We Should Talk More About What a Brilliant Actor Marilyn Monroe Was

12 minute read

Even though we’ve had 60 years to figure out how we feel about Marilyn Monroe, no one really knows what to do with her. And so she has become our doll, a naked form to dress as we please: We know all about the sadness of her life, to the extent that her name has become a synonym for emotional fragility, a vessel we can fill with our own fears about loneliness and self-doubt. Her death in 1962 is still a magnet for conspiracy enthusiasts, particularly given her involvement at the time—or even just mere friendship, if that’s what you want to believe—with John F. Kennedy, and his brother Robert as well. Very recently a woman who’s famous mostly for being famous, however that works, insisted on wearing one of Marilyn’s dresses, among the most precious and recognizable in the world, to a glamorous, high-profile party, reportedly straining its fragile fabric irreparably. The outcry was immediate and widespread—a dress isn’t just a dress when it was worn by Marilyn. We love Marilyn so much—as a face, as a symbol, as a bottomless well that will take as much pity as we can pour into it—that collectively we seem to have lost sight of one of the central truths of her being: she was a phenomenally intelligent and gifted actor, a woman whose natural charm and devotion to her craft resulted in work so delightful, and sometimes so emotionally raw, that it’s worthy of any modern actor’s envy.

That Marilyn—the brilliant, perceptive if often difficult performer—is almost nowhere to be seen in Andrew Dominik’s willfully clueless Freudian fantasy Blonde, adapted from Joyce Carol Oates’ 1999 zillion-page novel and starring Ana de Armas in an earnest performance that’s doomed both by the material and the filmmaker’s approach. Because Oates’ Blonde is a work of fiction, its author can extricate herself from all sorts of responsibility, and Dominik, too, takes that ball and runs with it. As we’re invited to look on in horror, composite characters—sinister studio heads, hedonistic young scions of Hollywood royalty—do all sorts of terrible things to our poor, pitiful heroine, who, before she was known to the world as Marilyn, was just a deeply insecure forever-orphan girl named Norma Jeane.

Read more: How Marilyn Monroe Got Her Name

We know that, in real life, men used and sometimes abused Marilyn, taking advantage of her vulnerabilities; we also know that she never knew her real father, and that caused her great suffering. But Dominik is so obsessed with Marilyn’s status as a victim that he barely sees a person there. Entitled Hollywood execs ogle her, and worse; first one husband, and then another, fails to understand her; the children she so desperately wants are snatched away from her very womb. The sins against her are so numerous, and presented so salaciously, that their prurience becomes the motor that drives the film. Scene after scene, Dominik shoots de Armas’ eyes as if they were a pair of hungry mouths; she’s a machine programmed only to suffer. This is exploitation cloaked as sympathy.

Blonde is a joyless movie about joylessness rather than a film about Marilyn Monroe. And while both Dominik and Oates would probably claim that that’s by design—again, this is a work of fiction, not a straightforward biography—Blonde allows no room for the real-life Marilyn’s multidimensionality, her capacity for delight as well as her deep depressions. Actors are always more than the sum of their parts, and Marilyn Monroe especially, as both a performer and a persona, is too complex to be reduced to parts in the first place. Her performances are a major component of her story, and the one that’s most often neglected.

What does it take to give a comic performance as subtly textured as the one Marilyn gives in Billy Wilder’s 1959 Some Like It Hot? As Sugar Kane Kowalczyk, the lead singer of an all-girl band infiltrated by two male musicians in drag, Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis, Marilyn at times seems to be riffing on her own vulnerabilities, only to edge away from them nimbly—there’s always something in her that’s pushing toward joy. The movie is set in the prohibition years, but Sugar likes to have liquor nearby at all times—she keeps a small flask tucked in her garter, and laments that while she’s not the only girl in the band who drinks, she’s the only one who ever gets caught. “Story of my life!” she says, her face brightening, alight at the idea of being the butt of the joke, before her features settle into a subtle tragicomic frown: “I always get the fuzzy end of the lollipop.”

It’s those fine-grained tonal shifts that make Marilyn’s performances so compelling, and so enchanting. In the 1950s, once Hollywood had figured out the secret to her bankability, she played so many sex-symbol roles that it’s tempting to lump them together: in addition to Sugar Kane, there’s the sweet upstairs-neighbor temptress in The Seven-Year Itch (1955) and two back-to-back gold-diggers, in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and How to Marry a Millionaire (both from 1953). But even if Marilyn herself longed to play roles that would challenge her in different ways, she made each of these performances distinctive; there’s nothing rote or perfunctory about any of them, largely thanks to the pin-dot precision of her comic timing. As Pola Debevoise, one of the three city girls on the hunt for rich husbands in How to Marry a Millionaire (Betty Grable and Lauren Bacall are her partners in crime), Marilyn is a fluttery naif in cat’s eye glasses—Pola can’t see a thing without them, though she ditches them whenever there’s a man around, bumbling her way through doors and into tables. When the three meet a charming older cattle baron from Texas (William Powell), he struggles through their interruptions to explain his exact line of work. “You know, like, cows,” Pola adds helpfully, articulating each consonant as if it were a pearl of great price, in that gloriously sly Marilyn way. A line of dialogue that would be a big nothing on the page becomes a casual, tossed-off jewel.

