Roslyn, a former burlesque dancer, has travelled to Reno, Nevada, to obtain a ‘quickie’ divorce. Shetakes up with Gay, an elderly cowboy, who persuades Perce, a struggling rodeo rider, to join him in rounding up some of the last feral mustangs of the region. Assisted by Guido, a freebooting pilot, they manage to capture a small family group of the horses, but Roslyn is appalled when she is told that they will be slaughtered for pet food. A struggle follows to release the mustangs, and the hunt has irrevocably changed her feelings for Gay.
The Misfits may be the most compellingly flawed film discussed in this collection. It fascinates as a symptomatic work, in the way that 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 foreseen. 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. Of all the elements that contribute to a successful film, the work of the actors is rarely given enough attention in critical writing, and this film seems to show what acting for the screen truly is, even if it fails to convince as film fiction.
The Misfits in part represents the studio majors at a loss, increasingly unsure of their audience. It is a product of that moment when, no longer capable of staging great emotions through the convention of the world’s most successful mass audience entertainment, ‘American cinema shrank into seriousness. History may show that the feature form was exhausted by 1960, waiting to be transformed by diversity and experiment’ (Thomson 2003: 342, 743). As a decayed Western, The Misfits is a cruel parody of the formulae 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 atom bombs. There are scenes and shots suffused with a peculiarly American bleakness, on the cusp between two very different decades. The Misfits seems to face in opposed directions: the ethos of the 1950s is acted and filmed in a way that anticipates the raw cinema of the ‘Nouvelle Vague’, John Huston directing with a casual, brutal truthfulness of the kind Jean Luc Godard so admired in American cinema. Godard’s Pierrot Le Fou (1965) could be the French New Wave’s remake of The Misfits.
Huston was the difficult, seasoned director of highly successful features, including his first film The Maltese Falcon (1941), The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1947) and The African Queen (1952). He relished the high-risk element of making movies for Hollywood, and could treat actors with calculated sadism. While shooting Moby Dick (1956) he almost drowned Gregory Peck, who, as Captain Ahab in his death throes, was strapped to a two-ton rubber whale that pitched uncontrollably in gale force winds generated by the special effects team. Huston felt a need to adapt respected writers for the screen, from Herman Melville and Tennessee Williams to Flannery O’Connor and James Joyce; Arthur Miller’s drama clearly appealed to him in this way. But he also 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-centred action films chose to put Marilyn Monroe’s Roslyn at the nominal centre of his film. Huston was the director least likely to understand this role, or to bring out the best in his by now fragile and deeply vulnerable female lead.
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’ (Spoto 1993: 477). Fatally, Miller had a low opinion of writing for movies, and his commitment to The Misfits was in fact a desperate personal gamble; he was intending to create the perfect vehicle for his then wife, Marilyn Monroe, as a way of regaining her affection and perhaps salvaging their marriage.
Miller’s screenplay is frankly pretentious and disjointed, drawing heavily on the cult of a vulgarised psychoanalysis that pervaded American culture in the late 1950s. The modern tragedy of broken marriages, failed family life and solitude is painfully established in the opening sequences, as in Roslyn’s poignant tautology before she goes to the divorce court – ‘If I’m goin’ to be alone I want to be by myself’. Mothers recur throughout as figures of loss, rejection and death, fathers as desperate and utterly deluded about their children. The only functioning ‘family unit’ is the group of mustangs that the cowboys finally isolate, a stallion, four mares and a colt, and which is destined for a petfood plant. All of this would be too close to heavily symbolic melodrama, were it not for the desperate intensities with which the cast perform their roles. Inseparable from this is the moviegoer’s compelling fascination with the lives of stars. The Misfits can be such an involving film because it incorporates this compulsion as an inescapable part of the attention we bring to the screen.
The Misfits was an ambitious risk with a budget of three and a half million dollars, which it overshot by another half million. The making of the film was hauntingly captured by nine Magnum photojournalists, including Eve Arnold, Henri-Cartier Bresson and Elliott Erwitt, for promotional purposes (Toubiana 2011). Huston wrote, ‘The cast alone made The Misfits the most expensive black and white film – above the line – which had been made until then’ (Leonard 1997: 239). 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. Despite being heavily dependent on drugs and alcohol, Clift was highly professional on set. Against Clift’s ‘Method’ training, Gable simply said, ‘I gather up everything I was, everything I am and hope to be. That’s about it’ (Leonard 1997: 241). Monroe’s technique, paradoxically, was nearer to that of Gable than Clift, calling on her own innate abilities and troubled history while relying heavily for support on her drama coach, Paula Strasberg. What her husband’s screenplay could never allow her to display was her essential genius for comedy and the free spirit that the film had been intended to celebrate. Clift and Monroe, recognising each other as lost souls, rapidly came to trust and depend on one another.
