Sunday Editor’s Pick: The Misfits (1961)

by on July 16, 2011Posted in: Editor's Pick

Playing Sunday July 17 at 2:00 , 4:30 , 7:00 , and 9:30 at BAMcinématek [Program & Tix]


BAM’s “Marilyn!” series wraps up with a doozy: John Huston’s adaptation of Arthur Miller’s paean to Monroe’s life-giving force. A poignantly odd, intense film heightened by Death’s shadow all around – it was the final completed film by Clark Gable (who died 10 days after shooting from a heart attack) and Monroe (who died a year later) and one of the last great performances by Montgomery Clift,, who passed away equally prematurely in 1966. The Misfits was a box office in disaster in its day and endured great criticism for Miller’s serious-minded, moralistic, almost baroque script, but remains a fascinating, affecting relic of Hollywood Babylon.


Dan Callahan provides a not entirely flattering, but gripping take on Monroe’s performance in the film, in his essay for Alt Screen:

Increasingly dependent on liquor and pills, Monroe made her final stab at being taken seriously in the difficult-to-watch The Misfits (1961), scripted by Miller, directed by John Huston and co-starring her one-time fantasy Daddy, Clark Gable. As Roslyn, a sad-eyed divorcee, an exhausted Monroe is lost in internal traumas that we cannot share with her (always the downside of Strasberg’s dig-up-your-own-pain acting theories). With this movie, Monroe seems to want to show us just what a total wreck she is, and she looks totally exposed, not in the unformed way of Don’t Bother to Knock but in a much more liquid style that might have something to do with the drugs she was taking. She’s trying so hard to communicate with us in The Misfits, and even when she fails, mainly due to the script’s repetitions, her attempts are often touching. Huston includes some random close shots of her behind as if he wants to throw a bone to the paying customers, and he keeps her explosion of anger toward the end in extreme long shot, which limits its impact. In the last scene, she drives away with Gable toward a star on the horizon, looking bone-white and spectral, as if she were fading away.



Some background from Nigel Wheale in Fifty Key American Films:

[The Misfits] fascinates as a symptomatic work; that is in the way some films seem to show more than they intend, gathering together their times and displaying them in ways that writer, director and actors could never have conceived.  This film is also revealing about the nature of acting for cinema, just at the moment when the medium was falling from grace with its audience.  The Misfits plays with its starring cast in a very knowing way, using the politics of charisma with remorseless cruelty…As a decayed western, The Misfits is a cruel parody of the conventions of a major Hollywood genre that could no longer work on its old terms.  Yet there is no nostalgia for ‘the lost West’, only unflinching realism about what life in that territory has become, when Nevada is the ‘Leave It’ state, a dumping ground for everything from former wives to atomic bombs.  There are scenes and shots suffused with a peculiarly American bleakness, which is portrayed on the cusp between two very different decades.


…[Huston] was…a director who rapidly lost interest in films that were not going well, and he routinely gave little explicit direction to actors, depending on the chemistry of the shoot to create drama in front of his cameras.  All of this can be sensed in the risk-laden direction and acting in The Misfits.  What is also extraordinary is that this creator of rugged, male-focused action films chose to put Marilyn Monroe’s Roslyn at the nominal centre of his film…


Miller had been working on the screenplay since 1957, but it was still unfinished when shooting began in 1960, in the July heat of the Nevada desert.  Four years earlier, he had met an eccentric pair of cowhands in Nevada, who hunted down some of the remaining wild mustangs for sale to the slaughterhouse. The dramatist was struck by these men and their degraded work, and drew on them for his screenplay, which was to reveal ‘our lives’ meaninglessness and maybe how we got to where we are’.  But, fatally, Miller had a low opinion of writing for movies, and his commitment to The Misfits was in fact a desperate personal gamble, since he was intending to create the perfect vehicle for his wife, Marilyn Monroe, as a way of regaining her affection and perhaps salvaging their marriage.


