The Misfits

Sometimes the drama behind the scenes overshadows the film itself — John Huston’s 1961 eulogy to the Western, The Misfits is such a film. A relatively obscure film (considering the cast), the movie has a strange reputation; it’s not fondly remembered and is now renowned more for its tragic backstory and the doomed cast. Both Clark Gable and Marilyn Monroe died soon after the film was completed, never to make another film again. Montgomery Clift would also die soon after. The film also had a tempestuous gestation, rife with tales of Huston’s gambling the film’s budget and Monroe’s tempermental and increasingly delusional behavior that would derail the filming.

The film takes place in Reno, Nevada and deals with the story of Gay Langland (Gable), a handsome cowboy who seems to have been born in the wrong decade. He and his best friend, Guido (Eli Wallach), meet up with a beautiful divorcee, Roslyn Tabor (Monroe). They befriend Roslyn and take her to Guido’s ranch home, where the two men both vie for her affection. Gay’s friend, Perce Howland (Clift), a fellow cowboy also enters the scene and immediately finds himself drawn to Roslyn, as well. The men embark on an assignment to corral wild horses, destined for the dog food factory, much to Roslyn’s despair and disgust.

Monroe’s husband at the time, playwrite, Arthur Miller penned this film for his wife. He was hoping to write a Valentine for her to prove her thespic prowess. He needn’t have tried so hard, because Monroe’s performances in the string of films after her conversion to the Method are textbook examples of brilliant comic acting. He seemed to have confused “boring” with “accomplished” and drafting a dry, overwritten tale of alienation, where very little happens.

It’s obvious that Miller identified with Gay, and as a result, that character is the best-written of the cast. Gable performs him with a startling reality that differs from his other films. Gable was an admirable actor, and capable of good work, though he seemed a true product of the Hollywood system. It is gratifying then, to see him break out of the confines of his matinee idol routine and really do something as naked and raw as this. There is a brilliant scene, where Gay stumbles about it drunken despair over his nonexistant relationship with his children. Gable deconstructs and fractures his film hunk image and allows himself to look pathetic and disgusting — it’s a shame that he waited so long in his career to tap into this well of ability.

Clift, whose beautiful visage was permanently disfigured in a car accident years earlier, gives a heartfelt and natural performance, as well. Like James Dean and Marlon Brando, Clift had a reputation of giving blood on screen. An extremely intense, if delicate, performer, all his characters have a tragic gossamer feel to them — as if they were made of glass. Perce is no different — even though he rides in rodeos and lassos wild horses, he still comes off as fragile. Clift imbues his character with a spooky doom.

Wallach and Monroe both studied with Lee Strasburg (his wife, Paula was Monroe’s onset coach), and were disciples of the Method. Wallach does his usual steady, consistent solid work. He is physically unassuming, and doesn’t have the classic good looks of Clift or Gable, yet he does not fade into the background. Unlike many Method actors (Monroe, Sandy Dennis, Brando), his performance is free from neurotic shades, allowing for his character to be natural.

Monroe’s performance is the most difficult to judge because her character is so badly written. Miller wanted to take her away from the comic blonde ditz, yet he cast her in a distressingly one-dimensional character — there is little difference between Roslyn and the other dumb blondes Monroe was cast in, early in her career. The only difference is that at least her former roles were entertaining and funny; Roslyn is just a pale echo or shadow of Monroe’s cinematic persona. Yet, she overcomes the massive limitations of her role and gives a sad and heartfelt performance. The irony of Monroe’s triumph in this film is that during her marriage to Miller, he was known as the intellectual, when upon viewing this film, it seems that she was the true artist of the couple.

Miller set out to make a vehicle for his wife, and as a result, Roslyn’s character is constantly praised and exalted and she is stripped of any humanity, instead becoming an icon — a similar fate Monroe had to deal with. Her character also has an improbable elasticity, and she is everything to everyone, fulfilling all of her companions’ ideas of women.

The Misfits is a curious film — not terribly interesting. It’s still worth watching to see Gable and Monroe stretching their acting muscles.

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