Marilyn Monroe the Actress: 6 Underrated Roles   

There are two categories of timeless Hollywood legends— Marilyn Monroe and everyone else. In an industry composed of stars, she shined the brightest. As pop culture historian Keith Badman puts it, “She thrilled millions…Marilyn appealed to everyone on many different levels: emotionally, psychologically, sexually, physically, and intellectually.” Her career spanned 16 years and over 30 movies; however, she is largely remembered for her vibrant visual influence and social significance. Remarkably, Monroe still resonates today as much as she ever did. Her image and likeness are consistently employed, generating millions in advertising revenues each year. In September of 2022, a new Monroe biopic is slated to be released by Netflix. The film, titled Blonde, stars Ana de Armas as the infamous starlet and has been getting rave reviews.

August will make it 60 years since Marilyn Monroe lost her life, but she has never lost her allure. Her popularity is perpetual, and her legacy is undeniable. As the ultimate sex symbol, she defined both magnetic beauty and unattainable desirability. Unfortunately, the legacy she left is completely opposite of the one she was striving for. Monroe once stated, “I want to be an artist, not an erotic freak. I don’t want to be sold to the public as a celluloid aphrodisiac.” Though her colossal cultural impact remains unrivaled, her own dreams went unfulfilled. The thing Monroe most genuinely desired was to be taken seriously as an actress. Her life ended before she could realize her ambitions.    

Monroe died in August of 1962. She was 36 years old. The details of her passing are shrouded in controversy, but most experts agree that the cause was an accidental drug overdose. In the 60 years since the icon’s death, her legend has only amplified. But despite her eternal infamy, Monroe has never received the credit she deserves for her acting ability. Her talent extended far beyond a curvaceous figure and a perfect smile. The sad truth is people primarily see Monroe as a stereotype, as the “blonde bombshell” and nothing more. Her persona was only emphasized with roles in pictures like Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and Some Like It Hot. These are great films, but they are not the best representation of her skill. Some of her finest performances occurred in less prestigious films,  six of which we have paid homage to here.        

The Asphalt Jungle (1950)

Image courtesy of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

Directed by legendary filmmaker John Huston, The Asphalt Jungle is a crime classic with a Rotten Tomatoes rating of 97%. It is also one of the finest film noirs of all time. The plot focuses on a band of thieves and the aftermath of their botched heist. Monroe plays Angela Phinlay, mistress to the gang’s financier. The picture was released in June of 1950 and represented Monroe’s first extended speaking role of any substance. Up until this film, her output consisted mostly of throwaway lines in forgettable movies. This was a serious project with a pivotal part. Her scenes are limited, but she steals every one she is in. Huston does a masterful job of implementing Monroe’s natural naïveté, which served the role perfectly. Regarding her work in The Asphalt Jungle, Monroe stated, “I don’t know what I did, but I do know it felt wonderful.”        

Don’t Bother to Knock (1952)

A still of Marilyn Monroe in 'Don't Bother to Knock'. She has a scratch on the left side of her face, and wears a button
Image courtesy of Associated British Haileywood Productions

This psychological thriller directed by Roy Ward Baker stars Monroe as Nell Forbes, a stunning vixen who catches the eye of a pilot played by Richard Widmark. It soon becomes apparent however that Nell is mentally unhinged, as the hunter becomes the hunted. The role was quite a departure for Monroe because it contradicted her carefully crafted bubbly image. According to film critic Jeffrey Anderson, the film succeeds because it “dared to look at the dark side of Monroe’s giggly sex appeal.” Monroe is undeniably terrifying here in the best way. She displays fantastic range, seamlessly shifting from vulnerable to sinister and back again. Don’t Bother to Knock is Monroe’s best reviewed film, currently holding a score of 100% on Rotten Tomatoes. Unfortunately, it is routinely overlooked because it lacks the glitz and glamour synonymous with her caricature.  

