10 Actors Who Have Played Marilyn Monroe
By Jon O'Brien
Just months after Austin Butler portrayed the 20th century’s most famous man in Elvis, Ana de Armas is now portraying the most famous woman. Yes, Netflix’s adaptation of Joyce Carol Oates’s fictionalized biographical novel Blonde sees the Cuba-born actress get to live her wildest silver screen fantasy as Marilyn Monroe. But De Armas isn’t just stepping into the shoes of the Hollywood heroine. She’s also following in the footsteps of numerous other actors who have depicted the Some Like It Hot star’s rise and tragic fall. Ignoring brief cameos (The Kennedys’ Charlotte Sullivan), MTV homages (Madonna’s “Material Girl”), and show-within-a-show impersonations (Uma Thurman in Smash), here’s a look at 10 of the most prominent depictions of Hollywood’s ultimate It Girl.
1. Misty Rowe
“Not a great film, but I was the first.” You have to admire Misty Rowe’s honesty while referencing her leading lady role in 1976’s Goodbye Norma Jean. The Californian found fame playing another vivacious blonde on CBS’s country-themed variety show Hee Haw, and she transferred those skills to the big screen for Larry Buchanan’s slightly sordid depiction of Monroe’s early Hollywood years.
Not everyone was impressed. Time Out wrote that Rowe “fail[ed] spectacularly as a reincarnation” of the sex symbol, but the director was obviously satisfied. He asked the actress to reprise the role of Norma Jean Baker in his 1989 follow-up, Goodnight, Sweet Marilyn, with Paula Lane inhabiting the Hollywood icon’s more famous alter-ego.
2. Catherine Hicks
Rowe may have been the first notable screen Monroe, but Catherine Hicks was the first to court awards attention. The 7th Heaven star had already played a fictionalized version of the blonde bombshell in a college production of Arthur Miller’s play After the Fall, and thanks to further coaching from co-star and one-time Monroe rival Sheree North, Hicks picked up an Emmy nod for her convincing portrayal in the 1980 TV movie Marilyn: The Untold Story.
Hicks, who beat out actresses Ann Jillian and Bonnie Bedelia for the part, later admitted: “When I think about her, I’m never thinking that it’s an adoration of a great movie star, but that she’s my dead older sister.”
3. Theresa Russell
“That was a pile of horses**t I didn’t want to step in. Everybody had these preconceived ideas, and I didn’t want [to do] a caricature.” It’s fair to say that Theresa Russell wasn’t initially enamored by the prospect of playing such a famous face in Nicolas Roeg’s Cannes hit Insignificance. The Californian wasn’t even credited as Monroe, either. The adaptation of Terry Johnson’s same-named play is based on a fictional hotel room encounter between nameless characters simply known as The Ballplayer, The Professor, The Senator, and The Actress. But Russell’s blonde locks, red lips, and recreation of The Seven-Year Itch’s iconic wind gust scene made her identity crystal clear.
4. Susan Griffiths
Few actresses have committed to playing Monroe harder than Susan Griffiths. After impressing in the 1983 satire The American Snitch, the Californian essentially became Hollywood’s go-to Marilyn impersonator: She’s made a dozen cameos in everything from Nip/Tuck to Pulp Fiction. But in 1991, Griffiths finally got to enjoy some more notable screen time in Marilyn and Me, an ABC movie based on the alleged (and unproven) marriage between Monroe and writer Robert Slatzer. The lookalike, who is in a long-term relationship with a Dean Martin tribute act, continues to channel the iconic blonde, although she did turn down an offer to pose nude for Playboy on the grounds it was “disrespectful to [Monroe’s] memory.”
5. Melody Anderson
Shortly before giving up acting to become a clinical social worker specializing in addiction, Melody Anderson portrayed a Tinseltown icon whose latter years had been dogged by substance abuse. The Flash Gordon star took top billing in 1993 TV movie Marilyn & Bobby: Her Final Affair, which, as its title suggests, also centers on a relationship steeped more in gossip than fact. The Bobby in question was, of course, Robert F. Kennedy, the politician brother of another rumored paramour, JFK. And while Entertainment Weekly’s Ken Tucker wasn’t particularly convinced by the narrative, he did praise Anderson for playing the actress “sympathetically as a fragile ditz.”
6. Mira Sorvino
Mira Sorvino was presented with the same cherry-emblazoned dress sported by Monroe in 1961’s The Misfits for her turn as the tragic heroine in the 1996 HBO movie Norma Jean and Marilyn. Perhaps this piece of cinematic history helped the Oscar winner channel the garment’s original owner more authentically than anyone before. Sorvino herself, who received both Emmy and Golden Globe nominations for her portrayal of Monroe, certainly seems to believe so. As she told Entertainment Weekly in 1996, “Putting it on cemented the part. It was a religious experience.” In fact, Sorvino became so invested in her character that she suffered from depression for a month after filming wrapped.
7. Ashley Judd
While Sorvino portrayed the peroxide blonde in her iconic years in Norma Jean and Marilyn, Ashley Judd played the pre-fame version of Monroe who, in various surreal fantasy sequences, pops up to torment her superstar alter-ego.
Judd is first introduced in her birthday suit—something she apparently needed a little encouragement to go through with. “I told my co-star, Mira Sorvino, how frightened I was since I didn’t know how my mother would respond. ‘Can I be frank with you?’ she asked. ‘I’ve seen your mother in interviews, and she appears to be fairly messed up. I don’t think there will be much you could do to surprise a woman like her.’”
8. Poppy Montgomery
Turns out that Netflix’s Blonde isn’t the first adaptation of Oates’s Pulitzer Prize-nominated novel. Just a year after its 2000 publication, CBS screened a TV movie in which Without a Trace star Poppy Montgomery helped blur the lines between fiction and reality. Despite admitting she could neither sing nor dance, the Aussie managed to pull off a dazzling rendition of “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend” during a performance that was praised by pretty much everyone but the actor herself. “I felt like a drag queen,” she told TV Guide about seeing herself as Monroe in the mirror for the first time. “I was like, ‘Oh, my God, this is awful.’”
9. Michelle Williams
Michelle Williams is (so far) the only actor to receive an Oscar nomination for playing Monroe. And unlike most of her predecessors, the Dawson’s Creek alum didn’t have to undergo numerous transformations to achieve the feat. Simon Curtis’s 2011 film My Week with Marilyn centers on just seven days of the star’s dramatic life, the period in which she allegedly embarked on an affair with her chauffeur while filming The Prince and the Showgirl (1957). But Williams still had to suffer for her art, particularly during a skinny-dipping scene, which was filmed during a chilly British autumn: “I just couldn’t bounce back from it,” Williams said. “I couldn’t get my blood warm. I was frozen to the core.”
10. Kelli Garner
Having previously played early scream queen Faith Domergue in Martin Scorsese’s The Aviator, Kelli Garner returned to the Golden Age of Hollywood era in 2015 for one of Lifetime’s most acclaimed miniseries. The Secret Life of Marilyn sees Monroe relive her various traumas—particularly those caused by her mother (played by Susan Sarandon)—in an exhaustive therapy session. Garner, who used the make-up tricks she’d learned on another nostalgia fest, Pan Am, to bag the role, excels in a performance which spans 21 years of the star’s all-too-brief life. Remarkably, Garner had only ever seen two Monroe films before landing the gig.