Monday, May 28, 2012

Myth Making: The Misfits (1961)


Pulitzer Prize winning playwright Arthur Miller traveled to Reno, Nevada, in the spring of 1956 to divorce his first wife. Fulfilling the state's six week residency requirement until the marriage was legally dissolved, Miller stayed at a cabin on Pyramid Lake, about 100 miles from "the biggest little city in the world." During his time in this "forbidding but beautiful place," he got to know a few modern-day cowboy types who made their living capturing wild mustangs and selling them to be butchered for dog food. Miller was invited to join them on one of these hunts. From his experiences in a "whole state full of misfits," Arthur Miller later fashioned a short story that was published the following year in Esquire magazine.


Arthur Miller and Marilyn Monroe
But before he wrote the story and just after he returned from Reno, Miller wed Marilyn Monroe, then at the height of her enormous fame. It was a time when the actress was desperate to make films of substance, and once she and Miller moved to New York she began studying at the Actors' Studio and making plans to set up her own production company. After Miller's story appeared in Esquire, a friend suggested he develop it into a screenplay. Inspired by the idea of writing a part for his wife that would allow her to demonstrate her overlooked acting ability, Miller scripted the moody tale of a disaffected divorcee who encounters three disparate cowboys and ends up accompanying them when they go "mustanging" in the high desert of Nevada.

Anticipation began to build the moment word started to spread that the great playwright had written The Misfits for his glamorous movie star wife. Before it was released, the film had become the stuff of legend.

An iconic photo...Front row: Montgomery Clift, Marilyn Monroe, Clark Gable. Second row:  Eli Wallach, John Huston. In back: producer Frank Taylor, Arthur Miller (on ladder).
John Huston was living in Ireland in 1959 when Frank Taylor, Miller's one-time publisher and the man chosen by the writer to produce the film, sent him the script. Huston pronounced it excellent and agreed to direct. Huston had been Marilyn Monroe's director of choice for The Misfits. She remembered that he had cast her as Angela in his film, The Asphalt Jungle (1950), one of her early breakthrough roles, was ever grateful to him for it and trusted him to guide her through the challenging dramatic role Miller had written for her.

Clark Gable on the set of The Misfits
Clark Gable, who by this time had been appearing in films for more than 35 years and had been a movie star - "the King" - for most of them, had to be cajoled to accept the male lead. Though he found the script intriguing, he didn't know what to make of the story. Miller persuaded him, calling it an "eastern western," about people trying, but afraid, to connect. 

Huston remembered working with Gable on The Misfits: "He thought of himself as an actor, not a screen personality. He liked reminiscing about his early days in the theater - old-time actors' talk. I saw very soon that Clark knew exactly what he was doing. Two or three times I thought I saw ways to improve his performance. I was mistaken." Gable's portrayal of Gay Langland, an aging wrangler displaced in the modern world, is complex and moving. Co-stars Eli Wallach, Montgomery Clift, and lately Marilyn Monroe, were committed "method" actors, but Wallach later recalled Gable and the other Hollywood veteran on the set, Thelma Ritter, as true acting "pros."

Clark Gable was impressed, too. Watching Montgomery Clift, as rodeo cowboy Perce, deliver his first major scene (below) in one take, Gable remarked, "My God, he's really good, isn't he?"


The Misfits has been called Arthur Miller's valentine - in Eli Wallach's words, a "love piece" - to Marilyn Monroe, and members of the crew observed that Miller seemed besotted with her as filming got underway. But when the grueling shoot came to an end three months later, not only would the Miller/Monroe marriage be over but Marilyn Monroe would never complete another film.

Marilyn Monroe on the set
Colin Clark, author My Week with Marilyn and The Prince, the Showgirl and Me, wrote that when he met Billy Wilder he mentioned to him that he, too, had worked with Marilyn Monroe. Wilder replied, "Ah, then you know the meaning of pure pain!"

By the time The Misfits was being made in 1960, Marilyn's erratic on-the-set behavior was well known. Cast and crew would wait...and wait...and wait. Sometimes she would appear, sometimes she wouldn't. She had great trouble remembering and delivering her lines and often required multiple takes. Her latest drama coach, Paula Strasberg, was ever present and Marilyn would look to her rather than John Huston for direction while filming her scenes. And there were drugs and alcohol...