Marilyn knew her power over men, and she worked it on-screen, though never in a way that was cheap or calculating. Perhaps that’s why women love her as much as men do—she glowed with a spectacular and special feminine magic that has always felt generous rather than competitive. In fact, it’s probably men more than women who have perpetuated the idea of Marilyn was “a man’s woman,” the sort of figure who wouldn’t be likely to have many women friends, or who might alienate or intimidate others of her sex. Gloria Steinem wrote a sympathetic biography of the star in 1986, and recalled her own brief time spent at the Actors’ Studio, in New York, in 1953, where she’d see fellow student Marilyn, sitting by herself in slacks and a shapeless sweater: “Confident New York actors seemed to take pleasure in ignoring this great, powerful, unconfident movie star who had dared to come to learn.”

Read more: The Story Behind the Only Known Photo of Marilyn Monroe and John F. Kennedy Together

Everyone who has tried to learn about Marilyn—to understand her painful and lonely childhood, to come to terms with the depression and desperation that dogged her, to reckon with the fiery intelligence that so many people around her, particularly men, preferred not to recognize—comes away with a sense of her deep fragility. But is it possible that, without ever acknowledging as much, we stress Marilyn’s fragility almost as a way of making her sexuality, and her own sexual appetites, more manageable? As if to assuage some shame we might feel about her sexuality and desirability? Marilyn fought her own shame all her life, but one fact that Blonde fails to stress—it would muddy the film’s victimization narrative too much—is that Marilyn didn’t fall into bed with just anybody and, though tragically insecure, she knew when she was being used, and railed against it. Those of us who love Marilyn yearn to protect her, even beyond the grave. But protection is one thing; infantilization, as a way of feeding our own fantasies or preconceptions, is another.

If not for Marilyn, wounded manhood would be the chief focus of Bus Stop (1956), directed by Joshua Logan and adapted from William Inge’s play. Don Murray plays Bo, a strapping, uncouth Montana cowboy who kidnaps Marilyn’s Chérie, the chanteuse he decides he wants as a wife, whether she wants to marry him or not. The movie’s sexual politics go beyond being retrograde or dated, the sort of thing we generally make allowances for when watching older movies; they’re genuinely distasteful. (At one point, Bo literally lassos his intended bride as if she were a stray calf.) But Marilyn knew she could really do something with this role, and her performance is a thing of wonder. Her consternation at the idea that this cowboy could even try to take possession of her ends up subverting the whole movie, making its clumsy, male-wish-fulfillment-fantasy ending feel patched-on and wrong. Chérie is a girl born in the Ozarks, making her way across the country saloon by two-bit saloon until she can reach Hollywood where, she’s certain, stardom awaits. Marilyn was made to play dreamy women like these, whose not-always-realistic yearnings echoed those she’d clung to all her life. But Chérie’s faith in her dream doesn’t make her a pushover. When cowboy Bo comes near her, Chérie doesn’t pout or flirt; her eyes widen and her brows arch slightly, as if she smells something truly rotten, like an egg left to stink in someone’s pocket. Marilyn plays Chérie’s defiance half seriously and half for laughs, but always—until the movie pulls the rug out from beneath her, as it inevitably must—as an acknowledgment of the character’s self-worth. Plus, her lunar beauty gives her an unfair advantage over every other performer in the film, even the exceedingly pretty Hope Lange. Bus Stop belongs to Marilyn. Even if she wasn’t fully aware of her power at the time, it was formidable.

It’s true that Marilyn yearned to break out of the mold in which Hollywood had locked her in the early 1950s. In 1955, frustrated with her treatment at the studio that held her contract, 20th Century Fox, she broke away and started her own production company—a short-lived enterprise, but one that proves her gumption even so. It was also around this time that she studied at the Actors’ Studio; she longed to be taken seriously in a world that seemed to willfully refute her intelligence—who wanted a smart Marilyn Monroe? But evidence of Marilyn’s seriousness had been there practically all along: Her first major performance, as unhinged babysitter Nell Forbes in Roy Ward Baker’s shivery psycho-noir Don’t Bother to Knock (1952), is so piercing that it’s likely to haunt your sleep. There’s little that’s warm or approachable about this Marilyn: as Nell, she’s detached and vacant, almost a murderess in training. (A year later, Marilyn would play a full-fledged murderous schemer in Henry Hathaway’s Niagara, another superb, chilly performance.) Nell has been shattered by a lost love; she’s just coming back into the world after a breakdown, but her re-entry has happened too soon. As she tucks her little charge into bed, she makes an ominous pronouncement: “The sandman will come and pour sand all over your eyes.” The words tumble out like stones, hard and dry, but they also seem to be coming from someplace far away, miles outside this troubled young character’s body.

Almost no one ever talks about Don’t Bother to Knock, and it’s easy to see why. This isn’t the dazzling, flirty Marilyn of Some Like It Hot, or the cooing, faux-innocent comedienne of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. Nell is a woman who has become a prisoner of her dream world, and the effect is unsettling. The performance is just a hint of all that Marilyn might have become if she’d lived longer, if she’d been able to stretch her wings wide. As it was, she was a person we hardly got to know. Her lore outlives her, to be mined for good and ill by all manner of writers, filmmakers and performers. But only one woman could fill the dress, and that remains unchanged.

More Must-Reads From TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com