TCM’s 10 Favorite Marilyn Moments:
Marilyn looks up at “Uncle Lon” when he sees her laying on the couch in The Asphalt Jungle (1950)
Hollywood’s censors, the Production Code Administration, won a lot of concessions from director John Huston as he filmed this realistic crime drama (the first big studio crime picture filmed in almost documentary detail): leading lady Jean Hagen was never referred to as a prostitute, and criminal mastermind Sam Jaffe’s fascination with young women was depicted as nostalgia rather than perversion. But the bluenoses were helpless in the face of Marilyn Monroe’s smoldering glances. Although crooked judge Louis Calhern introduced her character Angela as his “niece,” every time she looked up at him, usually from a reclining position, the audience knew exactly what kind of uncle he was. Huston had pretty much settled on casting Lola Albright in the role, but as a favor to agent Johnny Hyde, he agreed to read Monroe. Her audition was terrible, and he was prepared to dismiss her when she asked to read again, something unheard of in Hollywood. When she finished, he watched her walk away and got a look at the “Marilyn wiggle.” Huston was hooked and convinced the MGM brass to let him cast the untried actress. Her success in the role and the power of her final dramatic moment, when she rats out her “uncle” to the police, convinced 20th Century-Fox head Darryl F. Zanuck to start giving her better parts.
Marilyn works on her “punctuation” in Monkey Business (1952)
For his fifth (and last) film with Cary Grant, director Howard Hawks gave the debonair actor one of his sexiest co-stars, Marilyn Monroe. The blonde bombshell more than held her own as a farceur opposite Grant, Ginger Rogers (cast as Grant’s wife), Charles Coburn and a mischievous chimp. Even before the comic business really gets rolling, she proves her talents with one of her best “dumb blonde” one-liners ever: “Mr. Oxley’s been complaining about my punctuation, so I’m careful to get here before nine.” When the chimp accidentally perfects the fountain of youth formula chemist Grant has been working on, it gradually turns the rest of the cast into overgrown, hyperactive adolescents, leaving Monroe the one person unaffected. At that point, she proves herself the perfect straight woman, accompanying the now impetuous Grant on a madcap day on the town as he buys a new sports car and takes her swimming. Hawks, who would help Monroe perfect the dim-witted beauty act in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953), had originally tried to cast Ava Gardner as Grant’s wife. Instead, studio executives forced him to cast Rogers, with whom he did not get along. Years later, film critic turned director Peter Bogdanovich would praise the chemistry between Grant and Monroe and suggest the one thing that would have made Monkey Business the perfect film would have been casting her as the wife.
Marilyn establishes her trademark walk on the way to a bus station in Niagara (1953)
Sex, murder and spectacular scenery were the selling points for this Technicolor film noir – with Marilyn Monroe providing all three. Rose, the dissatisfied wife out to lure jealous husband Joseph Cotten to his death, was her most evil character ever, but Monroe was so beautiful she seemed worth dying for. From the moment she wakes up, staring at the camera as she lounges in bed, her performance offers the promise of forbidden pleasures. The film exploits her beauty in a series of low-cut, bright dresses and a surprisingly provocative shower scene, with Monroe’s figure clearly outlined against the translucent shower curtain. And her sultry walk from the camera, the longest in cinema history, established the “Marilyn walk” as one of her trademarks. Niagara was originally planned as a vehicle for Anne Baxter, cast as a young wife caught up in the sexual tension between Rose and her husband. When she withdrew, 20th Century Fox beefed up Marilyn’s role and bumped her to star billing. She paid them back with a surprisingly powerful performance, particularly in her death scene, expertly paced by Monroe, Cotten and director Henry Hathaway to build both tension and a surprising level of sympathy for Rose. Although Niagara Falls was supposed to be the film’s focus, Marilyn demanded equal attention, making an impact that still holds audiences. When Andy Warhol created his famous silk screen Marilyn Diptych the week after she died, the image he used was a close-up from Niagara.