Huston recalled, "She was taking pills to go to sleep and pills to wake up in the morning...she seemed to be in a daze half the time." She became less and less reliable, eventually broke down completely and had to be hospitalized. Clark Gable, according to Huston, "...was nonplussed by Marilyn's behavior. It was as though she'd revealed some horrid fact of life that just couldn't be accepted in his scheme of things."

But Huston also remembered, "When she was herself...she could be marvelously effective. She wasn't acting - I mean she was not pretending to an emotion. It was the real thing."

Marilyn as Roslyn
The Misfits was released on what would have been Clark Gable's 60th birthday, February 1, 1961, but Gable had died of a massive heart attack 2-1/2 months earlier, shortly after the film wrapped. Fortunately, the actor had seen Huston's first cut and was so happy with it he told both the director and Arthur Miller that he thought it the best work of his career. Despite Gable's enthusiasm - and producer Frank Taylor's intention to make "the ultimate motion picture" thanks to an all-star cast and crew - The Misfits was a commercial failure and received a mixed critical response. In Miller's view the critics were "baffled" by it.

If the The Misfits has problems it may be that it was too much Miller's film and not enough Huston's. Regardless of compelling themes, strong performances, photography by Russell Metty, film editing by George Tomasini and an evocative score by Alex North (listen below), the film too often becomes theatrically talky and contrived. And Roslyn, the central character, is so unreal at times that she seems to have been spun out of arty fancies about the actress who portrays her. It is also likely that the difficulties and complications that plagued the production afflicted the film itself.


The Misfits is an unusual and poetic film that may not entirely mesh, but it does fascinate. The powerful climactic mustang capture sequence is as disturbing to watch as it is difficult to forget, and the final scene between Gable and Monroe seems the prophetic farewell of two of Hollywood's biggest stars.

Roslyn: "How do you find your way back in the dark?"

Gay: "Just head for that big star straight on. The highway's underneath it, it'll take us right home."

Marilyn Monroe and Clark Gable...fade out...
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The largest remaining band of wild mustangs in the United States roams the high desert areas of Nevada. About 33,000 horses live in 10 western states and another 30,000 are kept in government corrals.  Click here to learn more about the history and continuing plight of our wild horse population.


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Click here to go to My Love of Old Hollywood and links to the other participating blogs in Page's blogathon... 

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Sources:
An Open Book by John Huston, McMillan (1980)
The Misfits: Story of a Shoot by Arthur Miller and Serge Toubiana, Phaidon Press (2000)
Making the Misfits, a production of WNET New York, et al (2002)
wild mustang photos by Kat Livengood

40 comments:

  1. Eve, I was truly touched by your sensitive, thoughtful review of THE MISFITS. It's rather poignant that in the case of this film, the term "misfits" applies in so many forms, from the wild mustangs to the humans and their problems both on and off the set. It certainly turned out to be a moving swansong for both Marilyn Monroe and Clark Gable, and Montgomery Clift certainly had his share of tragedy as well. Damn it, where's a time machine when you need one to set things right? Excellent post, with much food for thought.

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    1. Dorian, Arthur Miller referred to John Huston as a "misfit" of sorts - he definitely lived a wild life of non-conformity. Montgomery Clift's career was in decline when he made "The Misfits" and he appeared in only 3 more films before he died. There is an oft-repeated story that "The Misfits" was airing on TV the night Clift died and that his last words were in response to his secretary who asked him if he wanted to watch it. His reply: "Absolutely not!" Perhaps he felt like John Huston who, looking back on the film's production wrote that because of Clark Gable's death and the tragedy of watching Marilyn Monroe self-destruct, his memories of "The Misfits" were mostly melancholy.

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  2. Such a beautiful, sad film - so much like the horses. This was a great choice, as the wild horses are such an important symbol, as well as character. Ironically, I just got back from a vacation where I saw wild horses and it is truly breathtaking to see them run free. Great post, Lady Eve.

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    1. FlickChick, Well put - it is beautiful and sad. Even though I know "trick horses" were used in the film and that the ASPCA was on hand to oversee all scenes involving animals, I have a hard time watching the mustang hunt. Ironic that the cowboy characters in the film, a dying breed, would take part in wiping out untamed creatures like themselves, the wild mustangs.