Niagara (1953)

A colour still of Marilyn Monroe in 'Niagara'. She wears hoop earrings and a pink blouse, looking
Image courtesy of 20th Century Studios

Henry Hathaway directed this unique film noir co-starring Joseph Cotton and Jean Peters. Unlike the classic noir this film is shot in color, but it still satisfies many hallmarks of the genre, especially the role of the villainous woman, also known as the ‘femme fatale’. Monroe plays Rose Loomis, an adulteress who plots for her lover to murder her husband while on vacation at the epic natural wonder of Niagara Falls. Of course, all does not go according to plan and fatal complications ensue. Niagara features Monroe as a totally distasteful character. This was considered a gamble at the time because producers thought that she would repel audiences as the villainess. It was studio head Daryl Zanuck who insisted Monroe play the murdering, philandering wife. The gamble paid off, as Monroe is fantastic in the role. Femme fatales simply don’t get any more malicious…or gorgeous.    

River of No Return (1954)

A colour still of Marilyn Monroe in 'River of No Return'. She stands outside in front of the mountains while wearing a long-sleeve top with a floral pattern.
Image courtesy of Twentieth Century-Fox Film Corp.

This film was made during Monroe’s most fruitful period as an actress. It is sandwiched between two cinema classics— How to Marry a Millionaire from 1953 and The Seven Year Itch in 1955. Co-starring Robert Mitchum and directed by Otto Preminger, River of No Return is an action-adventure Western. The story takes place in 1875 with Monroe playing Kay Weston, a sultry saloon singer who joins her husband to cash in on the gold rush. When Kay’s husband abandons her and robs Mitchum, the mismatched pair set their sights on revenge. Monroe turns in an impressive performance and showcases several aspects of her talent that had been previously suppressed. She proved she could inhabit a multidimensional character who did not depend on looks. The role also displays Monroe’s maternal sensibilities and immense aptitude as a physical performer.   

Bus Stop (1956)

A still of Marilyn Monroe in 'Bus Stop'. She looks to the side while wearing a low cut, revealing outfit.
Image courtesy of Marilyn Monroe Productions

This was Monroe’s first job after becoming a student of acclaimed acting coach Lee Strasberg. She plays café singer Chérie. When rancher Beauregard Decker (Don Murray) becomes smitten with the beautiful singer, he tries to take her back to Montana with him. While en route, they get delayed at a bus stop, where Chérie makes her position known in no uncertain terms. Under Strasberg, Monroe studied alongside the likes of Geraldine Page, Maureen Stapleton, Lou Gossett Jr., Marlon Brando, Martin Landau, and Jane Fonda. Her classmates alone represented 31 future Academy Award nominations. However, the closest Monroe got was a Golden Globe Best Actress nomination for Bus Stop. In a 2012 interview, Don Murray said “[Monroe] was trying to prove she was a serious actress and not just a movie star playing bimbo parts. She was trying to prove she was an actress of substance, and in my opinion she certainly did.”             

The Misfits (1961)

A black and white close-up still of Marilyn Monroe in 'The Misfits'. She has a short haircut with bangs, and
Image courtesy of Seven Arts Productions

This was Monroe’s last movie. Once again pairing her with director John Huston, the film co-stars fellow Hollywood icons Clark Gable and Montgomery Clift. In a macabre twist, this was also Gable’s last movie. It tells the story of a newly divorced woman (Monroe) who falls in love with an aging cowboy (Gable). In the process, she discovers who she is and what she wants. The role was challenging for Monroe because it required such complex tonal shifts, but it stands out as some of her best work. As film scholar Joe Zentner states, “Marilyn Monroe’s acting in ‘The Misfits’ is superb. Under Huston’s direction, she transforms her stunning good looks into something more vulnerable than sexuality.” Monroe’s character Roslyn Taber is in emotional shambles; sadly, this is an example of art imitating life. At this point in her career, Monroe was considered unstable and a professional liability due to her dependence on drugs. However, despite her considerable obstacles, Monroe turns in a tragically brilliant performance.   

In a 1985 Larry King interview, Monroe’s close friend Susan Strasberg (Lee’s daughter) was asked to explain the continuous interest in the star. Without hesitation, Strasberg answered, “There still hasn’t been anyone like her.” Now, 60 years after her death, Marilyn Monroe remains incomparable— there still hasn’t been anyone like her. And although she will never be forgotten, she will never be remembered how she wanted. Despite never capturing her own dreams, Marilyn survives as the quintessential dream girl and the eternal celluloid aphrodisiac.