For Monroe, the experience of making The Misfits, her twenty-eighth and last completed film, could not have been more painful. Miller’s script, begun as a celebration of her qualities, now catalogued the tragic failures in her life. The scene introducing Roslyn Tabor shows Monroe struggling to learn lines before her appearance in the divorce court, and immediately frames her as little more than an inept burlesque performer. She is being coached by Isabelle (Thelma Ritter), and the scene reproduces details and even lines from Monroe’s own divorce case. She was persistently late on set, though often with genuine justification, as Miller would pass rewritten scenes to her at the last possible moment.
Miller chose Gable as his wife’s romantic lead because he was the actor she had idolised ‘as my father’ since she was a child. Gable did become a paternal figure, patiently reassuring her even as he became exasperated with her erratic behaviour. She was, in her turn, frustrated by the role her husband was creating for her, which she knew to be poorly conceived. At the dramatic climax of the mustang round-up, rather than arguing with the cowboys about what they have in mind for the horses, Roslyn is shown simply screaming hysterically.
“I guess they thought I was too dumb to explain anything, so I have a fit – a screaming, crazy fit. I mean nuts. And to think, Arthur did this to me.” (Spoto 1993: 482)
Yet at a very painful level, the role of Roslyn is profoundly accurate as the representation of a compelling female icon, misrecognised for what she is by the competing males who circle around her. As Monroe said,
“Everyone was always pulling at me, tugging at me, as if they wanted a piece of me. God, I’ve tried to stay intact, whole.” (Ibid: 483)
Here too The Misfits anticipates Godard, in his critique of screen femininity and the gender politics of its time.
On its release, The Misfits divided audiences, as well it might, but was praised by some of the critics: ‘The theme with its implications of an essentially male savagery suits Mr Huston, and he has drawn extraordinary qualities from all his chief players’ (Dilys Powell, Sunday Times1 ). Other, more puzzled responses described the film, not inaccurately, as a cowboy story for an art-house theatre, or as an ‘eastern western’. Others complained that nothing really happens in the film, but it is precisely the unmotivated series of random events where everything depends on the ordinariness of experience that brings the narrative close to French New Wave narration. As Roslyn remarks to Perce behind the saloon, ‘Maybe all there is, is just the next thing’.
When Roslyn, Gay and Guido first dance in the unfinished house, a desperate intensity develops between them, because so much seems at stake. Roslyn is worshipped by the pair as the only person who uniquely has ‘the gift for life’, but she is stricken by the tragedy of what unfolds around her: ‘We’re all dying aren’t we, all the husbands and all the wives.’ At the end of the drunken evening, Roslyn goes outside and dances alone, while the other three look on. Monroe wrote to her analyst from a sanatorium shortly after the film was released, and commented movingly on this scene: ‘Did you see The Misfits yet? In one sequence you can perhaps see how bare and strange a tree can be for me’ (Spoto 1993: 509).
Each of the characters is vulnerable in their own, painful way, and none of them acts their true age. Gay is at the point of turning into an old man, while Roslyn behaves with a girlish naivety. This is what becomes so painful about Isabelle’s witless repetition of ‘Dear girl’ to Roslyn, and it is also what gives such poignancy to the only child who appears in the film, the boy-cowboy with the strangely blank gaze, perched on the bar during a bat-and-ball wager. When Perce is thrown from his horse at the rodeo, Clift conveys an absurd vulnerability that suddenly becomes an image for the madness of cherished American aspirations, as ‘Old Glory’ streams in the background and a clown-faced cowboy hovers around him. The Misfits has failings, but also the power to haunt, as in the ominous final shot, when Roslyn and Gay drive into the night. She asks him, ‘How do you find your way back in the dark?’ He replies, ‘Just head for that big star straight on. The highway’s under it – it’ll take us right home.’ Miller’s screenplay adds, ‘They both keep their eyes on the star that shines above and beyond – the bright star of hope. FADE OUT.’ But now the ending is inseparable from the fate of its two stars, and the fiction of the movie is co-opted by the mythic truth of the screen god and goddess, both shortly to die.
1. Available at http://www.movie-film-review. com/devfilm.asp?rtype=1&id=7533 (accessed 16 June 2014)
Cast and Crew:
[Country: USA. Production Company: Seven Arts Productions. Director: John Huston. Screenwriter: Arthur Miller. Cinematographer: Russell Metty. Music: Alex North. Editor: George Tomasini. Cast: Clark Gable (Gay Langland), Marilyn Monroe (Roslyn Taber), Montgomery Clift (Perce Howland), Thelma Ritter (Isabelle Steers), Eli Wallach (Guido), Kevin McCarthy (Raymond Taber).]
Maurice Leonard, Montgomery Clift, London, Hodder and Stoughton, 1997.
Donald Spoto, Marilyn Monroe: The Biography, London, Chatto and Windus, 1993.
David Thomson, The New Biographical Dictionary of Film, London, Little Brown, 2003.
Serge Toubiana, The Misfits: Story of a Shoot, London, Phaidon, 2011.
The Routledge Encyclopedia of Films, Edited by Sarah Barrow, Sabine Haenni and John White, first published in 2015.