Streaming: the best Marilyn Monroe films

No one has seen the film yet, but the internet is already awash with opinions about Blonde, Netflix’s forthcoming fictionalised biopic of Marilyn Monroe: about everything from Cuban star Ana de Armas’s suitability in the lead to the potential offensiveness of the film’s reportedly explicit sexual content. Sixty years on from her death at 36, Monroe still inspires a kind of protective instinct in the public, even among generations who missed her lifetime by several decades. Yet such discussions tend to frame Monroe only as tragic icon, rather than a blithe, sly and continually underestimated actor. There could hardly be a better time to catch up on her abbreviated but frequently joyous filmography, nearly all of it available to view in the streaming realm.

Newcomers to her work can head straight for the hits, none more delicious – or, thanks to BBC iPlayer, more freely available – than Billy Wilder’s raucous cross-dressing comedy Some Like It Hot (1959), the best of all showcases for Monroe’s guileless sex appeal and deceptively deft comic timing. Wilder had previously mined those assets for his spry, then-spicy romantic comedy The Seven Year Itch (Amazon Prime), with its subway-grate dress scene that eventually dwarfed the entire film’s pop-culture currency. Monroe remains a delight in it, though her quite literal male-fantasy character – not even given a name – isn’t as generously conceived as Some Like It Hot’s Sugar Kane.

Rivalling that white, windblown dress for immortality is her pink-satin-and-diamonds ensemble from Howard Hawks’s bright, happy man-eater musical Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953; Amazon). If you’ve only ever seen Monroe’s Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend number out of context, you may be surprised by the wit and buoyancy of the entire film. Released the same year, How to Marry a Millionaire (Apple TV) aimed for much the same charm, powered by female desire and solidarity, though minus the songs. The otherwise unmemorable revue musical There’s No Business Like Show Business (Google Play) gave her one of her most brazenly high-camp screen moments in the sultry, tropi-kitsch number Heat Wave; watch it for that alone.

Monroe gets less credit for her lithe, chilly smarts as a femme fatale, though the slinky, atypically Technicolored noir Niagara (1953; Google Play) and the vastly influential bad-babysitter thriller Don’t Bother to Knock (Amazon) are among her best vehicles. Later films split the difference between her brassiness, her vulnerability and her mystique. She’s just wonderful as an Ozark saloon singer resisting the abusive coercion of a marriage-minded cowboy in the surprisingly bittersweet Bus Stop (1956; Apple TV), and bests Laurence Olivier in the strange, tone-clashing comedy The Prince and the Showgirl (Chili). Starring opposite Clark Gable and Montgomery Clift in the exquisitely melancholic, Arthur Miller-written The Misfits (1961; Apple TV), Monroe’s air of rueful, self-aware exhaustion makes you wonder what the tougher, more angular new Hollywood of the late 60s and 70s would have done for her.

Chase that with the white-hot energy and sense of possibility she brought to her earliest roles, many of them in negligible films that likely wouldn’t be online if not for her supporting presence. Best to seek out her gutsy, Stanwyck-matching attitude-throwing in the very fine Fritz Lang 1952 noir Clash By Night (Chili); her striking streetwalker in the curious, Steinbeck-narrated anthology film O Henry’s Full House (1952; Amazon); or, best of all, her short but beguiling appearance as an ingenue on the make in the blood-drawing showbiz satire All About Eve (1950; Amazon), biding her time as Bette Davis chews up the screen: no role was ever more presciently cast.

Also new on streaming and DVD

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• A photo caption was amended on 12 August 2022 to correct the year Some Like it Hot was released.