Sometimes a film’s reputation overwhelms the picture itself: stories and anecdotes begin to monopolize any writing that is devoted to the film. In John Huston’s 1962 film The Misfits, the surrounding drama of the making of the movie trumped a lot of serious discussion of the film’s considerable merits. Known primarily because it’s Clark Cable’s and Marilyn Monroe’s last film, it’s a beautiful, but highly flawed film that works as a eulogy of sorts: an eulogy to old Hollywood, to the Western, to the studio system that churned out film stars and movies. It’s also known for the drama that took place behind the scenes, specifically the difficult time it took to make the movie because of director Huston’s gambling proclivities and Monroe’s emotional illness, coupled with the disintegration of her marriage to the film’s screenwriter, Arthur Miller dragged the film’s production and made the experience miserable for all involved. All distraction takes attention away from a passionate if troubled movie.
In Miller’s shaky script, Gable stars as Gay Langland, a middle-aged cowboy who hangs about with his best friend, Guido (Eli Wallach). The two men are relics of another time and place and they’ve been reduced to roping wild horses for dog food factories. The men befriend a disillusioned divorcee Roslyn Tabot (Monroe) who is floating aimlessly through life trying to find her way. Perce Howland (Montgomery Clift), a buddy of Gay’s joins the group of ragtag misfits. The airless plot doesn’t do much, and the characters all are mouthpieces for Miller’s ambitious, but ponderous script. He ham-fistedly gives the actors philosophical speeches which sound forced and unnatural.
In fact, despite his Pulitzer Prize, it’s Miller that’s the weak link in this chain, but his damage does affect the performers, most notably his wife. As Roslyn, Monroe does her best with a thinly-written role that doesn’t have much agency, nor does it provide the actress with her breakthrough. A noted comedienne, Monroe was hoping in vain that The Misfits would prove her to be a prime tragic actress. Miller writes Roslyn as both a valentine to his wife, but also as an ultimate everywoman – but Monroe struggles mightily to fit the bill, but cannot. The character’s peak moment occurs toward the end of the film when she angrily confronts her friends over breaking a wild stallion – the scene shows Monroe at her best and worst: at her best because Monroe is masterful, but also at her worse because all Miller has provided the actress is a moment to scream, rant, and rave without any moments of intelligence, thoughtfulness, or autonomy. A slave to her emotions, she has a breakdown and is a pitiful wreck.
Maybe because he identifies more with Gay, Gable’s part, and therefore his performance is stronger and more consistent. He’s brilliant, showing pathetic and vulnerable shades – like Monroe’s Roslyn, Gay also is handed a big fat emotional scene, where he laments for his estranged children. He destroys the iconic image of Rhett Butler and shows off a handsome talent and resource of ability. Though in Gone with the Wind, Gable was excellent, he coasted on his star power – in The Misfits, he’s allowed to be a true person, possibly due to his aging and the expiration date of his good looks and charisma.
Along with Gable and Monroe, the film has a superlative supporting cast: Wallach and (especially) Clift are wonderful, and as usual, Thelma Ritter easily steals her scenes as Roslyn’s confidant. It’s interesting how Method-y this film is – with the exception of Gable, who is the epitome of the Hollywood contract system, the performers are all disciples of Method acting, where actors are encouraged to live the roles they were playing – they’re not acting, but they are being. Gable is a seemingly island, practically screaming Hollywood, being surrounded by the more emotionally-messy New York-style costars (even Monroe, a woman who ascended into superstardom just at the end of the demise of the studio system), yet doesn’t come off stiff or mannered at all (which would be the expectation given how “naturalistic” Method acting is supposed to be).
As overwrought as heavy as Miller’s writing is, Huston manages to overcome the script’s sogginess and is able to create some visually stunning scenes. He’s a master at assembling some stirring visuals – the outskirts of Reno lend themselves a lunar-like atmosphere for many of the scenes, particularly when dealing with the stallion-breaking scenes. The viewers are carted off to another world, alien to what is recognizable – it’s all stark white with looming shadows. It’s an unfamiliar tableau, and the characters are visitors, completely at odds with their surroundings.
The final scene has both Gable and Monroe driving off into the dark night, under a twinkling blanket of stars. Both wouldn’t survive long enough to complete another film and it seems a bit elegiac and portentous that the two of them are riding off into the horizon. Obviously Huston couldn’t predict the deaths of his stars, nor could he have imagined just how iconic and legendary they would become; but it’s impossible to separate the legend from the star, and both Gable and Monroe are folk heroes of cinema history.
There is also something poignant and vulnerable about Gable and Monroe in The Misfits – specifically their aging. Both stars have been frozen in celluloid at their physical peaks in their most popular films (he Gone with the Wind, she Some Like It Hot), but have outlived the height of their beauty. Both actors are still attractive but human now – Monroe’s beauty in particular is worn and tired – she looks weary with her drawn face and the signs of her impending middle age – she’s light years away from Lorelei Lee from Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, both physically and artistically – though it’s gratifying to see that as an artist she was pushing her talents and testing new facets of her skills.
It’s telling that the accounts of the making of The Misfits are as interesting as the movie itself. When release, it faced a largely indifferent reception, with audiences unsure of what to make of a most-modern Western like it – there are no heroes, and the romance is fitfully romantic and interesting. And fans who would normally flock to the latest Clark Gable or Marilyn Monroe picture would leave the movie houses confused at the emotionally naked, bruised performances the two idols give. But in retrospect it’s an admirable, if failed masterpiece. I can’t say I enjoyed the film, but it wasn’t meant to be a fun movie, but a challenging one.