17 actresses who've played Marilyn Monroe
Although we just commemorated the 60th anniversary of her death, Marilyn Monroe seems as relevant now as she was in Hollywood's heyday. But beyond the recent drama of Kim K wearing Monroe's iconic nude gown from her "Happy Birthday, Mr. President" serenade to the 2022 Met Gala, the latest bombshell is our review for Netflix's original film "Blonde." The new (semi) biopic — based on the novel by Joyce Carol Oates — stars none other than Ana de Armas, who though a natural brunette, is a near-spitting image of the starlet in a classic platinum updo.
But de Armas was far from the first actress bold enough to channel Marilyn on screen. Dozens of stars have sported their best red-lipped smile and white dress spin over the decades, including Michelle Williams, Uma Thurman, and even Blake Lively (if you count Gossip Girl's costumed dream sequence in its 100th episode, though we don't). Here's our list of the most notable portrayals of Marilyn Monroe, who EW calls "the most scrutinized, romanticized, and mythologized of all movie stars."
1. Misty Rowe, Goodbye, Norma Jean (1976)
Misty Rowe is far from the first name to surface when recalling actresses who've played Marilyn Monroe, but she was, well, one of the first. She may be better remembered for her 19-year stint on the country variety show Hee Haw, but Misty managed to sneak 1976's Goodbye, Norma Jean into her resume.
In the film, she stars as Norma Jean Baker, aka a soon-to-be Marilyn Monroe, as she rises to stardom. Rowe would later reprise the role in 1989's Goodnight, Sweet Marilyn. Little is notable about either film, her performances included, as EW's Taylor Weatherby writes, "[It's] a bit of a stretch, but a decent attempt considering she was one of the first portrayals of the icon."
2. Catherine Hicks, Marilyn: The Untold Story (1980)
Catherine Hicks (of Child's Play fame) was the focal point of Marilyn: The Untold Story, one of the better-received films about the icon's life by its release in 1980, even if it was a TV movie. Critics generally praised her portrayal as she traced Marilyn's tumultuous upbringing and even rockier marriages to the likes of baseball superstar Joe DiMaggio and esteemed playwright Arthur Miller. Given the wealth of Monroe biopics we sit on today, this flick isn't anything to write home about, though it is still a part of the greater canon.
3. Theresa Russell, Insignificance (1985)
The Actress, The Senator, The Ballplayer, and The Professor walk into a hotel room. No, this isn't exposition for a dirty joke, but rather the imaginative concept behind Insignificance, an alternative history take by Nicolas Roeg (Don't Look Now, The Man Who Fell to Earth).
The film follows the four famous (though nameless) characters — representing Marilyn Monroe, Joseph McCarthy, Joe DiMaggio, and Albert Einstein, respectively — as they contemplate the errors of the human race and the future of mankind. We can say with confidence that Theresa Russell is the only actress who saw Marilyn demonstrating the Theory of Relativity with balloons, and she did it with gusto, too.
4. Paula Lane, Goodnight, Sweet Marilyn (1989)
A follow-up film to our previously mentioned Goodnight, Norma Jean, 1989's Goodnight, Sweet Marilyn continues to cover the starlet's rise to fame, this time with Paula Lane as the actualized Marilyn Monroe. The twist: this sequel takes the form of a retrospective murder plot told by Marilyn's killer (Jeremy Slate) between flashbacks to the previous film. Yes, it's as lazy as it sounds, and just like the first, not worth a watch.
5. Susan Griffiths, Marilyn and Me (1991)
Susan Griffiths may not be the biggest name to play Marilyn, but she's certainly done it the most. As EW's Taylor Weatherby explains "Griffiths is Monroe's biggest doppelganger out there, because she has 12 Marilyn credits to her name — including a couple where she even played a Marilyn Monroe look-alike rather than the actual actress."
