Ana de Armas in 'Blonde'

Every Performer to Play Marilyn Monroe

Will Hollywood ever stop making movies about Marilyn Monroe? The blonde bombshell lives on in a parade of biopics--but most of them don't do her legacy justice.
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Ironically, there have been far more movies made about Monroe than she starred in during her all-too-short lifetime.

Marilyn Monroe needs no defending by an entertainment blogger, but I’ll still stand up for her skills as a performer anyway. As an icon, she’s been mythologized to the point of near deification—or literal deification in American Gods—but as both a dramatic actress and a comedian, she’s underrated.

Hollywood is still fascinated with the tragic story of Norma Jean Baker and Marilyn Monroe, and to this day, filmmakers continue to project their thoughts and feelings about her onto a succession of performers. Ana de Armas is just the most recent Marilyn to appear onscreen, and chances are good that she won’t be the last.

Honorable Mention: Jane Russell in ‘Gentlemen Prefer Blondes’ (1953)

In the excellent musical Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, Jane Russell’s character must impersonate her best friend on the witness stand in a Paris court. Russell gives it her all, emphasizing Marilyn’s breathy voice, before throwing off her fur coat and launching into a raunchy rendition of “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend.”

Dishonorable Mention: Kim Kardashian at the Met Gala (2021)

When Kim Kardashian decided to “borrow” one of Marilyn Monroe’s actual gowns to wear on the Met Gala red carpet, everyone had an opinion. From a historical preservation standpoint, the “Happy Birthday, Mister President” gown deserved better than to be trotted out for a publicity stunt. It is interesting to consider the parallels and differences between the two most famous sex symbols of their respective eras, but I still think Kim K should have worn a replica the entire time.

Poppy Montgomery in ‘Blonde’ (2001)

Did you know that Joyce Carol Oates’ fictional biography of Monroe had already been made into a movie 20 years ago? Poppy Montgomery stars as Marilyn in this underrated version of her story, which doesn’t indulge in the same level of horror as the Ana de Armas adaption—but more on that later.   

Theresa Russell in ‘Insignificance’ (1985)

Although Insignificance isn’t based on the novel Blonde, it uses the same trick of giving real-life figures vague names: Actress, Senator, The Ballplayer, etc. Nicolas Roeg’s film imagines a meeting between Monroe, Joe DiMaggio, Albert Einstein, and Senator Joseph McCarthy. If that sounds interesting to you, then you might enjoy this art-house, alt-history take on the Marilyn legend.

Michelle Williams in ‘My Week with Marilyn’ (2011)

Michelle Williams isn’t the best Marilyn mimic on this list, but she nonetheless turns in one of the best performances here. One reason this film works so well—aside from the stellar cast—is that it doesn’t try to tell her entire life story. Instead, it focuses on a specific moment in her life as she films The Prince and the Showgirl opposite Laurence Olivier. The story is based on Colin Clark’s accounts of his experiences with Marilyn, which heavily shaped the rest of his life.

Barbara Niven in ‘The Rat Pack’ (1998)

It’s okay if you’ve never heard of this movie, which attempted to tell the story of the most famous men (and a few women) of the 1950s. Don Cheadle acquits himself well as Sammy Davis Jr., but Barbara Niven’s turn as Marilyn is mostly forgettable.

Uma Thurman, Megan Hilty, and Katharine McPhee in ‘Smash’

Smash tells the story of a Broadway production about Marilyn Monroe, and several actresses have the chance to take on the lead role. The show itself was a little bit of a mess, and it did a massive disservice to Megan Hilty—a bona fide Broadway star—by having her overshadowed by American Idol star Katharine McPhee. Hilty is a lot of fun as a breathy, blousy Monroe, but it’s not the most compassionate depiction of her.

Misty Rowe in ‘Goodbye, Norma Jean’ (1976)

The 70s were the ugliest period in history. There, I said it. The production value of this 1976 made-for-TV movie is appalling, and Misty Rowe’s Marilyn impression is insultingly bad. The film hits the by-now family beats: an abused Norma Jean grew up poor but dreamed of stardom, but when she finally got it, she was too damaged to enjoy it.  

Madonna in Her “Material Girl” Phase

Like Marilyn Monroe, Madonna invented herself. She draws a straight line between the two of them in the video for “Material Girl,” which sees Madonna doing the “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend” routine from Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.

