I put The Misfits (1961) on my to-watch list after listening to back-episodes of the podcast You Must Remember This a few months ago. On the show, host Karina Longworth details how playwright Arthur Miller agonized over the script he was writing for his wife, Marilyn Monroe, for years, continuing revisions well into the film’s actual shoot. To Longworth (along with many other critics), Monroe’s performance in The Misfits is among her best, but Longworth suggests it was also a role that hit too close to home for the iconic actress. Her character Rosalind is beautiful, clever, magnetic, irresistible to men--but also strangely melancholic, obsessed by death and inevitability.
The film opens in Reno as Rosalind is preparing, with the support of her landlady, friend, and seasoned divorcée Isabelle (Thelma Ritter), for her divorce. Rosalind needs to claim at the proceedings that her husband abused her, mentally and physically, to establish legal grounds for divorce. But, she complains, this isn’t true; her husband was just unavailable to her. “If I’m gonna be alone,” she opines in one of Monroe’s many incisive one-liners, “I wanna be by myself.” In previous Monroe hits—like Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953)—such a line would be delivered with ironic naivety, as if Monroe’s character didn’t quite understand the profundity of her amusing paradox. Here, we hear the experience, the malaise, the reflection that underlies Rosalind’s turn of phrase.
The fulcrum of the first half of the movie is the irony, probably more striking to viewers in the early 60s, of Monroe’s famously airy, feminine voice expressing sincere existential doubts. “We’re all dying, aren’t we?” she ponders at one point about the inevitability of change and death, “All the husbands and all the wives.” This sincere philosophizing frequently undercuts—or must be ignored by—men like Guido (Eli Wallach), who overeaglery presume that she’s just a girl who’s down for a good time.
Gay (Clark Gable), an aging cowboy from outside Reno, is the only one who seems to get her. Alone together in his truck, he asks Rosalind why she always seems so sad; when she replies that men always say she’s happy, Gay probably correctly observes that “that’s because you make men feel happy.” While the romantic pairing of Gable and Monroe is certainly part of a familiar patriarchal pattern, Miller’s script and especially Monroe’s performance make it plausible that this thirtysomething city girl’s only kindred spirit is a sectagenarian cowboy.
In the second half of the movie, Rosalind, Guido, and Gay add a fourth party to their circle, another cowboy named Perce (Montgomery Clift), who is fleeing an Oedipal conundrum back home via rodeos and odd jobs. They recruit him to help them chase down Gay’s white whale: fifteen wild mustangs who have been spotted roaming the mountain valleys. He joins them in exchange for a ride to the rodeo, where Gay and Rosalind’s differences start to come to a head, motivated by their differing life philosophies and Rosalind’s apparent attraction to Perce. Despite her fascination with Perce, Rosalind is horrified by the brutality of the rodeo. And to the movie’s credit, her objections are taken seriously, if not by the cowboys, then by the script: she is not simply a weak-stomached woman, but someone who is capable of recognizing the sanctity of life in a way these men are not.
All this is not to say the film is blameless on the gender-politics front--far from it: even when the film is not reinforcing a certain “masculine” view of things (see: a few reassuring leers at Monroe’s backside, to let us know the film knows she’s got a body), it does essentialize the distinction between male and female reactions to mortality. However complexly each of them is drawn, the male characters in the film share an inability to sublimate their own anxieties into anything but violence or sexual avarice. Most of them, too, are unable to relate to Rosalind as anything but an enigma, which willfully oblivious attitude the film might at times be understood as adopting: who is woman? What does she want? What The Misfits is, in terms of its gender politics, is an illustration of how a film can feature fully fleshed-out, nuanced characters and still be beholden to certain patriarchal tropes.
The film was directed by John Huston, who had also directed Monroe’s entré into major-film-studio acting, The Asphalt Jungle (1950). Huston brings a grounded realism to this MGM production: it is clear that much of The Misfits, particularly its harrowing horse-lassoing climax, was shot on location; but also, the camerawork in the film’s first two acts is pared down and intimate, focused intently on characters’ faces. You can see the low-budget films of the late 1960s emerging from this black-and-white film about everyday friends discussing matters of life and death with one another. Huston doesn’t use a handheld camera, but you can imagine that if the same film had been made a decade later, we would have lingering, unsteady shots of Rosalind’s enigmatic face.
This is why the film’s score, by Alex North, often feels incongruous. It has all the hyperbolic swells and dips of a grand MGM melodrama, telegraphing the events of a scene in advance or overwhelming the meaning of the image. In, say, a Douglas Sirk film of roughly the same era, the inflated score would have been itself dwarfed by the sumptuous Technicolor image, becoming part of a whole whose overblown emotion was part of its meaning. For such a modestly staged movie consisting essentially of conversations, North’s score is an unwelcome intrusion into all the interesting work going on in the faces of Monroe, Gable, Wallach, and Clift.
The Misfits had a legendarily troubled shoot, and its legacy is as sad as the melancholy its characters are (mostly) trying to hide. Huston spent the whole shoot drinking and gambling; the studio had to cover some of his costs. Production was shut down for several weeks at one point for Monroe to enter a detox program and recuperate. Clift was also struggling with addiction and depression, the byproducts of a serious car accident in 1956. The Miller/Monroe marriage would end during The Misfits’ plagued shoot, taxed by Monroe’s real-life melancholy and the insecurities that Miller distilled into much of the Misfits script. Gable was dead of a heart attack two weeks after the film wrapped. Monroe would also never complete another film, passing tragically the year after its release. Montgomery Clift would make several more films, but his personal downward spiral would end just five years later, when he died at the age of 45.
This context doesn’t itself make The Misfits better, but considering that the film is about the inevitability of death as a part of the larger intractability of constant, universal change, it might help us look a little closer at the performances. There is something sad and broken in the eyes of Clift’s handsome cowboy, an element of truth in the connection and in the differences that arise between the old cowboy and the young beauty, something always-already tragic in the beautiful woman who can’t be happy. An unmitigated flop upon release, it’s now perhaps the best testament to the true talent and ability of a woman who had already been processed into the most iconic image of the 20th century.