Marilyn Monroe smiles

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In the 60 years since her death, Marilyn Monroe has been immortalized in ways too many to count: In songs and music videos, in perfume advertisements, in high art and not-so-high art, and on the page, the stage, and the screen. The details of her life have been pored over, subject to endless speculation and conspiracy theories. Was her death by barbiturate overdose a terrible accident or an intentional suicide? Did she really have an affair with both president John F. Kennedy and his brother Robert, and if so, was her death perhaps a murder conducted in the interests of national security? As film critic Angelica Jade Bastién notes in her superlative commentary on Andrew Dominik’s 2022 biopic "Blonde," the mythologizing of Monroe as a perpetual victim, a doe-eyed orphan who was molded by and later sacrificed to the brutal Hollywood machine, requires you to ignore what a gifted artist and savvy businesswoman she was in real life.

Like her fellow 1950s icon turned subject of a controversial 2022 biopic Elvis Presley, many of the films that portray her are not interested in Monroe as a real person, but as a checklist of clichés: There’s blonde hair, red lips, and beauty mark; then the white halter dress and sex bomb poses; and let’s not forget the breathy coo and empty brain, as if she really were the "dumb blonde" she was playing on screen. Nearly every portrayal of Monroe falls into this trap in one way or another, and even the best ones can’t help but see her as a symbol above all. Still, here are the best Marilyn Monroe on-screen portrayals, ranked.

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16. Misty Rowe and Paula Lane, Goodbye Norma Jean and Goodnight, Sweet Marilyn

Misty Rowe as Marilyn Monroe

One of the most enduring myths about Marilyn Monroe that writers and filmmakers turn to is the idea that "Marilyn Monroe" was a distinct persona, if not a literal different person, from her "true" self, Norma Jeane Mortenson. B-movie writer-director Larry Buchanan offers one of the earliest versions of this idea in the 1976 film "Goodbye, Norma Jean," a cheap (in more ways than one) look at Monroe’s early years as a model and would-be starlet, and his decade-plus later follow-up "Goodnight, Sweet Marilyn." "Happy Days" actress Misty Rowe plays Norma Jean (without the e) in "Goodbye" as an innocent cursed with a beauty that transfixes every man in her orbit, who dreams of being a movie star no matter what she has to do to become one.

To her credit, Rowe infuses her Norma Jean with a modicum of agency, even as the film passes her from one predatory man to the next. "I have what men want, and I’m willing to give it to them as long as I get what I want," she tells a photographer. It’s a fine statement of purpose for both Monroe and Rowe, who spends most of the movie in a succession of bad wigs and little else. 1989’s "Goodnight, Sweet Marilyn" features Paula Lane as Monroe at the end of her life, but repurposes much of its footage from the earlier film, making Rowe her de facto co-star. "Goodnight" is mostly notable for pushing the baseless theory that Monroe was murdered by an obsessed fan seeking to put her out of her misery.

15. Connie Stevens, The Sex Symbol

Connie Stevens in

1974’s "The Sex Symbol" is a Marilyn Monroe biopic in all but name. Based on the novel by Alvah Bessie (who also scripted), it details the rise and tragic fall of Hollywood sex symbol Kelly Williams (Connie Stevens) from hopeful 1950s starlet to drunken 1960s wreck. If that description sounds uncharitable given Monroe’s struggles with addiction and mental illness, it’s accurate to the film’s melodramatic tone.

Stevens spends much of the film pacing around a tacky bedroom on what will be the final night of Kelly’s life, swigging from liquor bottles and making hysterical phone calls to anyone who will talk to her, all the while staring at the photos on her wall and flashing back to notable moments and relationships in her past: her lecherous early manager (1950s schlockmeister William Castle); her brief marriage to a retired athlete (here, a Polish-American football hero played by William Smith); and her scandalous affair with a Wisconsin senator (a Robert Kennedy stand-in played by Don Murray). Shelley Winters plays a Louella Parsons-like gossip columnist who fills in the blanks of Monroe’s/Williams’ life via on-camera narration. Stevens is committed to the role, even filming several nude scenes for the film’s international release (it was an ABC television movie in the U.S.), but cannot overcome its soap opera theatrics and lurid tone.

