12 Stars Who've Dared To Play Marilyn Monroe

Photo: Moviestore/REX USA.
We may think we know a lot about Marilyn Monroe. But more often than not, we're thinking of the persona invented by an ambitious young Norma Jean Mortenson and the Hollywood execs who helped propel her into stardom. She is the pop culture symbol screen-printed ad infinitum by Andy Warhol. She's the tragic subject of countless biographies, biopics, documentaries, and even that musical they were making in Smash 

According to IMDb, there are 185 shows and movies in which "Marilyn Monroe" appears as a character in one way or another. Her humble beginnings, her utterly iconic look, her tabloid-fodder relationships, and her tragic end make her an irresistible subject, whether in a cameo appearance or as the star of her own life story. This month, Lifetime premieres The Secret Life of Marilyn Monroe, starring Kelli Garner as Norma Jean/Marilyn Monroe and Susan Sarandon as the mentally ill mother who allegedly tormented the star all her life. Next year, we'll see Jessica Chastain in the second adaptation of Joyce Carol Oates' fictionalized biography, Blonde.
 

Of all the women who've dared to don the platinum 'do, the sequined dresses, and conjure that coy, breathy voice, who comes closest to truly capturing Marilyn? Here are the 12 we think have done it best.
   
Advertisement
1 of 10
Video: Courtesy of YouTube.
Misty Rowe, Goodbye, Norma Jean (1976)

The world hadn't yet been exposed to a million interpretations of the pre-Marilyn girl who really, really wanted to be a movie star when this film came out. Rowe portrays her as a naive victim, making every minute of her rise to fame painful to watch.

"Goodbye, Norma Jean is a terrible, witless, schlocky movie that Norma Jean Baker might have made in her desperation to be somebody," the New York Times review reads. While the Times credits Rowe with doing a pretty good impression, the character presented here isn't the figure who inspired so much idolatry.
2 of 10
Video: Courtesy of YouTube.
Lindsay Lohan, InAPPropriate Comedy (2013)

Like Madonna before her, LiLo tends put on Monroe's persona when she needs to make an impact with few or no words. Lohan re-created many of the poses from Monroe's last (and nude) photo shoot for a New York magazine spread in 2008, and channeled the icon again for Playboy in 2011. Both shoots are vastly better than the Seven Year Itch subway grate/paparazzi revenge fantasy scene she does at the beginning and end of the 2013 movie InAPPropriate Comedy.
Advertisement
3 of 10
Video: Courtesy of YouTube.
Catherine Hicks, Marilyn: The Untold Story (ABC, 1980)

In case you can't place the name and face, Hicks is the actress best known as the mom on 7th Heaven. But decades earlier, she actually made a convincing bombshell in this movie that earned her an Emmy nod, thanks to a charismatic, expressive face that doesn't exactly look like Monroe's, but compels us to watch her nonetheless.
4 of 10
Video: Courtesy of YouTube.
Madonna, "Material Girl" (1984)

The early-to-mid '80s were a time of peak nostalgia for the '50s (we even had a '50s movie star for a president), so it wasn't all too shocking that a pop star on the rise was constantly paying homage to Marilyn. Madonna's 1984 video for "Material Girl" re-creates Monroe's "Diamonds Are a Girl's Best Friend" number from Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, both in costume and in spirit. Madonna was best at commandeering the actress' look and attitude for her own sex-symbol purposes — when she played Monroe on SNL in a 1985 skit about the Kennedys, her straight impersonation left a bit to be desired.
5 of 10
Video: Courtesy of YouTube.
Charlotte Sullivan, The Kennedys (Reelz Channel, 2011)

Sullivan's Monroe isn't the breathy sweetheart we're used to seeing in biopics; perhaps because this is the story of the threat she allegedly posed to Jack and Bobby Kennedy. Looking a lot like Madonna-as-Marilyn, Sullivan's interpretation is seductive and aggressive at times, which is kind of refreshing.
6 of 10
Video: Courtesy of YouTube.
Ashley Judd & Mira Sorvino, Norma Jean & Marilyn (HBO, 1996)

While many actresses have tried to portray the multiple sides of Monroe — the emotionally damaged daughter of a mentally ill mother, an ambitious performer who knew how to use sex to her advantage — only Judd and Sorvino had the advantage of playing her as two separate people. They both earned Golden Globe nods for their efforts. While neither really looks like their real-life characters, their interpretations feel true to the story.
7 of 10
Video: Courtesy of YouTube.
Kelli Garner, The Secret Life of Marilyn Monroe (Lifetime, 2015)

In this brand-new, four-hour Lifetime mini-series, Garner wears Monroe's look beautifully, and she nails the star's feline body movements. But this is the story of Norma Jean's relationship with her mother, played by Susan Sarandon, and perhaps on purpose, Garner fades into the background when the elder woman is onscreen — not a thing we can readily imagine Marilyn ever doing. Then again, we can't know what it was like when the real-life mother and daughter were in the room together, so maybe this is an accurate depiction.
Advertisement
8 of 10
Poppy Montgomery, Blonde (CBS, 2001)

Joyce Carol Oates' novel, on which this TV-movie is based, weaves the facts and legends of Monroe's life into a fictionalized tragedy that works, thanks to the author's narrative techniques. None of that interesting weirdness comes through in this adaptation — which isn't Montgomery's fault in the least. Though she doesn't really look like Monroe, she elevates the role from impersonation to real, dynamic character, despite all the trite, melodramatic dialogue she's given.
9 of 10
Video: Courtesy of YouTube.
Katharine McPhee & Megan Hilty, Smash (NBC 2012 - 2013)

For all the show's faults, one thing it really got right is the difficulty all these actresses and their directors must face in trying to figure out which parts of Marilyn are most important to portray. It's like a more nuanced version of Norma Jean & Marilyn. There's the ingénue who just wanted to be loved — as represented by McPhee's Karen in Bombshell, the Broadway musical within the show. And there's the ambitious performer that Megan Hilty's Ivy nails. Together, they'd make the complete package, albeit with that over-the-top Broadway quality that Monroe herself never really needed.
10 of 10
Video: Courtesy of YouTube.
Michelle Williams, My Week with Marilyn (2011)

About 10 minutes into this movie, you might find that you've completely forgotten what the real Marilyn Monroe looked like. Because the genius of Williams' portrayal of the actress in this brief moment of her life is not in looking and acting like her double, but in making her a character who lives, breathes, and makes everyone fall in love with her the moment they lay eyes on her.
Advertisement

More from Movies

Watch

R29 Original Series