A haunting classic with mesmerizing performances and profound questions
Haunting. That’s the word that best describes “The Misfits”. It sums up this film’s atmosphere, performances, story, visuals, and even its legacy. Filled with symbolic overtones, it is one of the very few films that is better to think about and feel than figure out. Its production was surrounded by real life tragedies which blend with what’s on-screen, creating an otherworldly exposé about the loneliness and inner world of its star, Marilyn Monroe. It also stars Hollywood legends Clark Gable and Montgomery Clift, was directed by the masterful John Huston, and written by one of America’s greatest playwrights, Arthur Miller. Every time I watch this film its profound dialogue and rich performances lead me to different thoughts and insights, making for one powerfully lasting experience.
“The Misfits” revolves around “Roslyn”, an ex-stripper who has come to Reno, Nevada to get a divorce from a man she says “...wasn’t there. I mean you could touch him but he wasn’t there”. She’s renting a room in the home of “Isabelle”, a long time divorcee, and they end up meeting a widowed mechanic and pilot named “Guido”, an older cowboy named “Gay”, and a rodeo bull rider named “Perce”. The three men and the reluctant "Rosalyn" decide to round up some wild “misfit” mustangs to sell. All three desire the life-loving “Roslyn”, who is trying to find herself. Within this basic framework, Miller’s gift for writing penetrating lines that probe deeply into the human psyche is at play, and the film is packed with questions and insights about life and death, conformity, displacement in a changing world, love, loss, bravery, exploitation, and selling out. Each of these characters have been abandoned and feel some sort of alienation, and they all desperately want to connect but are fearful and clueless as to how to do so. Like the wild horses they search for, these misfits live outside the conventions of society and roam through life without a place to truly call home.
“The Misfits” came about because of Arthur Miller. He lived in Reno five years earlier while waiting out a divorce from his first wife in order to marry movie star Monroe, and he and Monroe married immediately after his divorce was finalized (Reno was known as “the divorce capital of the world”, where one could get a “quickie” divorce by living there for a minimum of six weeks). In 1957 he wrote a short story based on his time in Reno. After Monroe got pregnant, lost the baby, and was told she could never have children, Miller turned his Reno story into a screenplay as a love letter and vehicle for Monroe, to cheer her up and give her the kind of dramatic role Hollywood denied her. Miller was on the set during filming making script changes and working out the ending which hadn’t yet been finalized. He and Monroe got along famously when shooting began, and as it progressed their relationship turned hostile and their marriage completely disintegrated. The couple divorced just two months after filming completed.
“The Misfits” was Arthur Miller’s first original screenplay. This Harlem born writer started out studying journalism until he turned to writing plays. He wrote two plays while at the University of Michigan, winning an award for each. After graduating, he joined the Federal Theatre Project. This New Deal government program was shut down a year later, as Congress was worried about possible Communist infiltration. Miller continued writing theater and radio plays, and in 1940 his first play was produced on Broadway, “The Man Who Had All the Luck”, which won the Theatre Guild’s National Award.“All My Sons” in 1947 followed, earning him a Tony Award (along with its director, Elia Kazan). Next came Miller's masterwork, “Death of a Salesman” in 1949, for which he won many awards, including two more Tony Awards (for writing and Best Play) and a Pulitzer Prize. That show won a total of six Tony Awards, has been produced countless times all over the world, and is considered to be among the greatest plays ever written. Miller went on to write more classic plays, including "A View from the Bridge" and "The Crucible" (which earned him another Tony Award for Best Play).
"The Crucible” was written as an allegory for McCarthyism, and shortly after it was produced he was subpoenaed to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee regarding his politics and any possible communist ties (you can read more about HUAC and the McCarthy Era in my post on “High Noon”). The chairman promised he wouldn’t have to name names of other supposed communists if he testified, so Miller testified, with Monroe by his side. During his testimony, going against the chairman’s word, the committee demanded Miller name friends and colleagues whom he suspected as communists. He refused and was fined, sentenced to prison, blacklisted, and denied a passport. His conviction was overturned the following year, ruling that he was misled by the chairman. That event scarred him for the rest of his life. “The Crucible” has since become his most frequently internationally produced work, and he later adapted it into a 1996 film starring Daniel Day-Lewis and Winona Ryder, earning him his only Academy Award nomination (Best Adapted Screenplay). In his lifetime Miller wrote over two dozen plays, including "The Price", "Broken Glass” and "The Ride Down Mt. Morgan” (each nominated for Best Play Tony Awards), "After the Fall” in 1964 (said to be about his marriage to Monroe), and his final play in 2004, “Finishing the Picture” (which dramatized the making of “The Misfits”). He also wrote for television, earning two Emmy Awards - one for his adaptation of “Death of a Salesman” in 1966, and the other for the 1980 TV movie, "Playing for Time”. He was awarded a Kennedy Center Honor in 1984 for his contribution to the arts. Miller also wrote a dozen novels (half fiction and half nonfiction). Including his marriage to Monroe, he was married three times. Arthur Miller died in 2005 at the age of 89.
