Today (June 1) would have been the 90th birthday of one Norma Jean Mortenson, or as she’s better known, Marilyn Monroe. As well as one of the most celebrated icons of our time, she is also one of the most ubiquitous: appearing numerous times on film, in writing, and in photos, not to mention painted on silkscreen, as in Andy Warhol‘s famous 1962 artwork Marilyn Diptych.
As a result her portrayal often descends into parody, so that she is nothing but a breathy, blonde bombshell, or a little girl lost, depending on the writer or director.
Some portrayals, however, have caught our imaginations by showing her a little more fully than others. Here are the 10 most iconic performances of Marilyn, showing the ultimate Hollywood star in all her sad glory.
10. Marilyn and Me (1991)
Susan Griffiths is probably the most well-known Marilyn Monroe impersonator there is. She’s played her doppelganger in Curb Your Enthusiasm, Quantum Leap, and Timecop, not to mention a Monroe impersonator in Pulp Fiction and Nip/Tuck, but in 1991 she finally got to play Marilyn in her own feature.
Made-for-TV movie Marilyn and Me focused on her relationship with Robert Slatzer, a longtime confidant who claims to have been secretly married Marilyn for three days during a trip to Mexico, only to fall foul of Hollywood moguls determined to destroy their relationship.
9. Marilyn: The Untold Story (1980)
Decades before her best known role as the mom on 7th Heaven, Catherine Hicks actually made a pretty convincing bombshell in this biopic movie. So convincing, in fact, it earned her an Emmy nod.
She may not look much like Marilyn, but her charismatic and expressive face was compelling nonetheless.
8. “Material Girl” by Madonna (1985)
Madonna had something more in mind than straight-up impersonation when she re-created Marilyn’s “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend” number from Gentlemen Prefer Blondes for this video: She wanted to commandeer the iconic actress’ look and attitude for her own purposes as a sex symbol.
It’s a look she returned to frequently throughout her career. Meanwhile, anyone still unconvinced by Madge’s acting ability (how could you?) should watch the following 1985 SNL skit about the Kennedys.
7. The Secret Life of Marilyn Monroe (2015)
Last year saw another TV mini-series debut, this time focusing on Marilyn’s relationship with her mentally ill mother, played by Susan Sarandon.
Kelli Garner (Horns) plays Marilyn, who quickly reverts back to being plain ol’ Norma Jean in the presence of her cruel and domineering mother.
6. After the Fall by Arthur Miller (1964)
One of the earliest fictional portrayals of Marilyn was written by a man who should know: her ex-husband, the playwright Arthur Miller. His play After the Fall is a thinly veiled dramatization of their marriage, and one that depicts Marilyn as a troubled, demanding and self-destructive woman called Maggie whom the protagonist Quentin is forced to abandon for her own good.
Written in the year following Marilyn’s death, it was criticized by many as poor taste, and remains one of Miller’s least popular plays. The image of Marilyn stuck, though the hurt and betrayal she accuses Quentin of echoes throughout the play.
5. Norma Jean & Marilyn (1996)
While many films have sought to show the many sides of Marilyn, from the emotionally damaged daughter of a mentally ill mother to the ambitious performer who knew when to vamp it up, few have employed two separate actresses.
In this TV movie, Ashley Judd took the role of Norma Jean, while Mira Sorvino played her alter-ego Marilyn Monroe, and in doing so illustrated the marked differences between her public and private personas.
While no one would claim either Ashley or Mira look much like Marilyn, they both earned Golden Globe nominations for their efforts.
4. “Candle in the Wind” by Elton John (1973)
Before it was revamped to apply to Princess Diana, this song was written with Marilyn in mind, or “Norma Jean”, as Elton refers to her here.
Released in the same year as Norman Mailer‘s notorious photo-biography Marilyn, which added a new note of intrigue to her story in its largely unsubstantiated claim that she had been murdered by the CIA, the song sought instead to portray Marilyn sympathetically, from the point of view of the “young man in the 22nd row, / Who sees you as something as more than sexual / More than just our Marilyn Monroe.”
Bernie Taupin, who wrote the lyrics, said it was about “the idea of fame or youth or somebody being cut short in the prime of their life. The song could have been about James Dean, it could have been about Montgomery Clift, it could have been about Jim Morrison… how we glamorize death, how we immortalize people.”
3. The Kennedys (2011)
Charlotte Sullivan performed as Marilyn alongside Katie Holmes‘ Jacqueline Kennedy in this $30 million drama mini-series, which delved into the background and hidden stories of America’s most legendary political family.
Sullivan’s Marilyn was a lot more aggressively seductive than the breathy blonde we’re used to seeing in biopics, perhaps due to the alleged threat she posed to Jack and Bobby Kennedy. Whatever the reason, it’s refreshing.
2. Blonde by Joyce Carol Oates (2000)
Author Joyce Carol Oates is keen to stress her novel is a fictional account, insisting it should not be considered a biography. That said, its imaginative retelling of Marilyn’s life led to it becoming a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and a TV mini-series starring Poppy Montgomery the following year.
An upcoming feature-length version is reportedly in the works, with first Naomi Watts and now Jessica Chastain linked to the lead role.
1. My Week with Marilyn (2011)
Told from the perspective of Colin Clarke (Eddie Redmayne), a real-life person who worked on the set of The Prince and the Showgirl, it’s Michelle Williams‘ performance as Marilyn that steals the show.
Ten minutes in, you might even forget what the real Marilyn actually looked like, and that’s not down to Williams acting and looking like her, but because she turns her into a living, breathing character, who, despite her frustrating behavior, is still capable of making everyone around her fall madly in love with her.