of the Copacabana School of Dramatic Art.”

Two by Howard Hawks

She honed her skills in Howard Hawks’ Monkey Business as a flirty secretary, though the female lead was played by Ginger Rogers. In this comedy, made in 1952, she bonds giddily with Cary Grant’s chemist, but only because he’s ingested an elixir that makes him act like a hyperactive, libidinous youth.

gentlemen_prefer_blondes_4By the time she re-teamed with Hawks in 1953 for Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, Monroe had perfected this type, playing the shameless gold digger Lorelei Lee on a man-hunting 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 vastly entertaining picture, which was a smash hit at the box-office.
how_to_marry_a_millionaire_4_grable_monroeMarilyn played the blond ditz again as a nearsighted sweetheart in How to Marry a Millionaire (1953), 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.




Billy Wilder




Billy Wilder’s comedy The Seven Year Itch (1955) 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 and as a café singer who becomes attached to an eager cowboy (played by Don Murray in an Oscar-nominated role) in Bus Stop.



In almost each and every Marilyn’s films, there are enduring poses, outfits, and moments, like her pink dress in Henry Hathaway’s Niagara (1953) that seems like an audacious Technicolor affront to the natural surroundings.


Lets Make Love



let's_make_love_2And consider her leotard-clad, show-stopping, subversive rendition of “My Heart Belongs to Daddy” in Cukor’s Let’s Make Love (1960).




There’s her stylish blouse and sprayed-on jeans, anachronistic but fetching, in Otto Preminger’s CinemScope drama, “River of No Return (1954), co-starring another icon, the macho Robert Mitchum.

Marilyn probably gave her most spirited and most erotic turn in Billy Wilder’s hilarious drag comedy, Some Like It Hot (1959), opposite Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon.

some like it hot monroe curtis