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Happy Birthday, Miss Marilyn
Norma Jeane Mortenson was born 90 years ago Wednesday, on June 1, 1926. She died just two months after her 36th birthday, on Aug. 5, 1962, but over three-and-a-half short decades, she became Marilyn Monroe — a sex symbol, fashion icon, and Hollywood legend whose fame has only continued to grow in the 50-plus years since her passing. In honor of what would have been her 90th birthday, here are seven essential Marilyn performances.
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Along with the comedies Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and How to Marry a Millionaire, Henry Hathaway’s noir Niagara was one-third of the 1953 trifecta of movies that launched Marilyn to superstardom. While the other two films introduced Marilyn’s famous persona, Niagara — her first with top billing — cemented her status as a sex symbol. (It was a publicity photograph taken of Marilyn for Niagara that Andy Warhol used as the basis for his famous series of portraits.) It’s a fairly trivial thriller, and certainly not her best film, but it was the beginning of Marilyn mania — and understandably.
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Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953)
Conventionally speaking, Jane Russell’s character is the true protagonist of Howard Hawks’ Gentlemen Prefer Blondes; Marilyn plays her friend. When informed that she was not the star of the musical comedy, the bombshell famously replied, “Well whatever I am, I’m still the blonde.” The blonde is Lorelei Lee, a gold-digging showgirl who sails to Paris with her fellow performer and best friend (Russell), wearing breathtaking Travilla dresses and performing cheeky musical numbers (including Marilyn’s iconic rendition of “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend,” pictured above) all the way across the Atlantic. Marilyn’s true intelligence is evident as she plays so slyly and knowingly into Hawks’ brilliant subversion of sexist tropes; both the movie and the “dumb blonde” at its center are much smarter than they look.
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The Seven Year Itch (1955)
Billy Wilder’s The Seven Year Itch produced one of the most iconic and enduring images in cinematic history (and effectively ended Monroe’s marriage to Joe DiMaggio): Standing on a grate over the metro, Marilyn’s character, simply called “The Girl,” laughs as she struggles to hold down the skirt of her flowing white dress against the gust of wind coming from beneath. “Do you feel the breeze from the subway? Isn’t it delicious?”
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Some Like It Hot (1959)
Some Like It Hot is not only one of the best movies Marilyn Monroe ever made, it’s also one of the best comedies of all time, full stop. She was famously impossible to work with on the set of the Billy Wilder film, sometimes requiring dozens of takes to deliver one simple line, but it was worth the trouble: She won a Golden Globe for her performance in 1960, and the film is an undisputed classic.
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The Misfits (1961)
John Huston’s drama The Misfits would be the last film that Marilyn — or her co-star Clark Gable — ever made. Production was notoriously difficult, as Huston’s gambling was out of control, Monroe’s dependence on medication worsened, and her marriage to Arthur Miller, who wrote the screenplay, fell apart. The Misfits is about three lost souls who meet in the Nevada desert: Marilyn plays Roslyn, a beautiful but fragile divorcée; Clark Gable is the aging cowboy who falls for her, despite his independent lifestyle; and Montgomery Clift plays his friend with a destructive rodeo-riding habit. Miller’s constant rewrites tailored the script to the actors, and Monroe, Gable, and Clift all delivered some of the best performances of their careers.
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“Happy Birthday, Mr. President” (1962)
Monroe sang “Happy Birthday” at President John F. Kennedy’s birthday celebration at Madison Square Garden in May 1962 — just a few months before her death that August — amid rumors that she and the president were having an affair. After being introduced by Peter Lawford, Marilyn took to the podium and removed a white fur jacket to reveal a sparkly nude sheath dress by designer Jean Louis, so skintight she had to be sewn into it before the performance. Then she wished JFK a happy 45th in the birthday serenade heard ‘round the world. Following Marilyn’s breathy, sensual rendition, the President walked onstage. “I can now retire from politics after having had ‘Happy Birthday’ sung to me in such a sweet, wholesome way," he said.
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Norma Jeane’s greatest performance of all, which continues to enchant, confound, and fascinate to this day, is the one that truly makes her one of the greatest movie stars of all time: being Marilyn Monroe. Marilyn’s glittering image has become a touchstone of our cultural iconography, endlessly invoked, imitated, and reproduced. It’s easy to conflate the actress herself with the hypersexual dumb blonde she was so famous for playing — and people do. But nothing endures the way she has without some special brilliance behind it, and the magic of Marilyn’s persona is that it was both knowingly fabricated and completely, heartbreakingly sincere. It was the role she was born to play.