14. Erika Smith, Marilyn Monroe in New York

Erika Smith as Marilyn Monroe

The image of Marilyn Monroe that persists in pop culture is one of glamour, sexiness, and sophistication that is often at odds with the humdrum life we mere mortals lead. That idea of Monroe as a wish fulfillment fantasy for both men and women is played with in the little-seen 2012 short film "Marilyn Monroe in New York." Writer-director Farah ALHashim takes a page from "Play It Again, Sam" and "A Touch of Pink," casting the icon as a guardian angel to a depressed young woman (Chanel Waterhouse) who would rather stay at home than hit the town with her friend.

Produced as a project for the New York Film Academy, ALHashim’s film bears the hallmarks of a student production, with uneven performances and some oddly blocked shots. But it has a secret weapon in Erika Smith, a B-movie actress who has made something of a side career playing Monroe. She nails the impersonation of this fantasy Marilyn — the looks, the voice — while also bringing a surprising sensitivity to what could have been (and often is) a one-dimensional role.

13. Carlissa Hayden, The Private Life of Marilyn Monroe

Carlissa Hayden as Marilyn Monroe

Marilyn Monroe has served as inspiration for many playwrights as well as filmmakers over the years; her own ex-husband Arthur Miller wrote a character clearly modeled on her in his 1964 play "After the Fall," just two years after her death. In 1986, playwright Gary LeGault produced and directed a filmed version of his short play "The Private Life of Marilyn Monroe," made of three scenes depicting pivotal moments in Monroe’s life. In the first, she is a young woman in the late 1940s, preparing for a date with a studio executive; then, she is an established star, poring over the reviews for her performance in "Bus Stop" along with acting coach Paula Strasberg (Dorothy Blass, Monroe’s real-life secretary); finally, she is alone, searching for companionship and understanding on the last night of her life.

With the exception of the middle scene with Strasberg, Monroe spends nearly the entire film alone, either talking on the phone or talking to herself. Carlissa Hayden adds just a little bit of Monroe-esque breathiness to her voice, but otherwise does little to either look or sound much like her real-life counterpart. Nevertheless, she holds the screen well up until the film’s overwrought climax, which has Monroe guzzling pills and champagne in her underwear while a framed portrait of JFK sits on her bedside table.

12. Charlotte Sullivan, The Kennedys

Charlotte Sullivan as Marylin Monroe

The 2011 Reelz Channel miniseries "The Kennedys" covers a decade in the tumultuous lives of the Kennedy family, from Joe Kennedy’s (Tom Wilkinson) efforts to get his son John (Greg Kinnear) elected president of the United States in 1960 to the assassination of Robert Kennedy (Barry Pepper) in 1968. That’s a lot of real, documented history to cover in eight hours, which leaves very little room for unsubstantiated events like Marilyn Monroe’s possible affairs with both JFK and RFK. Charlotte Sullivan’s Marilyn only appears in one episode, seen through the eyes of Bobby, who finds himself more often than not doing his brother’s dirty work rather than fulfilling his duties as attorney general.

Ironically, for a series that has all of its leads doing some heavy duty work to nail the famous Kennedy accent, Sullivan opts for almost no vocal impersonation of Monroe at all. Her Marilyn is a scorned woman who flings herself at Bobby in an effort to get closer to Jack, and who refuses to believe that Jack isn’t going to divorce his wife (Katie Holmes as Jackie) and marry her instead. The series implies that Monroe may have been privy to state secrets during her time with Jack, but stops just short of saying that she was killed to keep those secrets from coming out.

11. Susan Griffiths, Marilyn and Me

Susan Griffiths as Marilyn Monroe

Writer Robert Slatzer wrote two books about Marilyn Monroe: 1974’s "The Life and Curious Death of Marilyn Monroe" and 1992’s "The Marilyn Files." He also claimed that the two were not just in a relationship but were actually married for five days in 1952, until 20th Century Fox demanded that the marriage be annulled so as to protect her image. No independent confirmation of Slatzer’s claim has ever been found, but in 1991 ABC produced a television movie based on his version of history, "Marilyn and Me."

Starring Jesse Dabson as Slatzer and professional Monroe impersonator Susan Griffiths, the film naturally takes his side of things, presenting him as an honest newspaperman, a regular Joe Sixpack who just happened to fall in love with the most beautiful woman in the world, only to lose her to the lights of Hollywood. Despite the care Griffiths puts into her performance, the script she’s working from is terribly unfair to her character, depicting every step wholesome Norma Jeane takes toward becoming the seductive Marilyn as another nail in her coffin.