When Miller approached Monroe with the screenplay, he asked who she wanted to direct and she picked John Huston. Huston had previously directed her in a small role in his 1950 classic “The Asphalt Jungle”, which boosted her career and helped land her a contract with 20th Century Fox. More importantly, she felt he respected her and her acting talent. With his flair for making complex relationships and situations feel real, Huston turned out to be the perfect choice. “The Misfits” often feels like one is observing the behavior of the actors as if in a documentary. He knows when to let the camera linger on a face and when to back off. In an example, one of the film’s most famous shots is when “Roslyn” screams “Murderers” to the men as they capture the mustangs. Huston shows her as a distant, small figure engulfed by the landscape, making her seem even more helpless. Huston had a reputation for heavy alcohol intake and he didn’t stop while making “The Misfits”. In addition, on this set he also gambled (sometimes all night) at the hotel’s casino before showing up the next morning ready to film. In spite of that, he managed to create a vivid dreamlike quality, and bring out the best in all of his actors. I’ve previously written about John Huston in my post on “The Maltese Falcon”. Please click on the title to read more about him and his career.
Frank Taylor, the film’s producer, signed a contract with Magnum (an international photographic agency), to photograph the making of “The Misfits”. It was the first time Magnum had exclusive rights to photograph a film and they sent two photographers to the set at a time, changing them every fifteen days (including famous photographers such as Eve Arnold, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Inge Morath, Elliott Erwitt, Dennis Stock and Erich Hartmann). Many of their photographs have become iconic, and several of the photographers have since spoken or written about their experience on the film. Many of the photos I’m including in this post are candids taken by Magnum's assigned photographers.
Clark Gable stars as “Gay Langland”, an old cowboy whose wife left him years ago for a cousin. He now sees his kids just once or twice a year, and goes from woman to woman, place to place, not wanting to be tied to anyone or anything. He will do whatever he can not to attach himself to anything, especially a job with wages. Serving as a brutal reminder that nothing in life lasts, “Gay” feels outdated and lost in a constantly changing world. So too in a sense was Gable, as he was the “King of Hollywood” in the 1930s and 40s, now surrounded by a new breed of Method actors (Monroe, Clift, and Wallach). Every time I watch this film, Gable appears out of place at the beginning. It looks like Gable is playing Gable. But there’s a major shift about halfway through, and he proceeds to display the best acting of his entire career. One of the film’s most chilling moments is when “Gay” is drunk at the rodeo yelling for his kids. It is authentically heart wrenching, as Gable shows a level of despair and vulnerability he never previously exhibited. He is fantastic. And his scene sitting on the side of the truck talking about finding a new way to live is extraordinary. Gable also shows a warmth and kindness towards “Roslyn” with a genuineness that exceeds anything I've seen from him before, and his chemistry with Clift feels completely buddy-buddy real. After seeing a rough cut of the film, Gable himself said to Miller, “This is the best thing I did in my life”.
Thinking it was supposed to be a typical Western, Gable didn’t understand the role and was apprehensive about accepting it. Miller described the film to him as a sort of “Eastern Western” which somehow helped (along with coaxing from Gable’s agent). Gable insisted on doing all his own stunts and that’s him you see with the horses, as well as being dragged on the ground. Two days after filming he suffered a heart attack, and a second larger one ten days after, which killed him. The scenes of him exerting himself (including one in which he can barely catch his breath) are impossible to watch without wondering what is happening to his heart. It feels like we are watching Gable on the verge of death (and we are). It is just one of many eerie, foreboding moments in this film. Clark Gable died on November 16, 1960 at the age of 59, and “The Misfits” was his last film. One of Hollywood’s all-time biggest stars, Gable has appeared in many, many classics, and I’ve previously written about him in several posts where you can read more about his life and career - “Red Dust”, “It Happened One Night”, and “Gone with the Wind”,.