While the homage was charming in 1984, Madonna came under fire when she recreated the infamous photos of Monroe’s death scene for V Magazine last year.

Kelli Garner in ‘The Secret Life of Marilyn Monroe’ (2015)

The Secret Life of Marilyn Monroe features some impressive actors, including Susan Sarandon and Jeffrey Dean Morgan. The Lifetime miniseries stars Kelli Garner and she does good work, despite the overly familiar story and the sometimes-overwrought dialogue. Considering it aired on Lifetime, it’s impressive that The Secret Life of Marilyn Monroe ranks among the better biopics of the actress.

Catherine Hicks and Tracey Gold in ‘Marilyn: The Untold Story’ (1980)

You can tell just from this clip that Marilyn: The Untold Story isn’t going to bring anything new to the conversation about Monroe. The voiceover features Catherine Hicks singing “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend,” and it’s… fine. Catherine Hicks is better than she has any right to be, given the flimsy script, and actually earned an Emmy nomination. Growing Pains actress Tracey Gold played Marilyn as a little girl.

Mira Sorvino and Ashley Judd in ‘Norma Jean & Marilyn’ (1996)

Norma Jean & Marilyn explored the idea that these were two entirely different women, going so far as to cast two different actresses to play pre- and post-fame Monroe. Despite the somewhat sleazy trailer—it was the mid-90s—both Ashley Judd and Mira Sorvino turn in impressive performances. You’ll probably only want to seek out this HBO movie if you’re a Marilyn completist, though.

Susan Griffiths: Professional Marilyn Impersonator

During the 90s, if you wanted a Marilyn lookalike, there was one woman to call: Susan Griffiths. She got her chance to star in a biopic of the actress with Marilyn and Me, and it’s truly eerie how much Griffiths looks and sounds like Monroe. She played Marilyn on both TV and film, including appearances in Pulp Fiction, Curb Your Enthusiasm, and Quantum Leap. She last performed as Marilyn in 2010.

Ana de Armas in ‘Blonde’ (2022)

We’ve already written about Blonde, the scandalous Netflix movie based on Joyce Carol Oates’ novel. The film stars Ana de Armas in what is clearly supposed to be an Oscar contender. Given how divided audiences and critics have been, particularly in calling out the gratuitous violence against its leading lady, I’m not sure that Blonde is going to win any accolades. De Armas does look like Marilyn, and she’s a talented performer, but director Andrew Dominik seems to have no respect for the woman he spent ten years trying to make a film about.

Okay, But What If We Just Watched Her Movies?

Instead of constantly pouring over the often-lurid details of Marilyn Monroe’s life and death, wouldn’t it be great if we just appreciated the work she’d given us instead? While not every picture she made during her brief career was a winner, there’s a reason that contemporary audiences fell in love with her. If you’re curious, these are the best Marilyn Monroe movies:

  • The Seven Year Itch – This is the movie that features Monroe in the iconic white dress standing over a subway grate. Billy Wilder directed and co-wrote this film about a middle-aged man who falls for his upstairs neighbor while his wife and kids are out of town.
  • Some Like It Hot – Monroe stars alongside Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon in this Billy Wilder picture, which is infamous for its cross-dressing plot. Curtis and Lemmon play two jazz musicians who accidentally anger a local gangster. They go into hiding by dressing as women, but then both fall for the same woman, complicating matters even further.
  • Bus Stop – Based on a play by William Inge, Bus Stop is one of the few dramas in her filmography. Like many of her movies, Monroe plays a performer who dreams of becoming a star—a theme that would follow her through decades of biopics.
  • Gentlemen Prefer Blondes – If you haven’t already seen Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, stop what you’re doing and fix that. It’s a genuinely fun movie featuring a clever plot, excellent musical numbers, and gorgeous costumes.
  • Niagara Niagara is Monroe’s only film noir, and it’s a doozy. She stars opposite the great Joseph Cotten as an irresistible femme fatale. While most noir was filmed in black-and-white, Niagara stands out because of its Technicolor.
  • How to Marry a Millionaire – This delightful comedy stars Monroe, Betty Grable, and Lauren Bacall as three friends from New York who are determined to marry rich.