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Movie Star Characters: When Marilyn was Elsie

June 29, 2016 Linda Rosenkrantz

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. 

AmandaLet’s Make Love, 1960

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.

AngelaThe 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.

AnnabelWe’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.

ElsieThe Prince and the Showgirl, 1957

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.

HarrietAs Young as You Feel, 1951

This was a very mainstream, if matronly, name in the Ozzie & Harriet 1950s, another offbeat choice for the 25-year-old starlet.

IrisHome Town Story, 1951

A forgettable early low-budget film with Monroe in a small role. Iris was a name stuck then between its early turn-of the-century flowering and its current rebirth.

KayRiver of No Return, 1954

One of her rare Westerns, co-starring Robert Mitchum, with Monroe once again a dance hall singer bearing an unlikely sleek, sophisticated image.

LoisMonkey Business, 1952

Playing opposite Cary Grant as a secretary in this screwball comedy, which was one of the first films to present her innocent dumb persona, she wore another rather incongruous name.

LoreleiGentlemen Prefer Blondes, 1953

In one of her most iconic roles as the singing, dancing, dim-witted, gold-digging Lorelei Lee, she took on a character name that had already been established in a bestselling novel and Broadway show.

NellDon’t Bother to Knock, 1952

A sweet short nickname name for one of Monroe’s most unnerving characters, a mentally disturbed babysitter in a chilly thriller.

PeggyClash By Night, 1952; Ladies of the Chorus, 1948

She embodied this girl-next-door nickname name in two films; in Clash By Night, directed by Fritz Lang, she was able to show more of her developing acting range.

PolaHow to Marry a Millionaire, 1953

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.

RobertaBobbie’—Love Nest, 1951

A post-World War II comedy with Monroe in a supporting role as a former WAC with a bubbly period nickname name.

RoseNiagara, 1953

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.

RoslynThe 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.

Sugar KaneSome Like it Hot, 1959

One of her most enchanting and polished performances is in this iconic Billy Wilder comedy, where she’s given the appropriately comedic, tongue-in-cheek character name.

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.

Which of these names do you think fits Marilyn Monroe best?

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