Marilyn Monroe stars as “Roslyn Tabor”, the woman who came to Reno for a divorce. “Roslyn” aches to be loved and respected for who she is and not for what people want from her. In a hypnotizing portrayal, Monroe delivers what I consider her best career performance. Already a top star for about a decade, Monroe became famous for playing deer-in-headlights type dumb blondes, and although “Roslyn” is sexy and beautiful, she is no dumb blonde. She has her own mind, makes her own decisions, is fully aware of men’s desires and intentions, and has no trouble saying “no”. It is clear from the moment she appears, that this is a strikingly different Marilyn Monroe than ever seen before. As "Roslyn" struggles to memorize lines to tell the judge about her husband’s cruelty, Monroe is subdued, serious and fully involved to the point where her hand is slightly shaking. Her entire performance is filled with details, nuances, and raw emotional vulnerability. Watch her in the short scene when “Gay” wants to shoot a rabbit. She goes through so many different emotions - all of which ring true. “Roslyn” is a highly complex character, embodying life, longing for humanity and kinship, and trying desperately to find kindness and light in a lonely, unmerciful world. Monroe's haunting performance is one for the ages.
Miller took four years to write “The Misfits”, heavily fashioning “Roslyn” around Monroe, endowing her with Monroe’s own issues, personality traits, and background, even weaving actual things Monroe said into the dialogue. For anyone who knows Monroe’s history, this film takes on an entirely new dimension, seeming almost like an emotional biography. Like “Roslyn”, Monroe had absent parents, was passed from foster home to home, never finished high school, and never felt she belonged. The two share trust issues, a love of animals, a childlike nature, and beauty that others exploit. The scene in which “Roslyn” plays paddleball-on-a-string for fun ends up with her becoming a sex object for other's profit - completely mirroring Monroe’s frustration at wanting to be recognized for her talent while Hollywood regulated her to a moneymaking sex symbol. Monroe is famously quoted as saying “[Hollywood is] a place where they’ll pay you a thousand dollars for a kiss and fifty cents for your soul”. Her disfavor with Hollywood is echoed again when "Roslyn" gives “Guido” a tour of his remodeled home and an open closet door is covered with famous photos of Marilyn Monroe. “Guido” looks at them and “Roslyn” closes the door and says, “Oh don’t look at these, they’re nothing. ‘Gay’ just hung them up for a joke”. “Guido” keeps wanting to look at them and she keeps closing the door, and just before she walks out of frame, her look turns bothered and serious. That sequence also brilliantly lets us known that “Roslyn” and “Monroe” are blended creatures, and that this film is partly about Monroe. In another intermingling of fact and fiction, Monroe was attracted to older men, and not knowing her real father, she used to fantasize that Clark Gable (who she idolized) was her secret father. In turn, “Roslyn” chooses the oldest man of the three, who happens to be played by Clark Gable.
Monroe knew “The Misfits” was written for and about her, and that Miller was affording her an opportunity to show the world she could handle serious drama. Ironically, she didn’t immediately jump at the role, but once Huston was onboard she felt a bit more confident. Miller and Huston both knew she could pull it off, but she had her doubts. Having just finished shooting “Let’s Make Love”, she was suffering from anemia, and was physically and emotionally exhausted. In her book, “Marilyn Monroe”, Magnum photographer Eve Arnold states that Monroe told her with a sigh, “I’m thirty-four years old. I’ve been dancing for six months (on 'Let’s Make Love'), I’ve had no rest, I’m exhausted. Where do I go from here?”. Because of delays, “The Misfits” began shooting in July in temperatures over 100 degrees Fahrenheit. By all accounts, the very beginning went well and Miller helped keep her going. Soon her reputation for showing up late on sets followed her to this production, and she would show up as much as five hours late and occasionally not show at all.
During filming, Miller found out about
an affair she had with Yves Montand during “Let’s Make Love”, which led to mutual hostility and began the quick end to their five year marriage. According to the book, “Marilyn Monroe: Private and Undisclosed” by Michelle Morgan, Monroe had a clause in her contract that she could take time off when she had her period, and she did so in late August. She flew back to Los Angeles to be treated for extreme exhaustion and it was determined she was having a nervous breakdown. Miller was by her side (it was before their marriage collapsed), and the film stopped shooting for about two weeks. By the time she and Miller returned, the rest of the cast and crew were all exhausted. Heat, location issues, horses, rodeo scenes, dust storms, illnesses, and Monroe’s tardiness and brief absence all helped the film fall severely behind schedule and well over budget. What began as a joyful shoot became stressful and chaotic, and as Monroe's own problems increased, so did her intake of prescription drugs, exacerbating her usual trouble of remembering lines and causing mood changes and unpredictable behavior. Observers have been quoted as saying she had a tragically sad look about her. In the book, “Conversations with the Great Moviemakers of Hollywood's Golden Age at the American Film Institute” by George Stevens Jr., Huston said, "Marilyn was on her way out. Not only of the picture, but of life”. Marilyn Monroe died just over a year and a half later, on August 4, 1962 at the age of 36, and “The Misfits” was her final film. Tomorrow marks the 60th anniversary of her death. Monroe’s compromised state, along with Gable’s death and Clift’s soon demise, make for another ominously spooky moment in the film, when “Roslyn” says to “Guido” while dancing, “…we’re all dying, aren’t we?”. I previously wrote about the life and career of Marilyn Monroe in my “Some Like It Hot” post, please check it out for more.