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  3. Lovely post on what, for me, is a difficult and not very likable film, but certainly poignant, especially in light of its stars - not only was it Gable's and Monroe's swan songs, it was one of the last solid parts that Montgomery Clift had (although he would work with Huston again a year or two later in the biopic 'Freud,' which supposedly was also a tough shoot). 'The Misfits' also has some beautiful B/W cinematography, which captures both the beauty of the Western landscape and of the horses.

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    1. GOM, I think it is the poignancy of "The Misfits," on screen and off, that draws me to it. Actually, what went on behind the scenes and what appeared on film are so interconnected that it all seems of a piece - and a bit eerie. From what John Huston wrote about the making of "Freud," his experiences with Montgomery Clift mirrored what happened with Marilyn Monroe on "The Misfits." Only worse. Very, very sad demise of a fine actor. I think it was Arthur Miller who said that black & white photography was used on this film to get the look of drying bones. It worked beautifully.

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  4. LE,
    I know you weren't sure about choosing The Misfits for the Horseathon but I'm so pleased that you did!

    I don't even know where to start really. You've done such great research on the behind the scenes going on's then there's the most interesting part to me, How The Misfits came to be at the hand of Miller. I didn't know it was first a short expose in Esquire but I'm so happy he was convinced to write the screenplay.

    It's a testament to Huston's professionalism and drive to get the most out of a film that he could tolerate and function with all that was going on behind the scenes. I'm sure Clark and Clift were no picnic either. Wasn't there something about Clark losing a bit of weight, resting and avoding alcohol going into filming The Misfits?

    I love the film although it's tragic and it feels a bit like were getting a peak into the real lives of the stars, their flaws. Which you touched upon her with quotes from Huston.

    I mentioned recently that I can't help but think of the paddle ball game scene with Monroe without laughing. (Even now) It was just so bizarre and endearing, a break in such a sad film.

    Thanks for participating in the Horseathon with such a stellar article. Such a nice contribution, a fascinating read.
    Page

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    1. Page, I could have written two or three times as much about "The Misfits" - but I had a deadline! You might notice that this post came to a fairly abrupt conclusion and barely on time. According to others, John Huston was known for his inexhaustible energy - but "The Misfits" nearly wiped even him out. From Huston's point of view, Clark Gable and Montgomery Clift were joys to work with on this film (though it was a very different story with Clift a year or so later on "Freud"). And you're right, the studio had trouble getting Gable insured and so, on doctor's orders, he dieted and gave up alcohol before filming began. There is some dispute about how much of his own stunt work he performed and why he did it (the continual "waiting for Marilyn" was blamed by some). You mention the paddle ball scene - apparently it hadn't been in the original script, but Miller added it after watching Marilyn (during idle time on the shoot, I believe) playing with a paddle ball.

      Great blogathon idea, Page, and thank you. By the way, I hope some readers of this post follow the link I included to the ASPCA's "Wild Horses" page...

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  5. A compelling and beautifully written post. An intriguing film, so pleased you chose it for the horseathon.

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    1. Thank you, Jacqueline. "The Misfits" is generally viewed as a downbeat sort of film about alienation and disconnection. But I always think of the scene at the end in which Clark Gable, panting and covered blood, frees the stallion he recaptured and says, "I'm finished with it" and tells Perce to free the mare, too. It's melancholy, yes, but uplifting, too, and beautifully acted.

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  6. Lady Eve - A very touching and evocative post on this significant movie and the end of an era for its leading stars. I luckily got to see Marilyn Monroe and Clark Gable during one of their shoots in Reno. I was a kid and my parents and some friends were camping at Lake Tahoe and visiting Reno at the time. Seems kind of surreal to me now - knowing the fate of these actors, and reflected in my own family. Thank you for your sensitive post.

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    1. Christian, I would love to know more about what you remember of seeing Marilyn Monroe and Clark Gable in Reno. I hope you'll some day blog about it on Silver Screen Modiste - or as my guest here - consider the invitation open.

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  7. Eve, I thought your post did real justice to a difficult film. I like it well enough, but it's the parts I like more than the whole. Its setting and plot are certainly unusual. Marilyn shows a fragility that seems to resemble the real Marilyn but that most directors avoided showing. Montgomery Clift was a great actor whose later career never lived up to his early career. Here I find his character unnervingly close to the way I perceive him after he became such a wreck. His character seems so close to reality that it makes me uncomfortable. It's Gable, an actor I don't really like that much, who really stands out for me. I think he was right to think this was his best performance. It's the only one by him I've seen that strikes me as honest, not just Gable giving us another incarnation of his standard character. Why on Earth does Thelma Ritter, who's so great in the first part of the film, just disappear about midway through? I felt like she had been unceremoniously dropped from the plot. You say you wrote the post in haste, but I found the background you provided fascinating, and when you write that "the film too often becomes theatrically talky and contrived," I think you succinctly put your finger on its weaknesses. Maybe Miller just got too ambitious and his ideas ended up too diffuse to make a coherent impression.