Huston wrote, ‘The cast alone made The Misfits the most expensive black and white film – above the line- which had been made until then’. The director could hardly have chosen a more unstable and demanding trio for the central roles than Monroe, Clark Gable and Montgomery Clift – and both director and his leads were in the grip of serious addictions that came near to destroying the entire production. Clift was intimidated by Gable, but could not respect his acting, which he considered limited. Gable had no time for Clift, as a product of the ‘Method’ school, yet he came to admire the younger actor’s willingness to perform his own stunts.



Evan Kindley for Not Coming to a Theater Near You:

One might well expect the movie to be a total mess. But The Misfits, in fact, has a precision and sureness of technique that belie its on-set problems (recently detailed in the documentary Making The Misfits). It’s surprising how coherent and focused the final product is, given not only its production history but also its subject matter: it’s a concentrated movie about distracted people.


The action of The Misfits begins in medias res. Monroe plays Roslyn Taber, a nightclub dancer who’s come to Reno to obtain a quickie divorce. Every moment Monroe’s onscreen you’re aware of her beauty — and in case you ever forget about it, the other characters tend to comment on it — but also her lack of poise, her squirming and fidgeting. While it’s impossible to tell how much of her performance was affected by factors beyond her control (she was often learning her lines the night before, or even on set), it seems just right for Roslyn, who is leaving one phase of her life behind and tentatively tumbling into another. She ends up getting attached to Gay Langland (Gable’s character), an aging cowboy who ekes out a living hunting wild Mustangs and selling them to a dog food company. Where Monroe seems impressively unaffected, as if she were totally unaware of the camera, Gable is highly self-aware, but this works for Gay, who is playing the part of the cowboy longer than he knows he ought to, and is a little uncertain whether he’s getting away with it.


…In another movie, Montgomery Clift’s performance as Perce would steal the show: intense, beetle-browed, with eyes that are at once soulful and a little glazed over, he justifies his presence through sheer charisma, though his character ultimately feels tangential to the plot. (An intimation of some puer/senex rivalry between Perce and Gay over Roslyn’s affection never really comes to anything.) But the center of the film always remains Roslyn; good as Gable is, this is really Monroe’s monument. She was given a lot to work with: Miller loads the script with personal subtexts, referring to his wife’s past marriage to Joe DiMaggio and her lonely childhood (Gable was Monroe’s childhood screen idol, and there’s an undeniable Elektra tension at work in their relationship: “Didn’t your Papa ever spank ya?” he asks her in one particularly creepy scene). With the exception of a few out-of-place cheesecake moments (a close-up of Monroe’s butt bouncing on a horse, or a shot of her cavorting in a bikini) perhaps inserted for advertising purposes, Monroe is not objectified: rather, Roslyn’s consciousness, however mysterious, is made the controlling one of the film.”



An excerpt from “Saints and Stinkers: The Rolling Stone Interview.”  Peter S. Greenberg talks with the director in 1981, re-printed in John Huston: Interviews:

The Misfits must have have been an incredible experience–not just because of the movie itself, but because so many of the people involved died soon after. Did you have any premonition that it was going to be anyone’s last movie?
It was more than a premonition. I was absolutely certain that Marilyn was doomed. There was evidence right before me every day. She was incapable of rescuing herself or of being rescued by anyone else. And it affected her work. We had to stop the picture while she went to a hospital for two weeks.


Did the fact that Arthur Miller was on the set help or hurt it?
They were having difficulties, and it certainly didn’t help matters. On the other hand, I don’t think anything would have made things any worse. The problems were all within her.

I remember Marilyn before she had any recognition at all. I was making a film at Columbia with Johnny Garfield and Jennifer Jones, and she’d come over and watch…I can’t say not that back then I had a notion that she would ever become the kind of star that she did. But there was something about her, a kind of pristineness, and innocence, too. And I remember a magazine article about her in which her masseur was quoted. He said her flesh was different that anyone else’s. But there was that freshness about her, and that endured. And you’ll see it…it’s on the screen in The Misfits. It’s still there.


Despite all the problems she was going through?
Despite them, even though she was on her last legs.