Montgomery Clift gives a powerhouse performance starring as “Perce Howland”, the cowboy that wants to be a rodeo star. We first meet "Perce" by a phone booth and listen in as he talks to his mother. In this simple two-minute call, one gets to watch acting at its very best. In reality, Clift is talking to no one, hearing, listening, and reacting to imagined words said by an imagined person. Clift is so convincing that we can’t help but hear his mother speak in our own minds. It is a spectacular display of the art of acting. His disarming nature lets us see immediately that “Perce” is sensitive, disappointed with life, and feels somewhat alienated. As if his phone call wasn’t enough, Clift gives another brief tour de force monologue while resting his head in “Roslyn’s” lap after they dance. Again, his straightforward honesty and darting emotions are stunningly presented. Clift’s performance blends incredibly well with his talented costars. He and Monroe found kindred spirits in each other (they even attended the premiere together), becoming close and protective of one another, and you can see electricity when together. Just watch how Monroe wholeheartedly looks at him throughout the film.
In another one of the film’s blurred lines between character and actor, “Perce” exhibits an addiction to self-destructive behavior, much like Clift. During the phone booth scene “Perce” says, “...my face is fine. It’s all healed up. Just as good as new... You would too recognize me” - harking back to Clift’s famous car accident five years earlier which scarred his face and forever changed his looks. Because of Clift's alcoholism and infamous self-destructive behavior, he had trouble getting insured for the film. Because Huston was so set on casting Clift, he managed to get the star insured and funny enough, Clift turned out to be the most calm, kind, and reliable of them all during the shoot, always knowing his lines. The phone booth scene was scheduled to take two days, but Clift did it in two hours and in one take. Always delving into his roles with a fervor, Clift hung around a rodeo before filming began to learn the ropes (figuratively and literally), when a bull bruised his nose, which Huston used in the film.
Clift and Huston got along very well during “The Misfits”, and Huston then cast him in the title role of his next film, “Freud”, which Huston had begun preparing before “The Misfits”. While staying at Huston’s castle in Ireland, Clift had sex with a man, and being homophobic, Hutson was disgusted. That began trouble between the two, and when “Freud” went over budget and over schedule, Huston put the blame on Clift, accusing him of not remembering his lines. According to Clift himself in the documentary “Making Montgomery Clift”, he didn’t have any trouble with his lines and what led the film to losing money was Huston’s constant script and costume changes, and needless spending (like paying hundreds of unused extras). A lawsuit followed, which devastated Clift. In the same documentary, Clift’s brother Brooks says, “Probably what was the major reason that my brother died was that John Huston brought a very unfair lawsuit against him, which Monty eventually won. But he couldn’t get insurance to do another movie. So he went for four years without making a movie, and to Monty, not working was terribly depressing”. He goes on to state that Huston's lawsuit was the catalyst for the increased despair and drug use which lead to Clift's death. Montgomery Clift's heart gave out in 1966, and he died at the age of 45. He only appeared in three more films (including “Freud”). A third tragic death for the third star of “The Misfits”. I’ve previously written about Clift in my posts on “A Place in the Sun”, “The Heiress”, and “Red River”. Please check them out for more on this astounding actor.
