The Most Visible Star: Marilyn Monroe’s Acting Talent

The actress is mostly remembered for her good looks, but what about her impressive performances?
Marilyn Monroe
United Artists
By  · Published on March 15th, 2017

In his book Heavenly Bodies: Film Stars and Society, Richard Dyer writes that Marilyn Monroe was “the most visible star,” an actress whose life was put on display and remains so over fifty years after her death. She is one of the most iconic Hollywood stars of all time, her face instantly recognizable to even those who have never seen any of her movies. She is a symbol of beauty, glamor, cinema, femininity, blondness, sexuality, and tragedy. While the world speculates about her personal life — who was she romantically involved with? How did she die? What was she really like? — her career as an actress is overshadowed by her fame.

While she may not have been the greatest actress of all time, she certainly had her fair share of talent and intelligence, and always worked incredibly hard to bring her characters to life. She cultivated a star persona, but often worked against and satirized the things people expected of her. Jonathan Rosenbaum notes that she frequently played “dumb blonde” characters based on sexist stereotypes — ie. that attractive women cannot be intelligent — but she always found a way to subtly subvert these stereotypes. Reviews for Monroe’s early films always focused on her looks, ignoring her performances and focusing on her body and how attractive or seductive she was. Critics seemed to be unable to detect the way she poked fun at the “dumb” characters she played, believing that she was nothing more than a pretty face.

Dyer writes that Monroe’s star persona was based around her sexuality — she achieved a balance between acting innocent and clueless, yet also acting as though sex was the most natural thing in the world. The characters she played often seemed clueless, helpless, slightly childlike, and unaware of the effect they have on men. Her characters were always desirable, sweet, and innocent, such as Peggy in Ladies of the Chorus (1948) and Pola in How to Marry a Millionaire (1953). What frequently happens when actors play the same types of characters over and over again is that audiences assume that the actor is their character in real life. Dyer notes that many people believe Marilyn Monroe was genuinely being herself onscreen. This is inaccurate and does not give her very much credit for the hard work that went into her performances.

Not only was she able to brilliantly play both drama and comedy, but she also attended classes at The Actor’s Studio with Lee Strasberg to sharpen her talents. As Rosenbaum notes, she was also an avid reader and was able to speak at length about Freud, Shakespeare, William Congreve, and James Joyce. Writer Maurice Zolotow writes in his 1960 book Marilyn Monroe that her home was filled with books, and she wrote poetry sometimes. She was clearly more intelligent than she is given credit for, and her intelligence comes through onscreen in her performances. The way she was able to carefully control her face and body and her line delivery are indicative of talent, hard work, and an understanding of her craft.

Monroe is most famous for her comedic roles, specifically Technicolor films from the 1950s such as How to Marry a Millionaire, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953), and The Seven Year Itch (1957). She essentially played the same character in all of her comedies but brought a unique spin to each story. One of her most brilliant performances is as Lorelei Lee in Howard Hawks’ Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. She skillfully brings to life the scheming, jewel-hungry Lorelei, who pretends to be innocent and clueless in order to acquire wealth from gullible rich old men. She and her best friend Dorothy (Jane Russell) complement and play off of each other perfectly, resulting in one of the most entertaining films of the classical Hollywood era.

Similarly, Monroe gives a perfect performance as the nameless Girl Upstairs in Billy Wilder’s The Seven Year Itch (1955). Once again she pretends to be clueless about how much Richard (Tom Ewell) wants her and ends up having a good time inappropriately hanging out with him while his wife is out of town. Monroe’s physical comedy is particularly funny in this movie, as in the scene when she hides behind a chair and uses her toes to covertly pick up her shoes off the floor. Looking at the surface, Monroe’s character is completely empty and clueless. However, it takes skill and a strong sense of humor to play a woman whose only real character trait is how attractive she is. Monroe made her charming and sweet, and more interesting than she was written to be.

After Monroe worked with Lee Strasberg at The Actor’s Studio, she began taking on more serious roles, which is where she did some of her best work, which she rarely gets credit for. Flashes of her dramatic talents are visible in some of her early roles, such as her emotionally damaged babysitter in Don’t Bother to Knock (1952), and her femme fatale in 1953’s Niagara (one of my personal favorite of her performances). Her most emotionally devastating performance is in Joshua Logan’s Bus Stop (1956), where she plays a melancholic singer with dreams of Hollywood stardom. Zolotow writes in his book that Monroe insisted that her costumes be ripped and torn and that she wear pale makeup to indicate that her character rarely sees the sun. She is a somewhat tortured character, just trying to live her own life while the naive young cowboy, Beau (Don Murray), pursues her relentlessly. Monroe disappears into her character, and there is no sign of the bubbly, giggly comedic women she usually plays. Critics such as Bosley Crowther of the New York Times finally began to take note of her talents, writing that she “has finally proved herself an actress”.

Her final performance, as Roslyn in John Huston’s The Misfits (1961), is just as powerful as Bus Stop, although perhaps more depressing considering she passed away the following year. At that point in her career, she was no longer playing young and naive “starlets”, but was instead portraying complex women. It takes talent to play both comedy and drama, however, dramas such as The Misfits require a different kind of depth than comedies such as Some Like It Hot (1959). Monroe’s Roslyn appears exhausted, jaded, and sad — much like the other characters in the film, played by Thelma Ritter, Clark Gable, and Montgomery Clift. These characters are people who have been through difficult situations in their lives and cling to one another for some kind of comfort and happiness. The Misfits is a more mature, adult-oriented film than some of Monroe’s other pictures, such as Monkey Business (1952). Rosenbaum notes that Monroe was critical of the film, specifically noting that the film was not great because the script, written by her husband Arthur Miller, was not great.

Marilyn Monroe has a somewhat extensive filmography, yet many of her films are forgotten or not given enough credit for featuring great performances. I have outlined only a few of these incredible performances, but she was also brilliant in The Asphalt Jungle (1950), River of No Return (1954), The Prince and the Showgirl (1956), and Let’s Make Love (1960). It is clear how hard she worked on her acting craft throughout her career, as her performances get better and better over time. Of course, she is beautiful and luminous onscreen, but it cannot be forgotten that she brought emotion, laughter, subtlety, and intelligence to all of her performances. She will forever be remembered as a tragically beautiful star who died too young, but it should also be remembered that she contributed to Hollywood history with her wonderful performances.

Related Topics:

Actual film school graduate from Toronto. Always thinking and writing about queerness, feminism, camp, melodrama, and popular culture.