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    1. R.D., You and I respond to "The Misfits" similarly, and your comment that you like the parts more than the whole is my own reaction. As I recall, Marilyn did not care for the Roslyn character in the end, felt she was too much the same type she'd always played - floozy with a heart of gold, although a serious character. I also remember reading something about Montgomery Clift being unnerved by his character, Perce, because he felt it was very close to who he was. I agree with you completely on Clark Gable. He's magnificent in this film - the standout in the cast - and his performance is dead on, the only one of his I've seen that seems honest and true. Obviously, given the right material and director, he was a fine actor. You have a good point about Thelma Ritter - she is sorely missed once she disappears from the scene. She balanced Marilyn's unhappy, drifting character well. My own feeling about Roslyn is that she would've been more believable with less dialogue. Too much of what she says sounds written.

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  8. Excellent post on a fascinating film! THE MISFITS is indeed talky for stretches but overall I find it a riveting, emotionally raw film and remain very impressed by all the performances, especially Monroe, who really lets it all hang out here. Gable is also terrific, and Thelma Ritter can't help but steal any scene she's in. I think you did a great job covering both the behind-the-scenes problems and anecdotes and dissecting the film itself.

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    1. Jeff, "Emotionally raw" is an excellent description of "The Misfits." The material really allows the actors to soar, and each does. As mentioned, I think the dialogue could've been trimmed and toned down at times, but all-in-all, the film is powerful. And it is impossible to forget. By the way, I was watching "Rear Window" the other night and you remind me that Thelma Ritter stole every scene in that one, too.

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  9. I always saw THE MISFITS as a complex film that never quite came together. It's better in parts than as a whole. It's a sad film due to the odd coincidence of it being the last film for its three top stars. I have always been a very big fan of Montgomery Clift, his performances in FROM HERE TO ETERNITY and A PLACE IN THE SUN just blow me away. I never get tired of watching him in these two films. In real life he was a very delicate sensitive personality much like he played in many of his films.

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    1. John, "The Misfits" has some exquisite and unforgettable moments, though, doesn't it? Montgomery Clift made three more films after this one, including "Freud" for John Huston about a year later. Clift was in terrible shape by then, and Huston began to believe that, the effects of drugs and alcohol aside, Clift may have suffered some sort of brain damage in the a car accident that nearly killed him a few years earlier. My own favorite of his films is "A Place in the Sun," though I will watch him in anything (except the overblown "Raintree County").

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    2. Eve, I goofed on Clift. He did make a few more flims. I remember seeing THE DEFECTOR, which was not very good but THAT was his last film. A PLACE IN THE SUN is a great flick, Clift and Taylor made a gorgeous couple.

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    3. John, Yes, Clift made a few more films but his career was essentially over. Thankfully, he left behind several very fine performances - including Perce in "The Misfits."

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  10. Oh, this is such a depressing downer of a movie, Eve. I only forced myself to watch it a few years ago and wished I hadn't.

    But I must say you saw much more in it than I ever did.

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    1. Yvette, Actually, I see beauty in "The Misfits" - dark and complicated beauty, to be sure. It's a difficult film and it has its flaws, but it has its veins of gold, I think...

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  11. Eve ~ your review of “The Misfits” is a touching and lyrical approach to a film with a difficult subject to address. I was unaware that Arthur Miller was inspired by his observations of Nevada horse wranglers, but this certainly explains the authentic portrayal of the life and the people involved. You have also perfectly captured the poignant aspect of the lives of those involved in bringing the story to the screen. I can’t help but think, based on this film, that if Marilyn Monroe had had the confidence to overcome her insecurities, she would have been an astonishingly affective actress throughout a long career. Thank you for including a link to the Wild Horses conservancy information, and now I’m off to read about the birthday boy, J v S.