A 1990 guest appearance on Growing Pains was her first crack at the role, but it was the 1991 TV movie Marilyn and Me that cemented her typecast fate. Most notable among her bills is Pulp Fiction, though she's also reprised the role in episodes of Quantum Leap, Dark Skies, and even Curb Your Enthusiasm.
6. Melody Anderson, Marilyn & Bobby: Her Final Affair (1993)
Another TV movie contender, 1993's Marilyn & Bobby: Her Final Affair has all the muted melodrama expected of both the film's title and its medium. It imagines a relationship between Marilyn Monroe (played here by Melody Anderson) and Robert F. Kennedy, brother to President John F. Kennedy, whom Monroe is also suspected of seducing. "Enough has been written about the pair's alleged affair that the liaison has taken on an air of popular truth," writes EW's Ken Tucker, though he goes on to describe the work as "a potboiler thriller with faded but familiar stars and a smidgen of sex" while "Anderson plays the actress sympathetically, as a fragile ditz."
7. Mira Sorvino, Norma Jean & Marilyn (1996)
After winning an Oscar and Golden Globe for her work in Woody Allen's Mighty Aphrodite the previous year, Mira Sorvino followed this success with an HBO original movie about the becoming of Marilyn Monroe. Here, Sorvino's Marilyn navigates dreamlike sequences opposite herself before her stardom, being an often antagonistic Norma Jean (Ashley Judd).
Though EW critic Lisa Schwarbaum's first reaction to this premise was "Uh-oh, not another poor-dead-Marilyn-alive-in-flashback story," the "inspired casting alchemy" spurred a change of heart. "Norma Jean & Marilyn not only avoids the pitfalls of hagiography but actually comes up with a ballsy approach to reanimating an overtold bio."
8. Ashley Judd, Norma Jean & Marilyn (1996)
Though Norma is nowhere as infamous as her final form, the film's tag insists her importance: "Marilyn Monroe was our fantasy. Norma Jean was her reality." Where Sorviono's Marilyn soars, Ashley Judd as a dormant Norma keeps her feet on the ground, but not without a grudge. The two co-existing, challenging each other on screen, fosters an imaginative tension unlike any Monroe movie before it.
According to EW's Lisa Schwarbaum, "That we never lose emotional connection with the two faces of Marilyn — and that pretension or camp never gunks up the portrait — is, ultimately, to the great credit of Judd and Sorvino."
9. Barbara Niven, The Rat Pack (1998)
With the late Ray Liotta as Frank Sinatra, Joe Mantegna as Dean Martin, and Don Cheadle as Sammy Davis Jr., The Rat Pack was front-loaded with stars for a proper historical crime drama. But beneath all that star power was Barbara Niven playing perhaps the biggest celebrity of the 20th century, though beyond Sinatra introducing her to JFK, we don't see much of her.
After she was Marilyn Monroe, Niven saw a long career making Lifetime and Hallmark films. This commitment to made-for-TV movies feels like a wink to Marilyn's persona, given the medium's affinity for broadcasting fictionalized accounts of her life to daytime audiences.
10. Poppy Montgomery, Blonde (2001)
Based on the novel by Joyce Carol Oates, which was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award, this made-for-TV movie version of Blonde is among the more sympathetic portrayals of Marilyn Monroe as she struggles with the ricochet of her projected image and the true nature of her inner self.
The film stars Poppy Montgomery as a more introspective Marilyn, one with depth and decay, though we never quite see the bottom. Montgomery felt destined for the role, recalling to EW, "When I told my mother I got the part of Marilyn Monroe, she didn't even bat an eyelash… She said, 'Well, you've been rehearsing for it your whole life." Though despite her tender dedication, her performance lacks a certain illustriousness in hindsight. That's not to say she dropped the ball, rather, she gives one of the better performances on this list. But if you're going to tap into Marilyn's authentic (though still speculated) psyche, you have to dive in head first, not wade in the shallow end.
