Photo: Marilyn Monroe
An All-Star Cast and a Recipe for Disaster
We have to talk about John Huston. The Golden Age of Hollywood saw a deluge of filmmakers who are now almost regarded as gods, such as Orson Welles and Billy Wilder, but few can claim to be even as remotely chaotic as John Huston, who had made his feature debut in 1941 and would continue until his death in 1987. Huston was, in a sense, the sort of hypermasculine auteur modern movie buffs would have an uneasy relationship with, from his famously gruff voice to his devil-may-care attitude to making his movies; in reality, he was a Hemingway-esque figure, a man so brimming with masculine energy that he threatened to implode.
Not unlike how Ernest Hemingway’s writings were conjoined inexplicably with the man’s chronic battles with physical injuries and mental illness, Huston’s films often gave us insight into a violent flame that stood on the brink of being snuffed out, and as such, there is a kind of emotional honesty and brutality to Huston’s work. Reading about the production behind a Huston film can, at times, be just as enthralling as watching the film itself.
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When ‘The Misfits’ hit American theaters in February 1961, Huston had been in the business for twenty years, having won two Oscars for his troubles (for ‘The Treasure of the Sierra Madre’), and he already had an impressive list of behind-the-scenes stories behind him. We don’t need to get into how everyone on the set of ‘The African Queen’ was miserable (when not physically ill), or how Huston’s adaptation of Moby Dick ran the gamut from the expensive whale model getting lost at sea to Huston and screenwriter Ray Bradbury (yes, that Ray Bradbury) butting heads.
Of all these, though, none are as purely tragic as the story behind ‘The Misfits,’ the film that would prove to skeptics that Marilyn Monroe was a real actress — and which would end up featuring her final performance. True, Monroe was working on ‘Something’s Got to Give’ at the time of her death, but the film went unfinished, and so ‘The Misfits’ stood as her last will and testament. Not only that, but on paper, the cast and crew — no, the sheer hurricane of talent being funneled into ‘The Misfits’ should have made the film a dream, both in front of and behind the camera; instead, it proved to be a breaking point for some of the people involved.
Huston had already collaborated with Ray Bradbury, one of America’s literary heavyweights, and for ‘The Misfits’ he would continue that streak — this time with Pulitzer Prize-winner Arthur Miller, who also happened to be married to Marilyn Monroe at the time. Miller adapted one of his own short stories, also titled ‘The Misfits,’ for the film, with his wife as the heroine in mind. Alongside Monroe were Clark Gable, most famous as the male lead in ‘Gone with the Wind,’ Eli Wallach, who would later become most famous as the anti-hero Tuco in ‘The Good, the Bad and the Ugly,’ and Montgomery Clift, a young star whose career was derailing due to a car accident in 1956.
Of the four stars, only Wallach would make it past 60: Monroe died in 1962, at the age of 36, Clift would die in 1966 at the age of 45, and Gable died mere days after filming for ‘The Misfits’ had wrapped. The film was released on February 1, on what would have been Gable’s 60th birthday. On the set, drug problems plagued Monroe and Clift, and Monroe had things doubly bad, on account of the fact that her marriage to Miller was eroding; by the time the movie hit theaters, the two had parted ways.
The Short Unhappy Life of Marilyn Monroe
There is an alternate timeline, not too different from ours, where Marilyn Monroe had a long and successful career as a film actress; alas, Monroe’s acting career had a number of false starts, and she died young. Born in 1926, Monroe started taking roles when she was barely out of her teens, appearing in B-movie schlock that has long since been forgotten before landing minor roles in Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s ‘All About Eve’ and Huston’s own ‘The Asphalt Jungle,’ both in 1950, both also being held as classics. Still, it would take a few more years for Monroe to land a lead role of any significance, with ‘Gentlemen Prefer Blondes’ in 1953, directed by Howard Hawks and co-starring Jane Russell, and this cemented her status as a sex symbol of the 1950s — for better and worse.
