Movie Star Characters: When Marilyn was Elsie
By Linda Rosenkrantz
Marilyn Monroe was unquestionably the sex symbol of midcentury America. And even though everyone knew she was born Norma Jean, she became big enough to be known simply as Marilyn. (Though Marilyn hasn’t caught on like other Old Hollywood stars, there has been something of a revival of Monroe, in tribute to her.) It’s interesting to take a look at the names of the characters she inhabited in her relatively short career (barely 15 years), to see which ones played on her sensual image, and which worked against it.
In this, her last musical, she was given one of her few contemporarily stylish and sophisticated character names. In 1960, Amanda was Number 297, on the way up towards the Number 2 spot it would reach in 1980. The hit song “Farewell Amanda” had been in the movie Adam’s Rib in 1949.
Angela—The Asphalt Jungle, 1950
In this gritty 1950 film noir directed by John Huston, Marilyn was an unknown who played the minor part (only 5 minutes on screen) of the young mistress of an aging criminal, a role that would bring her a mention in Playboy. Angela was a standard issue name for this kind of character; it showed that Monroe didn’t need Technicolor to show her stuff.
Annabel—We’re Not Married, 1952
A stereotypical story of five couples (none of which included MM) who didn’t know if they were really married, one of several lightweight comedies of the period. Here she played a beauty pageant contestant.
Chérie—Bus Stop, 1956
A major role, for which she won critical acclaim and a Golden Globe nomination, reflecting the skills she had acquired at the Actors Studio. The movie was based on two plays by the acclaimed William Inge; her character is a café singer with dreams of stardom, the name a typical French saucy showgirl name.
In classic odd-couple casting, Monroe played against Laurence Olivier in this period piece based on a play. It is set in 1911, when Elsie was Number 41, but to 1957 audiences it seemed like a very unlikely name for Marilyn Monroe.
Kay—River of No Return, 1954
Lois—Monkey Business, 1952
Lorelei—Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, 1953
A sweet short nickname name for one of Monroe’s most unnerving characters, a mentally disturbed babysitter in a chilly thriller.
This big CinemaScope follow-up to Gentlemen Prefer Blondes presented the actress with one of her most interesting character names. An exotic name meaning ‘poppy’, and reminiscent of silent screen vamps, it has never found much popularity.
A post-World War II comedy with Monroe in a supporting role as a former WAC with a bubbly period nickname name.
In one of Marilyn’s most overtly sexy roles as a femme fatale scheming to murder her husband, she wore the mildest, most sweet-smelling of names.
Roslyn—The Misfits, 1961
Marilyn Monroe’s last completed film, co-starring with her childhood idol Clark Gable, the script written for her by then husband Arthur Miller. Interesting that he used a more colloquial version of the Shakespearean Rosalind for one of her most dramatic and demanding roles.
Vicky—There’s No business Like Show Business, 1954
A star-studded Irving Berlin musical extravaganza set in 1919, with Marilyn again as a nightclub singer. Victoria was Number 154 in 191, 85 in 1954, so it was in tune with both eras. Vicky on its own, though, didn’t rank until 1938.
Note: In two of her major films, All About Eve and The Seven Year Itch, she did not have a first name. And in three others, though she was cast as Betty, Clara and Dusky, she did not appear in the credits.