Marilyn: Behind the Icon –
Monroe is Forlorn Perfection in The Misfits
Producer Frank Taylor announced that The Misfits, an independent film, would be the “ultimate motion picture,” the joint vision of a leading American playwright and an internationally prominent actress. The concept originated as a short story, titled “The Misfits or Chicken Feed: The Last Frontier of the Quixotic Cowboy,” published in Esquire in 1957. Arthur Miller later adapted it into a screenplay — a “Valentine” for Monroe and a vehicle intended to advance her dramatic acting career. The character of Roslyn was Miller’s idealized representation of his wife. He documented elements of Monroe’s personality into monologues she had spoken and incorporated into the script personal and painful situations excised from her life; art would imitate life. Numerous obstacles delayed the couple’s film project, so by the time the production began, the marriage was disintegrating.
Miller obtained his 1956 divorce by establishing residency outside of Reno. There he met three aging cowboys who explained to him how they made a living capturing wild Mustangs and selling them to dealers who in turn sold them as riding horses; but now the dealers had begun to sell the Mustangs to companies that used them as meat in the production of dog food. The once large population of wild Mustangs dwindled to a few scattered family units. The misfit cowboys, like the misfit horses, were vanishing along with their way of life. The cowboys inspired Miller’s short story and its screenplay adaptation. In apparent western genre, the script lacks a hero, usually a staple in true westerns.
“It’s supposed to be a Western, but it’s not, is it?” leading man Clark Gable asked Miller.
“It’s sort of an Eastern Western,” Miller explained. “It’s about our lives’ meaninglessness and maybe how we got to where we are.” Despite rodeo scenes, The Misfits was not a contemporary western in the way John Wayne’s films were historic period westerns. Miller’s cowboys are metaphors for those wishing to roam free and resist societal changes. Modern urbanization had eroded their masculine roles much in the same way suburbanization had changed the role of the American male.
Roslyn (Monroe) is an interpretive jazz dancer from Chicago divorcing her estranged husband (Kevin McCarthy). She meets Guido (Eli Wallach) , a widower and pilot who dropped bombs in the war. Through Guido, Roslyn meets Gay (Clark Gable) , an aging, strong-willed cowboy coming to terms with the vanishing old frontier who avoids working for the man. He is divorced and estranged from his adult children. Gay is immediately attracted to Roslyn, but she is reticent to start a relationship so soon after her divorce. Eventually, they partner and live together in the unfinished home Guido had been building for his wife before her death. The three attend a Rodeo in Dayton along with Roslyn’s older friend and landlady, Isabelle (Thelma Ritter), a divorcee who long ago arrived in Reno when she divorced. At the rodeo, the group connects with Perce (Montgomery Clift), a sensitive cowboy estranged from his mother. The three men mount a plan to capture wild Mustangs and sell them for dog food meat.
The shallow plot only serves as a canvas for the four leading characters’ exploration of their inner conflicts and attempt to connect and relate to each other. Each exposes emotional and searches for meaning.
Roslyn is the center of film. As an outsider to their world, she impacts each of the men by questioning their long-held and unchallenged beliefs. Monroe was determined to deliver a performance that would give the role a darker side and complex backstory absent from the script. In the character, Miller referenced biographical parallels to Monroe’s life: Roslyn’s abandonment by her parents, her continuous search for security; her perceived image by others as the essence of femininity, sensitivity.
Gay represents the idealized masculine role. He is afforded freedom and independence by his trade as an itinerant cowboy but now faces revolution. “He’s the same man,” director John Huston explained, “but the world has changed. Then he was noble. Now he is ignoble.”
Widowed Guido, the most intelligent and educated of the cowboys, is also bitter and cynical. He feels alienated from others and guilty about his violent acts as a soldier in war. With a blending of masculine and feminine traits, Perce yearns for mothering and nurturing after having had experienced rejection by his mother. She remarried after the death of his father and gave her new husband the family farm. Isabelle, Roslyn’s older divorced landlady, represents survival and female resiliency. She is adaptive and thick-skinned. She accepts life as it is without trying to change it.
Throughout the film, Roslyn is a source of light and a point of reference. Whatever happens to someone in Roslyn’s life, Guido says, happens to her. She ministers to each misfit man and is herself a misfit. Gay tells Roslyn that she is the saddest girl he ever met; a line Miller uttered when he first met Monroe. “You have the gift of life, Roslyn,” Guido says. “The rest of us, we’re just looking for a place to hide and watch it all go by.” Perce wonders aloud how she retains the trust of a newly born child.
In Roslyn’s voice, we hear a new morality signaling an emerging counterculture later exemplified by the protest of the Vietnam War and Feminist Movement. She confronts the killing of the Mustangs as barbaric, something the cowboys never pondered, and identifies with the horses as victims of the men’s brutality. Ultimately, Gay—a man of an older generation—finds a way to embrace the new morality and transforms without losing himself.
