Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Classic Film Review: The Misfits (1961)

Montgomery Clift, Marilyn Monroe and Clark Gable
Two days ago, August 5th, marked the 50th anniversary of the death of Marilyn Monroe.

To mark the date I chose to watch John Huston's 1961 modern western, The Misfits. Instead of watching my favourite Monroe film (Some Like It Hot) I went with The Misfits because, not only is it her final appearance, it's arguably her finest performance.

The Misfits is often referred to as a "film of lasts": The last part Arthur Miller wrote for Monroe and the last film for both Monroe and Clark Gable before their untimely deaths.

Based on a screenplay by her soon-to-be-ex-husband, Arthur Miller, The Misfits follows a trio of down-on-their-luck men and the alluring woman who joins their ragtag group as they travel rodeo circuits and catch wild horses to sell in Reno, Nevada. They also spend weeks at a time wallowing in their sorrows together in a forlorn desert ranch. Each has a sad story to tell and they crave each others company as much as they sometimes seem to resent it.

Miller fashioned the part of Roslyn Tabor specifically for Monroe, and it shows. The role leaves room for Monroe to be both beautiful and complex, strong yet vulnerable. It plays to her strong points as an actress and really allows her room to just let go. Although she's mostly celebrated for her comedic talents, it's a shame she never got more dramatic roles to work with. The Misfits was a fitting final film because it was her strongest and most personal role.

The other characters each have their own issues to work through. Gay Langland (Clark Gable) is a fiercely independent loner reflecting on his past experiences as a great cowboy. Guido (Eli Wallach) is a heartbroken, embittered mechanic who hasn't been the same since the sudden death of his wife. Perce Howland (Montgomery Clift) rounds out the group as a rodeo rider who is fixated on mother figures and openly welcomes Roslyn's nurturing nature.

It's the mirroring of real life that can make a viewing of The Misfits so uncomfortable. Perhaps that's why I chose to watch it instead of some of Monroe's earlier, lighter fare. It was a sad production for everyone involved in the making of the film.
Monroe and Gable in their final scene.
At the time Monroe was in and out of rehab -- she was also in the process of finalizing her divorce from Arthur Miller. Director John Huston had a disruptive drinking and gambling problem. Monty Clift, never the same since his near-fatal car accident in 1956 and the subsequent reconstructive facial surgeries, was addicted to the prescription pills that temporarily relieved his chronic pain. And, finally, a mere few days after production ended on the film, Clark Gable passed away of a heart attack at the age of 59 -- a heart attack many blamed on what he put his body through in order to physically and mentally prepare for the role of the rundown Gay Langland.

It's themes of disappointed dreams, thwarted ambitions and broken characters served to lend the film a grim realism it didn't necessarily mean to invoke when production first got underway. As Monroe's Roslyn says at one point: "We're all dying, aren't we? All the husbands and all the wives. Every minute. And we're not teaching each other what we really know, are we?"

The role of Roslyn Tabor in The Misfits was the crowning achievement of Monroe's lengthy career. While not necessarily the best film she appeared in, her performance rang tragically true and is remembered today as a powerful final bow.

1 comment:

  1. There's some fine dialogue in The Misfits. The cast is extraordinary, but I found this film to be tough slogging.