Marilyn sings “Diamonds are a Girl’s Best Friend” from Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953)
Although she was second-billed to established sex symbol Jane Russell, Marilyn Monroe – in the role of ultimate gold digger Lorelei Lee – came out of this film a first-rate star by proving that as a dumb blonde, “I can be smart when I need to be.” Belting “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend” and trilling, “I just love finding new places to wear diamonds,” she created one of the screen’s most endearing images of greed. But her character went far beyond that; Lorelei had the smarts to know that any man with “and valet” after his name in the ship’s register had a bankroll that made him worth pursuing. And she had the warmth to attract women as well as men. Her friendship with fellow showgirl Dorothy Shaw (Russell) is one of the best buddy relationships ever put on screen by director Howard Hawks – an expert on that type of dynamic. In the midst of her big ode to diamonds, she takes a moment to share her wisdom with a group of chorus girls, adding a surprising level of humanity to her glittering performance. Even though some of her vocals were dubbed (by Marni Nixon), the timing was all Marilyn, giving her the chance to prove she had the smarts to sell a great comic role. Years later, her performance of “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend” would inspire the video for Madonna’s “Material Girl,” but the original performance remained unmatched.
Marilyn takes her glasses off in How to Marry a Millionaire (1953)
Marilyn Monroe has one moment in this early CinemaScope film (the first to finish production using the process but the second released, after The Robe) that cemented her star appeal. As nearsighted fashion model Pola Debevoise, she lives by the rule “Men aren’t attentive to girls who wear glasses,” a hilarious mangling of Dorothy Parker’s famous poem. At one point, she sneaks on her glasses to check herself out in a ladies’ room mirror. Then the sumptuously gowned Marilyn hides the glasses, prepares to make a grand entrance and walks right into a wall. Like her big-screen predecessor Jean Harlow, Monroe became a star by adding a touch of humanity to her sex appeal. She plays one of three down-on-their-luck models (the other two are Betty Grable and Lauren Bacall) who pool their resources to rent a luxury penthouse in hopes of snaring rich husbands. Do they get what they want? Not completely, but each finds her true love. Monroe’s pairing with the very normal David Wayne, rather than some big-screen hunk who would rival her beauty, further humanizes her. When he convinces her to put on her glasses and face the world, it’s one of the silliest and also most romantic moments in her career. Industry insiders expected fireworks when 20th Century Fox teamed Monroe with blonde bombshell Grable, but the two became friends, and Grable was happy to end her studio contract with a hit.
Marilyn sings and dances to “Heat Wave” in There’s No Business Like Show Business (1954)
As the chorus warns, “hot and humid nights can be expected” – especially when Marilyn Monroe tackles the Irving Berlin classic “Heat Wave” in this all-star musical extravaganza. Ostensibly about a family of vaudevillians headed by Ethel Merman and Dan Dailey, the film becomes all about sex when Monroe takes the stage as determined rising star Vicky – a performance that puts her character on the road to the top. Off screen, Marilyn was already big enough that she could hold out on making the film (20th Century Fox almost cast Sheree North) until studio head Darryl F. Zanuck promised her the lead in The Seven Year Itch (1955). He also agreed to give Monroe the “Heat Wave” number originally assigned to Merman, who had performed it almost 20 years earlier in Alexander’s Ragtime Band (1938). Though some critics carped about Monroe’s sexier, slowed-down version of the standard, fans consider it one of the film’s highlights. Choreographer Jack Cole had learned how to set her famous “wiggle” to music when working on Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953). He had no problem convincing audiences that Monroe’s performance could indeed raise temperatures, particularly when she started moving her hips. This and two of her other numbers, the teasing “After You Get What You Want (You Don’t Want It)” and “Lazy,” show just how witty a performer she could be. At the end of “Heat Wave,” she even makes fun of herself, over-enunciating the lyrics in imitation of her own overdeveloped diction.
A subway breeze blows Marilyn’s white dress in The Seven Year Itch (1955)
With one scene, Billy Wilder and Marilyn Monroe created an innocent image of sensuality that would become indelibly linked with her name, and also inadvertently contributed to the end of her marriage to Joe DiMaggio. As every married man’s dream, she combined sexiness and naïveté, moving effortlessly between reality and neighbor Tom Ewell’s fantasies. But she also brought a surprising depth and maturity to her “dumb blonde” role, helping Ewell realize how much he still loves and needs his family. Her performance proved she was more than just a pinup queen, while at the same time establishing that image forever when she stops over a subway grating in the midst of a hot New York summer to let the breeze from a passing train lift her skirts and cool her off. Wilder originally shot the scene on location at 52nd and Lexington, but the wolf calls and other crowd noises as Monroe flubbed her lines through 40 takes made that footage unusable. They also made DiMaggio, who had accompanied her on location, furious. Wilder had to redo the scene on the 20th Century Fox backlot, as Monroe continued to blow her lines. The extra takes were worth it, however, when the film, spurred by an ad campaign prominently featuring that particular scene, became a big hit with everybody except her husband. By the time they finished The Seven Year Itch, the Monroe-DiMaggio marriage was over.