10. Melody Anderson, Marilyn & Bobby: Her Final Affair

Melody Anderson as Marilyn Monroe

Another entry in the apparently thriving business of early-1990s alternate histories of Marilyn Monroe made for television, "Marilyn & Bobby: Her Final Affair" premiered on the USA Network in 1993. Taking essentially the same position as "The Kennedys" would 18 years later, the film assumes that Marilyn’s affair with Bobby began as a way to get closer to his brother Jack, whom she carried a torch for. But this film is more focused on Bobby and his battles as attorney general with mobster Sam Giancana, Teamsters leader Jimmy Hoffa, and tyrannical FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, with Marilyn caught in the cross-hairs — literally, in one scene.

Anderson, who starred in the cult classic "Flash Gordon" and later left acting to become a therapist, doesn’t look or sound much like Monroe, especially in comparison with Griffith’s work in "Marilyn and Me," but she and James F. Kelly as Bobby make their unlikely romance work as two people who have to live under the expectations of others. A pre-"Breaking Bad" Jonathan Banks co-stars as a Hoffa goon who’s keeping tabs on the couple, right until the very end.

9. Gemma Arterton, It’s Me, Sugar

Gemma Arterton as Marilyn Monroe

Very few of the films about Marilyn Monroe — and nearly none of the ones featured on this list so far — devote much time to the actual craft of her acting, which creates a sort of self-fulfilling attitude that people care more about her as a beautiful dead person than as an artist. The 2015 short film "It’s Me, Sugar" is a rare exception to the rule, a backstage comedy set during the filming of "Some Like It Hot." Based on the anecdote that it once took Monroe 46 takes to get a three-word line right, the film dramatizes that frustrating day of filming, as she ruins take after take — with co-stars Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis, acting teacher Paula Strasberg, husband Arthur Miller, and director Billy Wilder sitting by helpless, unable to intervene.

Produced as part of a Sky Arts series about pop culture urban legends, the short is refreshingly wry and splits the difference between treating Monroe as a serious artist and handling her with kid gloves just as the people around her do. Gemma Arteron modulates her voice, putting on the stereotypical "Marilyn" affectation when she’s in public (which is to say, around men) while commiserating with Strasberg in a deeper, more substantive tone. The short makes a sight gag out of Monroe’s alcohol abuse, but compared to the dour, punishing tone of many of her biopics, "It’s Me, Sugar" is a breath of fresh air.

8. Ashley Judd and Mira Sorvino, Norma Jean & Marilyn

Mira Sorvino as Marilyn Monroe

The notion that Monroe lived two separate lives is taken to its logical conclusion in the 1996 HBO original movie "Norma Jean & Marilyn." Based on the biography "Goddess" by Anthony Summers, the film charts the troubled childhood and early modeling days of Norma Jeane Dougherty (neé Baker, neé Mortenson), followed by the meteoric rise and terrible fall of Marilyn Monroe. Here, though, Norma Jeane and Marilyn are not just presented as two sides of the same person, but two different people altogether; Ashley Judd plays a pre-fame Norma Jeane, while Mira Sorvino plays Marilyn after 20th Century Fox requires her to get plastic surgery in order to stay under contract.

As a piece of reportage, the film is no great shakes; for one thing, Monroe’s relatively minor plastic surgery happened several years after the film claims. But the stylistic conceit of having two different actresses playing the role, especially two so different from each other as Judd and Sorvino, makes for a fair amount of soapy fun — especially toward the end, as a spiraling Marilyn is taunted by visions of Norma Jeane, and the two women get a chance to really lash out at each other. It’s also, oddly enough, one of the only films on this list to dramatize one of Monroe’s most infamous moments: singing "Happy Birthday" to President Kennedy at Madison Square Garden.

7. Poppy Montgomery, Blonde (2001)

Poppy Montgomery as Marilyn Monroe

Andrew Dominik’s 2022 version of "Blonde" is not the first adaptation of Joyce Carol Oates’ 2000 novel. In 2001, CBS aired a two-part adaptation directed by Joyce Chopra, starring Poppy Montgomery as Monroe, Patricia Richardson as her mother Gladys, and Griffin Dunne as The Playwright aka Arthur Miller. What’s fascinating about the two films are not their differences so much as their similarities. Both films quote from Oates liberally in their early scenes depicting Monroe’s abuse at the hands of her mentally ill mother. The scene of her sexual assault by a powerful studio head (Mr. R in Chopra’s version, Mr. Z in Dominik’s) is remarkably similar in both versions, if obviously less explicit in the TV version. Likewise, Monroe’s three-way relationship with Hollywood sons Cass (Patrick Dempsey) and Eddie G (Jensen Ackles) is sanitized for a 2001 network TV audience, but takes up most of the film’s second act.

