Will the Best Marilyn Monroe Please Stand Up?
As the hot new biopic Blonde hits screens this month, we offer the ultimate list of every Norma Jean portrayal from movies and TV
Courtesy Everett Collection; Netflix; Laurence Cendrowicz/The Weinstein Company/Courtesy Everett Collection
The Marilyn Monroe biopic Blonde is in limited American theaters and streams on Netflix starting Sept. 28. Based on the Pulitzer Prize finalist novel by Joyce Carol Oates, the film stars Cuba’s Ana de Armas as the legendary Hollywood bombshell.
Biopics sometimes have a reputation for being cookie-cutter, but this one is purported to be a rather controversial, even experimental, retelling of the actress’s life: The movie received a rare NC-17 rating, and director Andrew Dominik said the script contains “very little dialogue” and should be thought of more as an “avalanche of images and events.” De Armas is far from the first actress to don Monroe’s signature platinum curls for a role, so we’ve compiled a watch list of other screen Marilyns to see if the Knives Out star is more bomb or bombshell.
The Marilyn: Theresa Russell
The premise: The Man Who Fell to Earth director Nicolas Roeg cast his then-wife Theresa Russell, now 65, as the Actress in this alternate reality film, which imagines four 1950s icons converging in a hotel room in New York City: the Actress, the Professor aka Albert Einstein (Michael Emil), The Ballplayer aka Joe DiMaggio (Gary Busey, 78) and the Senator aka Joseph McCarthy (Tony Curtis). The film is based on a play by Terry Johnson, who came up with the idea when he learned that an autographed picture of Einstein had been found among Marilyn’s possessions upon her death.
How did she do?: “She doesn't really look very much like Monroe,” wrote Roger Ebert, “but what does it matter? The blond hair and the red lips are there, and so is the manner, which has been imitated so often, and so badly, that the imitators prove that Monroe was a special case. Russell doesn’t imitate. She builds her performance from the ground up, and it works to hold the movie together.”
Watch it: Insignificance on the Criterion Channel
Marilyn and Me (1991)
The Marilyn: Susan Griffiths
The premise: A professional Marilyn impersonator, Griffiths, 62, has played the star on-screen more than a dozen times, in everything from Pulp Fiction to Growing Pains to Curb Your Enthusiasm. She had her most substantial role to date in this 1991 film, which is told from the point of view of Bob Slatzer (Jesse Dabson, now 60), who claimed to have fallen in love with and married Marilyn in 1952 before she hit it big. There’s little proof the marriage ever happened, although he wrote two books about the supposed secret affair. Needless to say, this film isn’t known for its historical accuracy…
How did she do?: The film review website The Biopic Story calls her performance “a top-notch impersonation,” even though it awarded the film just one out of four stars.
Watch it: Marilyn and Me on Prime Video, Apple TV
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The Marilyn: Poppy Montgomery
The premise: You might be surprised to hear that this year’s Blonde isn’t the first adaptation of the Oates novel. The book formed the basis of this made-for-TV movie starring Australian actress Poppy Montgomery, now 50, best known to American audiences as FBI agent Samantha Spade on Without a Trace. The CBS film features a surprisingly stacked cast of recognizable faces: Patricia Richardson (71) as her mother, Ann-Margret (81) as her grandmother, Patrick Dempsey (56) as actor Cass Bulut and Griffin Dunne (67) as Arthur Miller.
How did she do?: Washington Post critic Tom Shales called the film “a horrid, morbid mess — not just trash but dismal, pretentious and artsy-smartsy trash.” But he reserved some kind words for Montgomery, who “does an essentially acceptable job,” especially when capturing Monroe’s laugh, smile and fragility.