11. Charlotte Sullivan, The Kennedys (2011)
This list would be incomplete without mentioning at least one actress' rendition of Marilyn's infamous "Happy Birthday, Mr. President" serenade. We don't highlight Charlotte Sullivan's song for being particularly convincing or impactful, but rather because she doesn't do much else besides make eyes at JFK and RFK. Granted, she only appeared in one episode of The Kennedys, and they didn't make good use of her. The miniseries' quality overall was lukewarm at best, and her role was no exception, though that's mostly the fault of the writing. Still, she's cemented in Marilyn's pop culture canon, for better or worse.
12. Michelle Williams, My Week with Marilyn (2011)
If there was ever a quintessential Marilyn performance, it's Michelle Williams' haunted portrayal of a woman with little more to give, though it's slightly exhausting that her spark comes back with the advent of a new suitor (Eddie Redmayne). The supposedly true love story between the production assistant and the alienated star — "What must it be like being the most famous woman, alone?" — shows a side of Marilyn that's desperate to connect. But Williams conveys this human need in such a singular way that it's hard to imagine Marilyn as anyone else.
Still, she's not a spitting image, but Williams does a spectacular job capturing her essence, as the film's makeup and hair designer Jenny Shircore tells EW "We weren't doing a look-alike thing… The film is about the person behind the image. So we're showing you the person without all the glitz and polish." This departure from glamor, along with an intimate understanding of her character, no doubt led to Williams' Golden Globe win and Oscar nomination for the role.
13, 14, 15. Uma Thurman, Katharine McPhee, Megan Hilty, Smash (2012)
The Darwinistic brutalism of showbiz is center stage in Smash, a two-season show-within-a-show following a fictional theater trope as they produce a Broadway musical about Marilyn Monroe. Of course, there's a handful of actresses desperate to play the part, ours being Uma Thurman, Katharine McPhee, and Megan Hilty.
Though each actress plays, well, an actress, their characters must be the best "Bombshell" if they want to make it in this industry. But beyond being a showbiz drama, EW's Ken Tucker notes "... the constant psychoanalyzing of Monroe by everyone from the songwriters to McPhee's boyfriend ('Marilyn wasn't about the sex, she was all about love') is trite."
14. Kelli Garner, The Secret Life of Marilyn Monroe (2015)
By 2015, it's hard to believe there was any demand for yet another TV movie about the hardships Marilyn endured throughout her life, but Lifetime went ahead and added to the pile anyway. This latest installment, The Secret Life of Marilyn, stars Kelli Garner as a retrospective starlet unpacking her traumas with a psychiatrist for our entertainment. Though as EW critic Melissa Maerz points out, not much feels new, writing, "Does Marilyn Monroe even have any secrets anymore?" Still, Marez considers Garner a high point of the program, adding, "She makes this fantasy woman seem like a human being. Her role is a tricky one, and not just because it requires something more than a simple celebrity imitation. Essentially, it's a performance within a performance." Beyond that metatextuality, bringing some humanity to her character is a necessary act only a few actresses managed while playing Monroe, making Garner one of the coveted few, even if the film wasn't up to par.
Ana de Armas, Blonde (2022)
Ana de Armas made the most recent play for the crown of Marilyn portrayals, but given the film's unabashed exploitation of its source material, neither she (nor Norma) stood a chance. The No Time to Die and Knives Out actress stars in Blonde, director Andrew Dominik's NC-17 adaptation of Oates' speculative fiction novel which debuted on Netflix in Sept. 2022. Aesthetically, EW's Leah Greenblatt writes that de Armas' resemblance to the doomed starlet is "stunning." But she adds that her Cuban accent, even in its reduced form, is "distracting." Which is unfortunate, because de Armas worked hard to prepare for the role. "It was the most intense work I've ever done as an actress," de Armas tells EW. "It took me a year to prepare for that — research and accent and everything you can imagine."
But ultimately, de Armas' performance is undercut by the movie's execution, which sucks the complexity out of its protagonist and reduces her to a "walking wound…a doomed butterfly bent again and again on the wheel of fame and our own insatiable voyeurism."