Montgomery makes for a strong Monroe, but the script is beholden to its vision of her as a perpetual victim, scarred for life by her mother and a father she never knew, and passed from one man to another until she died. It also leans hard on the idea that Norma Jeane was the real person while "Marilyn" was nothing but a male fantasy. The film ends long before either Oates’ novel or Dominik’s later adaptation, barely mentioning her relationship with JFK stand-in "The President" and leaving her death to a title card just before the end credits.

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6. Kelli Garner, The Secret Life of Marilyn Monroe

Kelli Garner and Susan Sarandon as Marilyn Monroe and Gladys Mortenson

There isn’t much that is "secret" in the 2015 Lifetime miniseries "The Secret Life of Marilyn Monroe." Based on the biography by J. Randy Taraborrelli, the show covers much of the same ground that many of the other Monroe biopics have, but with a unique twist: The central relationship isn’t between Monroe and any of the many men in her life, but between her and her mother Gladys, played here by Susan Sarandon. In real life, Gladys was institutionalized for most of Monroe’s life, and by most accounts they did not have much of a relationship. But "Secret" imagines a world in which Gladys is an ever-present (figuratively and sometimes literally) cause for alarm, and Sarandon makes such an impression in the role that she all but overshadows Kelli Garner as Monroe.

The specter of mental illness hangs over any film depicting Monroe’s life, but rarely dealt with as forthrightly as it is here. Marilyn fears the disease that took her mother away, not just in terms of her own health, but also the possibility that she might pass it on if she were to have children. Garner and Sarandon play well together, even if both feel a little too modern for the time period, and their mother-and-daughter reconciliation makes this the rare Marilyn Monroe that ends with something resembling a happy ending.

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5. Catherine Hicks, Marilyn: The Untold Story

Catherine Hicks as Marilyn Monroe

It’s fitting that this 1980 biopic for ABC is subtitled "The Untold Story" because even after the credits roll, the story remains untold. Based on Norman Mailer’s novel, the film is such a sanitized look at Monroe’s life, with so many details left out, that parts of it are nearly incoherent. Her marriages to Joe DiMaggio and Arthur Miller don’t end so much as they simply fade away, with no mention of DiMaggio’s physical abuse or the failed pregnancies that strained her union with Miller. And while many of the darker details of her life were not common knowledge yet in 1980, plenty of others were; "Goodbye, Norma Jean" and "The Sex Symbol" had already been released, after all. Even her final scene refuses to show her taking pills, giving the impression that she just died of sadness one night.

What saves the film from itself is Catherine Hicks’ performance as Monroe, a high-wire act balancing an uncanny vocal impersonation with a genuine character. Hicks manages to make her Monroe instantly recognizable without feeling like she’s wearing a Halloween costume. Most importantly, the film allows both Hicks and Monroe to go to work; we see her rehearsing "The Asphalt Jungle" with John Huston, working through the choreography for "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes," and bristling from Laurence Olivier’s condescension on the set of "The Prince and the Showgirl." There’s even a version of the "It’s me, Sugar" story from "Some Like It Hot."

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4. Theresa Russell, Insignificance

Theresa Russell as Marilyn Monroe

One of the most unique films on this list is the 1985 Nicolas Roeg historical fantasy comedy "Insignificance." Like Steve Martin’s play "Picasso at the Lapin Agile" or Kemp Powers’ "One Night in Miami…" this midcentury meeting of the minds imagines a New York hotel in 1953 that just so happens to be housing Albert Einstein (Michael Emil), senator Joseph McCarthy (Tony Curtis), Joe DiMaggio (Gary Busey), and Marilyn Monroe (Theresa Russell) on the same night. They aren’t identified by name, though, only by iconic titles like Actress, Professor, and Ballplayer. As the night drags on, questions of life, sex, death, and the universe itself are pondered.

The film’s fantasy structure allows each actor to go broad in their characterizations; Russell’s Monroe is the fantasy ideal of the star, fresh from filming the famous sewer grate scene in "The Seven Year Itch" earlier in the night, while Emil’s Einstein is the tongue-poking absent-minded professor still found on dorm room walls. The two are united by an endless, childlike curiosity that stands in contrast to the small-minded likes of DiMaggio and McCarthy. Russell is as sexy and charming as any Monroe on this list, free from the burden of her biography but not ignorant of it; her relationship with the brutish Ballplayer bears the weight of DiMaggio’s real-life history.