Watch it: Blonde on Roku Channel, Tubi
My Week With Marilyn (2011)
The Marilyn: Michelle Williams
The premise: Some biopics aim to tell a famous person’s whole story, but this film has much more modest goals, following Marilyn for just a few brisk days during the filming of 1957’s The Prince and the Showgirl. Director Laurence Olivier (played by Kenneth Branagh, now 61) hires young film student Colin Clark (Eddie Redmayne) to be a production assistant, and he’s tasked with spending time with Monroe as she struggles with fame and her desire to be taken seriously as an actress. Clark later penned two books — The Prince, the Showgirl and Me: The Colin Clark Diaries and My Week With Marilyn — which formed the basis of this film.
How did she do?: New Yorker critic David Denby wrote that Williams “makes the star come alive,” and she and Branagh both earned Oscar nominations.
Watch it: My Week With Marilyn on Prime Video, Apple TV
The Marilyn(s): Megan Hilty and Katharine McPhee
The premise: NBC’s putting-on-a-show drama took audiences behind the scenes of an in-the-works Broadway musical about the life of Marilyn Monroe called Bombshell. Competing for the title role are seasoned pro Ivy Lynn (Megan Hilty) and ingenue Karen Cartwright (American Idol runner-up Katharine McPhee). Expect musical numbers like “The National Pastime,” a euphemistic tune about baseball; “Don’t Forget Me,” a song sung from beyond the grave; and “Let Me Be Your Star,” which was nominated — in the real world, not the world of the show! — for a Grammy and an Emmy.
How did they do?: Hilty’s Ivy was a more natural fit for the role of Marilyn, and (spoiler alert), she eventually got the part and won a Tony (within the show). Rumors have swirled for years that Bombshell could someday make it to the Great White Way, and McPhee has officially come out as Team Ivy, telling Broadway.com, “I’d play Karen, I just don’t know that I would play Marilyn. I’d give that up to Megan. To me, she was my favorite Marilyn. I’m not being hard on myself, I really think she would be an amazing Marilyn on stage.”
Watch it: Smash on Prime Video, Apple TV
The Secret Life of Marilyn Monroe (2015)
The Marilyn: Kelli Garner
The premise: This two-part Lifetime miniseries based on the J. Randy Taraborrelli book focuses much of its first half on Marilyn’s younger traumas, especially her relationship with her mentally ill mother — played by both Susan Sarandon, now 75, and Sarandon’s daughter, Eva Amurri. The second part, meanwhile, offers a deep-dive into her three marriages: to Jimmy Dougherty (Grey’s Anatomy’s Giacomo Gianniotti), Joe DiMaggio (The Walking Dead’s Jeffrey Dean Morgan, 56) and Arthur Miller (Stephen Bogaert, 54).
How did she do?: Reviews were mixed, but Variety critic Brian Lowry praised Garner for her “knockout performance” and especially her ability to capture Marilyn from 16 to 36.
Watch it: The Secret Life of Marilyn Monroe on Prime Video, Apple TV
The Drunk History episode “Legends”(2016)
The Marilyn: Juno Temple
The premise: If you haven’t seen the Comedy Central series Drunk History, you’re in for a treat. The concept? Comedians learn about a fascinating historical anecdote, drink copious amounts of booze and then retell what they remember — with very famous actors performing their fractured versions. The Season 4 episode “Legends” shines a light on the beautiful friendship between Monroe (Temple, who plays Keeley on Ted Lasso) and Ella Fitzgerald (Precious Oscar nominee Gabourey Sidibe). When the owners of a Hollywood nightclub wouldn’t let Fitzgerald perform there, Monroe leveraged her fame to help her pal, promising the owners she’d sit in the front row every night. It’s a sweet story that perfectly captures the innate goodness of Marilyn that has so often gotten overshadowed by the Hollywood excess.
How did she do?: These episodes can get a little loopy, by design, but AV Club critic Kayla Kumari Upadhyaya called out both actresses for their “heartfelt and truly compelling performances.”
Watch it: “Legends” on Prime Video, Apple TV
Nicholas DeRenzo is a contributing writer who covers entertainment and travel. Previously he was executive editor of United Airlines’ Hemispheres magazine and his work has appeared in the New York Times, Conde Nast Traveler, Travel & Leisure, Sunset and New York magazine.