What Marilyn Monroe’s Colleagues Said About Working With Her

What was Marilyn Monroe like as an actress? While Monroe's outsized persona and tumultuous love life often overshadowed her acting career, her costars saw her as talented, troubled, and sometimes difficult to work with. Marilyn Monroe and Jane Russell were incredibly close while filming Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, but when costar Tommy Noonan described kissing Monroe as "like being swallowed alive," the actress burst into tears. 

Russell insists that Monroe "wasn't some dumb blonde," and Some Like It Hot costar Jack Lemmon agreed, calling Monroe a "gifted comedienne." Jayne Mansfield, a rival 1950s star, said Monroe felt threatened by her - while, behind the scenes, Monroe threated to sue Mansfield. Though many costars described Monroe as a gifted actress, she also had a reputation for being difficult on the set - or, as Richard Widmark put it, she was "God-awful to work with." In short, as these kaleidoscopic snapshots demonstrate, Monroe contained multitudes.

  • Robert Mitchum Said She 'Seemed Like A Lost Child'
    Photo: River of No Return / 20th Century Fox

    Actor Robert Mitchum met Monroe before her transformation into a movie star. "She was convinced that she was not terribly pretty or sexy," Mitchum recalled.

    Several years later, they worked together on River of No Return. "At that time, I didn't think she knew too many people who were very friendly to her," said Mitchum. "Growing up in an atmosphere of agents, directors, and journalists, she seemed like a lost child."

    During a scene where a crew member aimed a high-pressure firehose at Monroe and Mitchum for close-ups on a white water raft, Monroe couldn't stop worrying about the crew member. "Look at him," Monroe said, according to Mitchum. "He's freezing... He's turning blue." Mitchum fired back, "Good luck to him. He keeps hitting me with that 175-pound hose."

    But Monroe said, "I can't. That man is suffering." She wouldn't continue working until they gave the crew man a break.

  • Tony Curtis Said Her ‘Personal Madnesses’ Were Destructive For Everyone
    Photo: Some Like It Hot / United Artists

    In 1959, Tony Curtis starred with Marilyn Monroe in Some Like It Hot. He was also her lover when Monroe began her career. 

    "She wasn't the brightest person in the world - that didn't make a difference one way or the other - but she was giving and kind," Curtis said in a 2008 interview. "And that's what got her in trouble. She was so giving and kind to all of these people she met that she found herself doing these things that she didn't want to do."

    Working together was a different matter. "She was very, very difficult," Curtis recalled. "Her personal madnesses were so destructive that it made her unhappy and anyone that surrounded her."

    According to Curtis, the director of Some Like It Hot, Billy Wilder, described Monroe as "a mean 7-year-old girl."

  • Tommy Noonan Said Kissing Marilyn Was 'Like Being Swallowed Alive'
    Photo: Gentlemen Prefer Blondes / 20th Century Fox

    In Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, Tommy Noonan played Monroe's fiancé. 

    In one scene, Noonan and Monroe kissed. After the scene, someone on set asked Noonan, "You've just kissed Marilyn Monroe. What was it like?"

    Noonan replied, "It was like being swallowed alive."

    Monroe overheard the comment and broke down in tears. Costar Jane Russell said, "I grew up with boys, so boys didn't bother me. I knew all about them. I don't think Marilyn did."

  • Ethel Merman Simply Referred To Her As ‘The Blonde’
    Photo: There's No Business Like Show Business / 20th Century Fox

    Actress Ethel Merman had little patience for costar Monroe. While filming their 1954 musical There's No Business Like Show Business, Merman would holler, "All right, where’s the blonde?"

    Costar Mitzi Gaynor recalls, "Marilyn was always late on the set if she had to work with Ethel because I think [Merman] scared the you-know-what out of her."

  • Jane Russell Said Marilyn 'Wasn't A Dumb Blonde'
    Photo: Gentlemen Prefer Blondes / 20th Century Fox

    In 1953, Monroe costared with Jane Russell in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. "She was a pretty girl, and later on I discovered that she was shy and sensitive," Russell said.

    Russell had to help Monroe overcome her fears: "When we made Gentlemen Prefer Blondes together and I discovered that she was nervous about going on set, I finally went to her dressing room and said: 'All right, baby, come on set with me now, we've only got a few minutes.'"

    Though Russell understood the role Monroe played, both on-screen and off, the actress insists, "She wasn't a dumb blonde."

  • Lawrence Schiller Compared Her To ‘Fresh Dew On The Lawn’
    Photo: Something's Got To Give / 20th Century Fox

    In 1962, photographer Lawrence Schiller took pictures of Monroe on the set of Something's Got to Give, her last film. He saw a major change in the actress from their previous encounter in 1960.

    “There were two Marilyns that I met,” Schiller said. “Marilyn in 1960 was like fresh dew on the lawn when you get up in the morning. She wasn’t the stupid dumb blond we saw in the movies. You could really see her humor and wit.”

    Yet in the final months of her life, Schiller recalled, "She was fighting to stay alive. She couldn’t get to work on time. She was taking more of a toll on other people and the studio. She had no perspective. She had no idea what was going on really - no idea at all.”