3. Uma Thurman, Katherine McPhee, and Megan Hilty, Smash

Megan Hilty as Marilyn Monroe

Can any fictional piece about Marilyn Monroe ever really work? And if not, why is it that we keep trying? Those questions are at the heart of NBC’s 2012 musical drama "Smash." Created by playwright Theresa Rebeck from an idea originally pitched by Steven Spielberg, the series follows playwright Julia Houstin (a Rebeck stand-in played by Debra Messing) as she attempts to bring to life a Broadway show based on Monroe’s life. Much of the backstage drama involves a battle for the lead role between seasoned Broadway ingenue Iny (Megan Hilty), naive newcomer Karen (Katharine McPhee), and Hollywood interloper Rebecca (Uma Thurman). All three women get their chance to play Monroe as the play moves from rehearsals to an out-of-town tryout in Boston, and finally to Broadway.

The series was clear-eyed view of what it takes to fund, produce, and stage a massive modern musical, though those nuts-and-bolts elements didn’t always sit neatly next to the more outlandish, soapy plot twists like poisoning your lead actress via peanut allergy. As Marilyn, all three actors are in a hall of mirrors, playing their characters playing a Marilyn that’s not the "real" Marilyn, but the fictional musical’s conception of her. But like Russell in "Insignificance," that kind of artifice can be freeing; in many ways, a Monroe who sings out her feelings feels more accurate than one who seemingly has no feelings at all.

2. Michelle Williams, My Week with Marilyn

Michelle Williams as Marilyn Monroe

Rather than a birth-to-death dash through Monroe’s life, Simon Curtis’ 2011 film "My Week with Marilyn" examines the star through a single moment in her life, the titular week during the filming on 1957’s "The Prince and the Showgirl." Based on a pair of memoirs by author and filmmaker Colin Clark, the film shows Monroe (Michelle Williams) arriving in England amid a flurry of attention and goodwill from her co-star and director Sir Laurence Olivier (Kenneth Branagh). That excitement soon curdles into frustration, however, as Marilyn’s working style and personal demons causes friction with Olivier and his crew. Feeling lonely even in the company of husband Arthur Miller (Dougray Scott, who also played Miller in "It’s Me, Sugar") and acting coach Paula Stasberg (Zoe Wanamaker), Monroe strikes up a brief romance with young Clark (Eddie Redmayne), who is working as Olivier’s assistant.

Williams is typically excellent, balancing Monroe’s famous mannerisms with her own fragile take on the character. Her Monroe is caught in a vicious cycle, eager to prove herself as an actor to Olivier and his wife Vivien Leigh (Julia Ormond), but her insecurities too often get in her way, driving her further into anxiety and substance abuse. If there is a knock against the film, it is the "My" in the title, which centers the narrative around Clark’s memories of his brief encounter with Monroe, rather than Monroe herself.

1. Ana de Armas, Blonde

Ana de Armas as Marilyn Monroe

Much has already been written and discussed about Andrew Dominik’s 2022 adaptation of "Blonde" and the way it (along with the source material) distorts and omits details of Marilyn Monroe’s life to suit its needs. The film is an artful, beautifully shot and designed parade of non-stop violence and degradation, as Monroe is habitually abused and tossed aside by nearly everyone in her life, from her mother (Julianne Nicholson in a chilling performance) to her bosses, lovers, husbands (Bobby Cannavale and Adrien Brody as DiMaggio and Miller), the public, and finally herself, as she dies by suicide after the lifelong search for her father comes to a humiliating end.

As difficult to watch as Dominik’s film is most of the time, it would be unbearable without the central performance of Ana de Armas as Monroe. In real life she looks little like her character, but on screen she is an uncanny double; even her Cuban accent, which peeks every so often out from under her "Marilyn" voice, is part of the fabric of her performance, a reminder of the artifice at the heart of Dominik and Oates’ take on their subject. As seen in films like "Knives Out" and "No Time to Die," de Armas has an uncommon strength on screen, and her ability to meet the camera’s gaze is crucial to keeping "Blonde" from being a grim slog and nothing more. Playing Marilyn Monroe in this film may have been an unfair assignment, but de Armas executes it as well as anyone could.

If you or someone you know is dealing with domestic abuse, you can call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1−800−799−7233. You can also find more information, resources, and support at their website.

If you or anyone you know is having suicidal thoughts, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline​ by dialing 988 or by calling 1-800-273-TALK (8255)​.