Miller’s highly cerebral themes are clearly literary and akin to a book rather than to a motion picture. Monroe recognized this upon early review of the screenplay and expressed serious doubts about its cinematic merit. Her opinion mattered. After all, Marilyn Monroe Productions, although uncredited onscreen, partnered with Seven Arts Productions, a subsidiary of United Artists, to produce The Misfits and distribute it globally.
Robert Mitchum turned down the role as Monroe’s leading man based upon his assessment of the script as incomprehensible. Again, art imitated life when the Millers cast Clark Gable as Gaylord Langland. He had been Monroe’s childhood idol and fantasy father figure, and Gable (at 59) was the undisputed King of Hollywood.
Monroe urged Huston to cast her friend Montgomery Clift as man-child Perce Howland. He had recently completed Wild River, a film originally intended for Monroe as his co-star. “He’s the only person I know who’s in worse shape than I am,” Monroe said of Clift. “I look at him and see the brother I never had and feel brave and get protective.” Clift said of her: “I have the same problem as Marilyn. We attract people the way honey does bees, but they’re generally the wrong kind of people.”
Monroe also cast her friend from the Actor’s Studio, Eli Wallach, as Guido. As Isabelle, Thelma Ritter had been Monroe’s co-star in two other films. Square-jawed actor Kevin McCarthy, best-know for Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), plays Roslyn’s husband.
Designer Dorothy Jeakins suggested the use of several wigs on location due to the wind, dirt, and dryness of the desert and to reduce the time required each morning for hairdressing. The film’s hair stylist Sydney Guilaroff concurred. When Jeakins and Monroe had a falling out, Jean Louis stepped in as designer. Instead of stopping a scene to straighten or curl Monroe’s hair, the hairdresser merely removed her wig and applied another one already styled. Monroe’s appearance starkly diverged from her signature look with an emphasis on weariness over glamour.
Huston’s atypical style of production for The Misfits involved no rehearsals and filming the script in chronological sequence so that the actors developed their characters as the plot unfolded. “When she was herself, she could be marvelously effective,” Huston recalled of Monroe. “She was not pretending to an emotion. It was the real thing. She would go deep down within herself and find it and bring it up into consciousness. But maybe that’s what truly good acting consists of.”
The production moved to Quail Canon Ranch to film scenes at Guido’s ranch. Miller had spent time with the original cowboys who inspire his script in a house on the ranch. Art imitated life when the production used the same house. Necessitating more space for the cameras, the crew sawed through the corners of the house to make them removable by turning a few bolts. Miller later wrote about feeling disturbed by the fact that the walls of the same house where he had visited with the real cowboy and his girlfriend could now be unbolted and repositioned to bring in the light of the open sky.
One of the most difficult scenes in The Misfits involved lengthy dialogue between Marilyn and Clift. Huston wanted to shoot the scene in one take; the longest single take in his entire directorial career. It takes place behind the saloon, where Roslyn sits on a decayed seat from an old automobile, and Perce lays on the ground with his head resting in her lap. Surrounded symbolically by a mound of assorted trash, the characters reflect upon betrayal in their lives. When the 10,000-watt lights were switched on, the flies smarmed, and the trash emitted a vile stench. The crew sprayed fly repellent as Monroe shielded Clift’s eyes with her hand. None of the crew believed the two actors, notorious for their problems in remembering lines, could get through the scene. To everyone’s amazement, they completed the scene in a mere six takes, producing two perfect takes.
“Working with [Monroe] was fantastic…like an escalator,” Clift said. “You would meet her on one level and then she would rise higher and you would rise to that point, and then you would both go higher.”
Monroe’s triumphant climatic scene was filmed on an overcast day. The cowboys wrestle the mare to the ground and tie its legs together. Roslyn watches, her heart breaking as the mare’s colt stands helplessly beside its mother. She erupts in a raw emotional outburst. “Butchers! Killers! Murderers!” she shrieks. “You liars. All of you, liars! You’re only happy when you can see something die! Why don’t you kill yourselves and be happy? You and your God’s country. Freedom! I pity you. You’re three dear, sweet dead men. Butchers! Murderers! I pity you! You’re three dead men!” Expecting Miller to allow Roslyn to intelligently articulate her cause, Monroe resented the speech. Nevertheless, the histrionic explosion presents a more suitable dramatic climax.
Having captured close-ups of Monroe emoting pain while watching the roping, Huston chose to film her speech from a considerable distance. The volume of her voice and her body motions would carry the performance, as the camera would not read facial expressions. Miller disagreed with the camera set-up, but Huston argued her voice would be a cry from the wilderness. They compromised by filming the scene from both a medium shot and from fifty yards away.