Couldn’t you get close enough to talk to her?
Oh, yes. And she was not easy to talk to. If she had a few drinks, she’d start to talk. And I wouldn’t like this to be said, but, you know, she’d talk out against Arthur Miller, right in his presence, to me, and with others around. And say things that embarrassed me, and certainly must have made him cringe. He would pretend he wasn’t listening. And all my sympathies were with him. And I began to, I, I…I didn’t like what she was doing to him.


Do you think she was aware of what she was doing to him?
She had to know. She was…there were sides to Marilyn that I didn’t know and didn’t inquire into. I mean, there were things about her that…I’ve heard people who knew her very well put her way down. When I discovered that she’d become the sex goddess of America, I thought it was almost funny. And I didn’t take it all that seriously. In fact, I didn’t take it seriously at all. Then her figure loomed bigger and bigger. I remember Jean-Paul Sartre saying that he thought was the hottest actress alive.


Did that change your impression of Sartre?
Oh, no. No, no. But it was kind of an eye-opener to realize that Europeans held her in very high regard. Much higher than just a sex goddess. They thought she was a very fine actress, too. And she was, oddly enough. Not an actress in the technical sense, but…she had that ability to go down within herself and pull up an emotion and give it.



Emanuel Levy:

The movie deconstructs the myth of the cowboys, who now drive a pick up and ride horses without saddles, and the myth of the Western, both real and reel. Even so, it still presents a romantically nostalgic view of the old American mores, which is in tune with one of the most recurrent themes in Miller’s stage plays “”Death of a Salesman,” “All My Sons”), which could be described as the degradation or dissolution of the American Dream.


The text is replete of ironies and mysteries. The ruthless and aimless cowboys live around Reno, Nevada, which is after all, the divorce capital of American, and this a symbol of graveyard of romance.


The film makes allusions to the public screen images and lives off screen of the three central stars. Take Gable anti-hero, who’s ironically named Gay. Or the punch-drunk, mother-fixated rodeo rider played by Clift, a star whose handsome looks had been tarnished after a bad accident in 1957 during the production of “Raintree County.”


“The Misfits” reflects how modern technology has caught up with the work and lifestyles of the characters involved. The guys hunt wild stallions not with ropes and horses, but with a truck and airplane. Moreover, their ”work” involves horses whose meat is then processed into tinned cat food.


The film ends in an ambiguous note, with Gable and Monroe discovering some peace, but there’s no avoiding the feeling that the bond is fragile and they both live are in a void, meaningless world.


In 1961, some critics found the picture to be too solemn, pretentious, and wallowing in self-pity. But over the years, “The Misfits” has changed meanings from a drama about ill-fated lives into one about its personas’ real lives, including Gable’s fading charisma as an aging star, Monroe’s evolution as a dramatic actress and her desire to be recognized as such, and Clift’s alcoholic, wasted, self-destructive life.


Ana Salzberg in her essay “The (Im)mortality of the Lived-Body: Marilyn Monroe’s Screen Presence in The Misfits“:

Early in the film, Monroe-as-Roslyn quietly laments her divorce and wonders what her future will hold: “The trouble is, I always end up back where I started.” This sequence, however, marks the end end of this cycle of displacement and unrest. The horses are freed, and Monroe and Clark Gable leave the desert to start out on a shared life. She asks him how they will find their “way back in the dark”; but perhaps what they seek now together is a way out of the dark. As the lovers follow the star in the night sky that will lead them to the highway home, The Misfits closes not with a traditionally happy ending, but with a hopeful one.

The final image focuses on that guiding light in the sky, the same star that, earlier in the film, Wallach’s character pointed to as he remarked: “That star is so far away, that by the time the light from it reaches us here on earth, it might not even be up there anymore”. How well that statement defines the fascinating and enigmatic presence of any great cinematic star – but of Marilyn Monroe especially. The spectator watches Monroe in any of her films with an admiration for her talent and photogénie, all the while understanding that, as Barthes puts forth, the “luminous shadow” on-screen is just that. Death will be and life has been. But in The Misfits, Huston allows the spectator to see the woman casting that luminous shadow, the lived-body from which such ethereality emanates. In a moment of grace, the camera suspends that “simple click” between this will be and this has been, and Marilyn Monroe is.



  • Anonymous

    Love it!

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