"The Misfits" would be Marilyn Monroe's final film. The 1961 modern-day psychological Western was ravaged by her physical troubles on-set and the collapse of Monroe's marriage to the movie's screenwriter, Arthur Miller. And the emotional devastation of the movie's plot was reflected by what went on during its making, as Miller, director John Huston, and co-star Eli Wallach hatched a plan to rewrite the movie. The resulting adjustments would have had major consequences, changing the plot to raise Wallach's heroic profile and diminish Monroe's.
Wallach was an old friend of Monroe's from the Actors Studio in New York. According to Les Harding's "They Knew Marilyn Monroe," he credited the actress with getting him cast in "The Misfits," but by the time the movie was being made, something in their friendship had shifted. Beyond the rewrites, he used the movie to execute a couple of practical jokes on her, some of which bordered on cruelty.
Given her friendship with Wallach, as well as the fact that she considered Huston one of the figures most important to her finding success as a film actress, she felt betrayed upon learning about the rewrites. Considering her health issues at the time and the psychological weight of her impending divorce from Miller, Monroe would not have been able to fight it. Her acting coach Paula Strasberg made sure she wouldn't learn about it until something could be done.
Clark Gable, the film's leading man, had final script approval, giving him the authority to actually examine what the others were plotting. He also was one of the few who could shut it down.
As Reliable As Jackrabbits.
Because "The Misfits" features Marilyn Monroe's final work as a screen performer, it carries a certain tragic weight, not helped by the actress' health issues and barbiturate addiction. And, as written by husband Arthur Miller, the movie makes her familiar character type even more fragile by shoving it into a hard-edged world of tough and bitter men. While a movie like Howard Hawks' star-making "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes" would lean into the comic nature of her persona, "The Misfits" insists on heavy drama.
According to Sarah Churchwell's "The Many Lives of Marilyn Monroe," Miller based the screenplay on an original story entitled "Please Don't Kill Anything," a reflection of his wife's feelings towards violence. As if to reflect that, Roslyn (Monroe) is a divorcee in her mid-30s, one with an almost childlike adoration of the natural world and the men she meets.
She's naive too, gleefully dancing in the sunset while down-on-their-luck cowboy Gaylord (Clark Gable) and trucker Guido (Eli Wallach) leer. Many times throughout the movie, men hungrily watch her, and John Huston's camera does the same. The plot concerns those same men wrangling beautiful wild mustangs with the intention of selling them to be made into dog food.
Miller's insistence on writing the role of Roslyn for Monroe suggests a certain condescension towards her, playing into and deconstructing the baby-voice sexuality that had become so iconic. As he wrote in his memoir "Timebends: A Life," he felt he was constructing a "gift for her." While she starred in Billy Wilder's "Some Like It Hot," Huston formed an exceptional cast around her, including Gable, Wallach, and Montgomery Clift.
A Sense Of Life
In "Timebends," Arthur Miller recalled what it took to convince Clark Gable to be in "The Misfits," having to tell him what he felt it was about: "our lives' meaninglessness." Because director John Huston made the unusual choice of shooting the movie in sequence, per Les Harding's "They Knew Marilyn Monroe," and Miller stayed on set to rewrite the movie during production, it has a sense of life few movies do. Unusual choices had a way of uniting Huston and Monroe – it was her unconventional audition that encouraged him to give her a small but significant part in 1950's "The Asphalt Jungle."
"The Misfits" has the ambling, distant feel of a life lived the wrong way. It's elliptical. Characters who have history with each other arrive for moments and then disappear for longer, and the viewer is left to fill in the gaps. Those hints of backstory are bleak, spelling spiritual doom for the protagonists if they keep on their path, all except for the preternaturally good Roslyn.
Every man in it wants to possess Roslyn. When Eli Wallach's Guido dances with her early on, the scene is charming. But Wallach allegedly set it up so that her face would be obscured by the camera – you would just see his face and her back. Monroe was furious, and her acting coach Paula Strasberg backed her up.
While Miller recalls Monroe starting the production out in fine form, her health issues and the consequent tension gradually began to draw the whole thing out. Gable often sat outside his trailer in the Nevada sun, patient. With the movie being constantly rewritten, he would be the only one to have the authority to get it back on track.
As the production dragged on, John Huston was losing patience with Marilyn Monroe's lateness and trouble with addiction, which wasn't helped by the ample tension on set. It was as if the extreme stress of "Some Like It Hot" had devolved into total chaos and anxiety for the actress. Donald Spoto's biography "Marilyn Monroe" claims she grew upset with husband Arthur Miller's constant rewrites.
Her confidant and masseur, former Actors Studio colleague Ralph Roberts, recalled in Fred Guiles "Legend: The Life and Death of Marilyn Monroe" how upset she was by her lack of an ally on the production. He also remembered Eli Wallach's dancing gag, and how the actor, a friend of Monroe's, was beginning to sabotage her part along with Huston and Miller. He claimed Wallach "had numerous (secretive) conferences with Huston and Miller," restructuring the script in such a way that he would be the hero while Gable's character succumbed to his crippling alcoholism and Monroe's ended up "no longer a divorcee but… a prostitute."
Gable, who had grown fond of Monroe according to Miller's "Timebends" on account of her childhood crush on him (as well as her youthful suspicion he might be her father), wouldn't stand for it. Per Roberts, the legendary actor "blew a gasket." Along with Strasberg, Roberts made moves to conceal the script from Monroe until "something happened." Something did.
Who Do You Depend On?
Part of the deal that got Clark Gable on "The Misfits," according to Arthur Miller's "Timebends," was that the actor would receive $25,000 for every day the movie went over schedule. As its production went on, those days added up. He also got final script approval, giving him the ability to walk if he disapproved of what had been done with the screenplay. In the wake of the new draft, wherein his character as well as Marilyn Monroe's was reduced, he threw that ability in the face of his director, writer, and co-star, according to Ralph Roberts' recollection. Director John Huston reportedly spent two hours the next morning attempting to work it out with Gable. But the actor was adamant. He won out, and so did Monroe.Both of them did finish "The Misfits," and Gable, having seen the rough cut, allegedly remarked to Miller on the last day of shooting that it was "the best picture he had made in his life."
As with Monroe, it would also be the final picture of his legendary career, whose rough start would conclude with one of the masterpieces of '60s American cinema. As for Monroe, the health issues that plagued her through the movie's production are barely noticeable when watching it now. If her performance occasionally rings false like Miller worried it did, the tension works within the movie, suggesting a character who struggles to find familiar joy in a bleak landscape.
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