The Good, the Bad, and the Meh
(Because Marilyn can never be “Ugly”.)
Even a raving fan, if they’re honest, will tell you Marilyn Monroe cinema is like dancing across a landmine. Unlike other Hollywood icons, such as Alfred Hitchcock or Humphrey Bogart, it’s just not wise to go to the library and pick up a random title from her catalog. The quality is all over the place. Some films, frankly–and I say this as a fan–are so awful that they may put you off to ever trying another. You can’t even count on the film’s reputation! (more on that as we go)
And so, with TCM preparing to air every major Marilyn film this Saturday, August 4, on the 50th anniversary of her death, I offer my expertise on where to begin, what to avoid, and what won’t scar you but won’t impress you, either. My opinion on some of these films differ from “popular consensus” and I’ll also tell you where that’s the case.
Arguably the very best. Marilyn shines when she has strong support and you can’t get much stronger than a Billy Wilder-written and directed film co-starring Jack Lemon and Tony Curtis. Jack and Tony are two musicians on the run from mobsters when they get a chance to join a traveling band to Florida–an all-girl band! So they man-up and channel their inner drag queen to blend in as “Geraldine” and “Daphne”, and, as they are “executive transvestites” and still dig girls, they’re attracted to and rival for the band’s lead singer, Marilyn.
Accolades and popular consensus: A smash hit when it first came out, the film is recognized on two AFI’s top 100 lists, including the #1 spot on their Top Comedies list.
“Known For” Marilyn Moments: Showcasing “I Wanna Be Loved by You”.
It’s no accident that Marilyn’s best comedic moments occur in Billy Wilder-directed films. Seven made Marilyn a superstar, with a lot of help from Tom Ewell as a stressed out husband and Dad who remains in Manhattan to work while the family escapes the heat of the summer (before A/C was common). He’s determined to stay focused until he gets his first look at the blonde who just moved in to the apartment upstairs.
How I see it: It’s still hysterical, even if the “edgy controversy” of its subject matter–a family man contemplating infidelity! Played for laughs! Heavens!–plays quaint today. The first ten minutes of this one are fairly insufferable–the credit sequence is meant for a VistaVision big screen and is illegible on video. And the twinky music! It takes several minutes of before the movie finds its stride, but it’s worth it.
Accolades and popular consensus: Another hit out of the box, a triumph for director Billy Wilder in his long list of triumphs.
“Known For” Marilyn Moments: The famous blowing skirt scene comes from this film, though compared to the publicity photos, the filmed version is fairly subdued.
Starring Marilyn Monroe, Clark Gable, and Montgomery Clift, written by Arthur Miller and directed by John Huston. (Eli Wallach and Thelma Ritter kick ass in this, too). The Misfits is a drama scripted by famed playwright and then-husband, who wrote it for Marilyn to executive-produce. (No, Quantum Leap, she didn’t frickin’ audition for the frickin’ part, you frickin’ morons–ahem, sorry, derailed by a sidetrack). The script plays to her strengths. What I’m going to say next is strictly my opinion, but I’m sticking to it–by having the character tipsy or hung over most of the film, Miller turns Marilyn’s problematic condition onset into an advantage. So give it up for the brilliant writer. (Yes, I went there).
Marilyn, a recent divorcee looking to escape from the city, hooks up with cowboy Clark Gable out in the country to learn all about the “the easy life.” Of course, she learns that getting away from it all is anything but. The more she tries to acclimate, the more she clashes with those around her.
The film builds to an extended sequence in which the cowboys take Marilyn on a Mustang wrangling trip–those sensitive to images of animal mistreatment be warned. As Marilyn runs around begging the cowboys to stop what they’re doing, the movie pulls no punches in showing a family of horses being taken down one at a time. [Spoiler--It all works out for the horses in the end]
Accolades and popular consensus: In spite of the mega-stardom behind and in front of the camera, the movie bombed on initial release. Gable had a massive heart attack shortly after the production wrapped, and The Misfits could not shake the stigma of being “the film that killed Rhett Butler.” In recent years, the film has been revisited and is receiving the proper credit it deserves.
“Known For” Marilyn Moments: Though she lived to see the film open, The Misfits proved to be Marilyn’s final film as well as Gable’s. She has several great moments in this film, my favorite being the screaming fit breakdown toward the end of the film.