Marilyn sings “That Old Black Magic” in Bus Stop (1956)
Fans saw a new Marilyn Monroe when she starred as Cherie, the movie-star wannabe kidnapped by an amorous cowboy in this adaptation of William Inge’s hit play. Determined to prove herself as a dramatic actress, she had taken a year off from the movies to study at the Actors Studio. She returned to Hollywood as head of her own production company and with a new studio contract. Then she broke from her glamorous image to create the right look for Cherie, wearing pasty white makeup to play a woman who never got outdoors, the tackiest clothes the costumer could find and a tousled hair style. She even insisted on playing a bedroom scene naked (under the sheets, of course). From the very beginning of the film, she branded this as a different kind of performance. When Cherie sings “That Old Black Magic” in a seedy Phoenix bar, the number is a far cry from Monroe’s more polished performances of “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend” and “Heat Wave” in earlier films. Cherie may insist that she’s a “chanteuse,” but her singing is irritatingly off-key, her staging is pure amateur and the costumes are tattered and threadbare. Where on-screen audiences in the past had responded with rapturous applause, the crowd at the Phoenix dive laughs derisively. It was a huge gamble, but it paid off with glowing reviews, strong box office and one of the most memorable moments in Monroe’s career.
Marilyn talks to Tony Curtis about always getting “the fuzzy end of the lollipop” in Some Like It Hot (1959)
If there’s a role most fans think should have brought the never-nominated Marilyn Monroe an Oscar®, it’s Sugar, the softhearted singer in this comedy classic. It’s not just that she’s funny, though her attempt to seduce a backwards millionaire (Tony Curtis in disguise) is one of the sexiest and funniest scenes ever filmed, and her reaction when he claims to be heir to Shell Oil is comic perfection. Rather, it’s the sensitive heart she gives the character. Instead of playing her big confessional (in which she complains about always getting “the fuzzy end of the lollipop”) for laughs, she captures a lifetime of heartache behind the sexy exterior. Originally director Billy Wilder had wanted Mitzi Gaynor as his female lead, but he needed a bigger marquee name than Curtis or Jack Lemmon, so he signed Monroe for 10 percent of the gross. Though her personal issues, particularly her problems remembering lines, are estimated to have cost the film as much as half a million, the results were so good that nobody watching could have noticed or would have cared. Her three musical numbers, which represent the full range of her talents, are a special treat. The raucous “Runnin’ Wild” carries her trademark wiggle to new heights. “I Wanna Be Loved by You” is about as sweet as her sexuality ever got. And the final “I’m Through with Love” provides the perfect moment of heart in the midst of the comic chaos, helping make this one of the screen’s greatest performances.
Marilyn gets into a fight with Clark Gable in the desert in The Misfits (1961)
In her last performance, Marilyn Monroe went fully dramatic. Working for the only time with a script written by then-husband Arthur Miller, she captures the soul of a woman who has no trouble attracting men but can never get them to look beyond her face and body. The Monroe sizzle is still there, particularly in a kinetic scene in which she plays Ping-Pong wearing a tight, white, polka-dotted dress. But it’s the raw passion of her performance that drives the film, whether rejecting the husband (Kevin McCarthy) she’s come to Reno to divorce, suddenly giving all her money to a religious fanatic, comforting a brain-damaged rodeo rider (Montgomery Clift) or, in one of her most searing dramatic scenes, telling off lover Clark Gable (also in his last film) for taking on a job capturing wild horses for a dog food company. Her work at that moment suggests the kinds of powerhouse dramatic performances she might have delivered had she lived longer, while also helping provide an emotional grounding for a film that never quite makes up its mind what it’s about. Monroe caused the usual delays on the set, but instead of carrying her problems to new levels when she shot her scene with the equally troubled Clift, the two bolstered each other, creating a simple, touching scene that’s among the film’s best. It’s matched by the final moment, as she and Gable drive off to “that big star straight on” – a poetic coda to two dazzling careers.
Source: Turner Classic Movies – November 1, 2011