When Huston yelled, “Action,” Monroe began screaming in a voice never heard by her fans in a powerful performance unlike any of her previous roles. In a still photograph by Inge Morath, Monroe stands with her legs spread apart, her torso leaning forward in rage, her fists clenched at her side. Her head is thrust forward with her mouth open. Her forehead is furrowed, her hair hangs limp with perspiration. No longer is she the sex symbol pin-up; instead, she is a serious, dramatic actress. This photograph evokes the impact Huston could have achieved through a close-up. The extreme distance of Huston’s camera minimizes Monroe’s effect by recording a fraction of her intensity; had Huston filmed this powerful performance in a close-up or used the alternate medium shot, Monroe arguably may have been nominated for an acting award.
Journalist W. J. Weatherby observed Monroe filming the scene several times as she was “jumping in and out of a state of high emotion without any preparatory passages.” He wrote that the “wear and tear” on her psyche “must have been savage.” Between takes, Weatherby described Monroe as a boxer in the corner of the ring, waiting to come out fighting when the bell sounded.
On a Paramount soundstage in New York, Monroe filmed a critical scene with Wallach. Believing Roslyn’s relationship with Gay has ended, Guido asks her to give him a reason to double-cross his friend and release the roped horses. Monroe’s speech is poignant as she confronts Wallach’s selfishness with disgust and acrimony:
You, a sensitive fellow…so sad for his wife. Crying to me about the bombs you dropped and the people you killed. You have to get something to be human? You never felt anything for anybody in your life. All you know is the sad words. You could blow up the world and all you’d feel is sorry for yourself.
“Gable has never done anything better on screen, nor has Miss Monroe,” heralded the New York Daily News. “It is a poignant conflict between a man and a woman in love, with each trying to maintain individual characteristics and preserve a fundamental way of life.” Saturday Review lauded The Misfits as a “powerful experience…” with “characters at once more lifelike and larger-than life than we are ordinarily accustomed to in American movies…[Monroe] gets pathos into the role, and a very winning sweet charm into a great many of her scenes. She shows range, too, and it can be plainly announced that acting has by no means spoiled Marilyn Monroe.”
“A picture that I can only call superb…” proclaimed New York Herald Tribune. “There is evidence in the picture that much of it has a personal relationship to Miss Monroe, but even so her performance ought to make those dubious of her acting ability reverse their opinions. Here is a dramatic, serious, accurate performance; and Gable’s is little less than great. Can anyone deny that in this film these performers are at their best? You forget they are performing and feel that they ‘are.’”
In his column for The Village Voice, Jonas Mekas penned a review in the rhythm of a Beat poem. It remains one of Monroe’s best critiques and insinuates the film’s appeal to the counterculture:
Marilyn Monroe, the Saint of Nevada Desert…A woman that has known love, has known life, has known men, has been betrayed by all three, but has retained her dream of man, and love, and life…She finds love everywhere, and she cries for everyone, when everybody is so tough, when toughness is everything. It’s MM that is the only beautiful thing in the whole ugly desert, in the whole world, in this whole dump of toughness, atom bomb, death…All the tough men of the world have become cynics, except MM. And she fights for her dream, for the beautiful, innocent, and free…It is MM that tells the truth in this movie, who accuses, judges, reveals. And it is MM who runs into the middle of the desert and in her helplessness shouts…in the most powerful image of the film.
Arguably, the film’s failure stemmed from the fact that Miller and Huston did not deliver the product audiences expected. The Misfits appeared as a Western at face value but did not follow the formula of the genre. The dialogue and theme more closely resembled the French New Wave of filmmaking exemplified by Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless (1959), Alain Resnais’ Hiroshima, Mon Amour (1959), and the Italian style perfected by Federico Felini in films such as La Dolce Vita (1960). Ultimately, as iconic figures, the leading stars and their repertoire of films following the Hollywood studio formula drew an audience with a high expectation for entertainment congruent with those iconic images and their previous work.
The Misfits earned increased acclaim over time as the film industry evolved. Today it seems an outlier in 1960s cinema and representative of films made during the 1970s and 1980s. In evaluations by modern critics, the film embodies the advent of the “indie” film, now commonplace. Although Gable and Monroe’s performances did not garner award nominations, Gable’s is posthumously hailed as his best, and Monroe received the Golden Globe for Female Film Favorite of 1961.
–Gary Vitacco-Robles for Classic Movie Hub
Gary Vitacco-Robles is the author of ICON: The Life, Times and Films of Marilyn Monroe, Volumes 1 & 2, and writer/producer of the podcast series, Marilyn: Behind the Icon.