In her short career, Monroe managed to work with such astounding Golden Age directors as Hawks, Mankiewicz, Huston, and even Billy Wilder, yet despite all these projects, she struggled to be taken seriously as an actress; for all her fame, she died without getting even one Oscar nomination. Being pigeonholed as a promiscuous empty-headed blonde when in reality she was anything but (not helped by the fact that she was a three-time divorcee by the end of it all, at a time when divorce was a taboo subject), Monroe had her beauty turned against her. ‘The Misfits’ was set to be the one, the role that would make Monroe’s career, and how could she fail? She had Huston, who had previously worked with her, and she had her then-husband writing her lines. What could go wrong?
For one thing, Huston was being his usual unprofessional self, even running production over-budget and nearly having the film shut down due to his immense gambling losses. For another, it turns out that having the screenwriter and the leading lady be in a relationship may not be the best idea; not only did Miller keep revising his screenplay mid-production, but Monroe resented her character being modeled after herself. The movie follows a young divorcee and former nightclub dancer (hmmm) who moves to Reno, striking up a friendship and business partnership with an aging cowboy (Gable) and his volatile WWII veteran friend (Wallach), as the three try to make it in the Nevada desert.
The film, by the way, was actually shot in the Nevada desert, in scorching heat, which probably didn’t help matters. Curiously, despite on-set tensions with Huston and Miller, Monroe befriended a scarred and drug-addled Montgomery Clift, and the surprisingly platonic friendship between their characters on-screen hints at a genuine off-screen friendship between kindred spirits. As said before, Monroe and Clift suffered from drug addiction during production — battles they would eventually lose, and it must also be said that despite these personal troubles, they both carried through on-screen wonderfully. Indeed, Monroe’s performance in ‘The Misfits’ could be her very best; she exudes a tragic femininity trying to transcend itself in spite of all the men in her life disappointing her.
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A Swan Song for Hollywood’s Golden Age
In 1961, Hollywood’s Golden Age was coming to an end, although this would not have been apparent to most people yet. As far as moviegoers and filmmakers were concerned, 1961 was part of the 1950s, in spirit if not literally; after all, one of the highest-grossing films of 1960 was Stanley Kubrick’s sword-and-sandals epic ‘Spartacus,’ a movie that would almost surely not have done as well if released a decade later. Regardless, the Golden Age was in its twilight years — a twilight that would then turn pitch black with the financial disaster that was Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s ‘Cleopatra’ in 1963. ‘The Misfits’ starred three Golden Age legends, all of whom were at the ends of their careers, being the last rodeo for Monroe and Gable in particular.
It would also be the last time Huston would put 100% of himself into his filmmaking for at least a decade, afterward directing a string of forgettable or regrettable features until the critical hit of ‘Fat City’ in 1972, at which point he had virtually reinvented himself. ‘The Misfits’ also occupies an interesting space as a Western that doesn’t fit into the classic Western mode (no gunfights, no saloon brawls, no villain in a black suit) while also not quite anticipating the transformation the Western would experience in the coming years. As such, ‘The Misfits’ stands, perhaps better than any other movie, as a line in the sand, between the Golden Age Hollywood production and the grittier, more socially conscious New Hollywood productions that were to emerge in the 1960s.
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Despite its making being a torture for those involved, and despite its initial reception being underwhelming, ‘The Misfits’ comes out as a triumph. Not only are the four leads incredible, with all of them embodying complex and troubled characters with disturbing ease, but you probably wouldn’t think Miller had kept fiddling with the screenplay during shooting, since while the structure is not a strict three-act one that we would expect, it gives plenty of air to breathe for the characters. The vast Nevada landscape is gorgeous, and there are some bird’s-eye-view shots that are pretty remarkable for the time, with Huston proving once again that he could make great movies — in spite of himself. Most importantly, ‘The Misfits’ might be the strongest argument in favor of Monroe’s potential as an actress, giving a dexterous performance that is at once tender and overflowing with emotion — the kind of performance any actor would be proud of. Hollywood was about to go through some serious changes, and in so doing would leave Monroe, Clift, and the others behind, but with the gift of hindsight, we can now appreciate a masterpiece for what it is.
Sadly, ‘The Misfits’ is not currently available to stream anywhere, but it is available to rent digitally. The movie itself is certainly worth a few dollars and your time.
Best of luck to Ana de Armas playing Marilyn Monroe in ‘Blonde’.
By Brian Collins
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