Thelma Ritter plays “Isabelle Steers”, “Roslyn’s” landlord and divorce witness. This wise woman knows what’s what, as she effortlessly puts cowboys in their place and helps “Roslyn” move through divorce. This is "Isabelle's" seventy-seventh time witnessing a divorce and by now she's an expert. Her husband left her for her oldest friend nineteen years ago and sends her one potted yellow rose each year on the anniversary of their divorce. Unlike the other misfits, “Isabelle” accepts her abandonment without anguish or self-pity, and Ritter infuses her with a radiant kindness and world-weary understanding. Watch how she listens to “Roslyn” talk about her mother and father over drinks. She is rich with compassion and self-introspection. It is a consummate performance by a magnificent actress. She adds humor to the film with quick quips, and even bangs out a beat with a butterknife on her arm cast. Though she accepts her forsaken fate, “Isabelle” is broken, as symbolized by her injured arm and in such lines as when she tells “Guido”, “I’m so sick and tired of myself”. Scattered, she can’t quite ground herself in the world, always losing things and surrounded by broken clocks. Ritter has wonderful chemistry with Monroe as seen by the loving way they look at one another. “Isabelle” was based on a woman Miller met while getting his divorce in Reno, and some of the filming took place near her home. The phenomenal Thelma Ritter has appeared in two previous films on this blog - “All About Eve” (also with Monroe) and “Pillow Talk”, and you can read more about her life and career in both of those posts.
The entire cast of “The Misfits” is outstanding, and Eli Wallach as “Guido”, the pilot/mechanic, is no exception. The film opens as he comes to “Isabelle’s” to appraise “Roslyn’s” car. One glance at “Roslyn” and he's hooked, continually pursuing her even after she chooses “Gay”. Like the others, “Guido” is lost, though he is constantly running away from his pain. He jumps at any opportunity to distract himself from feeling, whether it be “Roslyn” or mustanging. Even the house he built was left unfinished, standing like a monument to his guilt over his wife's death and time in the war, which he never resolved. Fittingly, he walks around in a bulletproof jacket full of holes. Though “Guido” is bitter, unhappy with himself, and unable to love, Wallach makes him real and palatable, even at his most appalling. “Guido” sums up himself pretty well when he tells “Roslyn”, “…you have the gift for life Rosalyn. The rest of us, we’re just looking for a place to hide and watch it all go by”. He is exceptional in the role and has many sublime scenes where he continually shifts between very subtle emotions such as when he first sees “Roslyn”, or the many feelings he has while “Roslyn” asks about his wife during their dance.
Brooklyn-born Eli Wallach began appearing in plays while studying history at the University of Texas. After earning a masters degree in education, he began studying acting with Sanford Meisner at New York City's Neighborhood Playhouse School of the Theatre. After serving in the army during WWII, he returned to studying acting and soon helped found the Actors Studio (the home of Method acting) with Lee Strasberg. While there he studied with Clift and Monroe, and he and Monroe became friends. Wallach’s Broadway debut was in 1945's “Skydrift”, after which he worked steadily, earring a Tony Award for his starring role in Tennessee Williams' “The Rose Tattoo” in 1951. That same year he began appearing on television. His film debut came in the 1956 Elia Kazan film, “Baby Doll”, also by Tennessee Williams. Wallach worked on stage, TV, and film his entire career, eventually accruing over 170 film and TV credits. He was nominated for five Emmy Awards, winning one for the 1966 TV movie, “Poppies Are Also Flowers”. Though never nominated for an Oscar, in 2011 he was awarded an honorary Academy Award for his lifetime of indelible screen characters. A highly skilled and prolific actor, some of his other notable films include "The Magnificent Seven", "How the West Was Won", "The Good, the Bad and the Ugly", "The Deep", "Nuts", "Night and the City", and his last feature film "Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps" in 2010. He was married to actress Anne Jackson (whom he met at the Actors Studio) for nearly sixty years until his death. Eli Wallach died in 2014 at the age of 98.
There are two actors I want to quickly point out who both appear in very small roles. First is Kevin McCarthy as “Raymond Tabor”, “Roslyn’s” soon-to-be ex-husband, quickly seen on the stairs outside the courthouse. During filming, the sound man couldn’t pick up Monroe's dialogue, so Huston had McCarthy wear a microphone up his pant leg, attached to his tie. He wasn’t able to move during the scene, and it took about seventeen takes for Monroe to get her lines right. McCarthy is best known as the star of the original 1956 sci-fi classic, “Invasion of the Body Snatchers”. He was also a very close friend of Clift’s for many years.
The second actor I want to point out is Estelle Winwood who plays the lady collecting money for the Church Ladies Auxiliary. In a career mostly dedicated to theater (both in London and New York), the English born Winwood became a colorful character actress appearing in many TV shows and films, always lighting up the screen. She lived to be 101. I’ll write more about both McCarthy and Winwood in upcoming posts.
This week’s classic is not a film to understand but one to feel. It provokes many thoughts and feelings to remind us that life can't be reined in, but only lived, and its mesmerizing performances and provocative dialogue are bound to leave an indelible impression. Enjoy one of my favorites, “The Misfits”!
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