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    1. 'Gypsy, Arthur Miller seemed to view his initial six weeks in Nevada as time spent on another planet. He compared the area around Pyramid Lake to a moonscape. Luckily, the experience intrigued him enough to write about it. My impression of Marilyn Monroe is that her problems were so deep-seated and longstanding that it was simply not possible for her to overcome them. She began to unravel almost the moment her status as a major movie star was established - with blockbuster hits like "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes" and "How to Marry a Millionaire" in the early '50s.

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  12. Lady Eve - perhaps I could provide my recollections of Marilyn and Clark, though it was a ling time ago and I was a boy. Perhaps in a "Stars I Have Seen" or somesuch blog you might do. My contribution would be short unless I infuse the memories with a lot of mythology.

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    1. Christian, However you would wish to write about your experience in Reno, a long or short piece, will work. I'll email you and let's see if we can work something out.

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  13. Eve- you hit a nerve with this post. Many of the comments that have already been made do a good job of expressing what I feel about "The Misfits". I believe you've done the film justice with your thoughtful words, which isn't an easy task. The movie resonates through all it's imperfections on a very real and emotional level, and this is what makes it memorable. "The Misfits" is fragile and flawed and often misunderstood, much like human nature - the actors gave something of themselves that will live on. The film could have used some pruning but it's essential rawness makes a lasting impression.

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    1. MCB – I have to wonder whether the picture would ever have been finished had another director been in charge. John Huston was legendary for his boundless energy and ability to manage a tough shoot and temperamental stars, but, as I mentioned in another comment, he was exhausted by the time "The Misfits" was finished. It had taken nearly twice as long to film as had been scheduled and was way over budget - all due to the problems with Marilyn. When George Cukor began filming her next picture, "Something's Got to Give," he ended up constantly shooting around her because of similar problems. The production finally shut down when he'd shot every scene he could without her and she still wasn't showing up. What I’m saying is that Huston performed something of a miracle in managing to bring this offbeat and moving film to the screen at all. Even with it's flaws, "The Misfits" is very powerful stuff.

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    2. Yeah, Houston had his hands full trying to direct the proceedings (I've heard stories about this for years). To continue the equine references, Marilyn had clearly thrown the bit and was a "wild" ride for all concerned. I'm not sure that following the method school of acting was good for her mental health, which seems to have been fragile to begin with - and then you have all these powerful men projecting their fantasies on her. She had that special quality, that soulfulness, that lights up the screen with her presence, so at least the directors like Houston and Billy Wilder, who had to struggle with her difficult side, wound up with films that infinitely benefited from her magic.

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    3. About Marilyn and "the method"...Billy Wilder, who had a fierce battle with her on "Some Like it Hot," thought the method had a negative effect on her. Before she took it up, he said, she went before the camera as if she were about to walk across a high wire over a pit. After she adopted "the method," he said it seemed that her concentration was entirely on the pit.

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  14. Great post Eve, on a difficult movie. I agree with everybody! I, too, find it hard to watch.

    I took a quick look at who else was in the movie. My hunch is that most of the extras were cowboys that got lucky and made a movie. Many of them were ONLY in The Misfits, or this and one other film. Of course, it is always good to see John Huston put himself in a scene.

    Strong movies like this have a way of changing everything that comes after. And with the loss of Monroe and Gable, change was inevitable.

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    1. Allen, Your observation that the bit players in "The Misfits" were mostly cowboys reminds me of another Huston film and some of the bit actors in it. Huston made "Under the Volcano" (with Albert Finney) in Mexico in the early '80s. One scene called for Finney's character to pay a visit to a local bordello. Huston cast local ladies of the night rather than actresses for the scene.

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  15. The Misfits is one of those movies that I should despise...but I can't. The acting is just simply superb; I prefer the emoting from Ritter, Clift and Wallach the most but both Monroe and Gable are equally good...I agree with the late actor that it's probably the best performance of his film career (and I've never been a Gable fan).

    A friend of mine from my old Morgantown days used to argue with me all the time that MM was responsible for "killing Gable" due to her myriad of personal problems, and I sort of let it slide the first few times until I finally just got pissed off one day and said "You know, if Gable wasn't such a macho schmuck who insisted on doing his own stunts in that kind of weather, he might have hung around a little longer." I think we decided after that to just never broach the subject again.

    Great review as always, your Ladyship. First class.

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    1. Ivan, I couldn't agree with you more about the level of acting in "The Misfits." For me, Gable stood out most - perhaps because I was so surprised at how honest a performance he gave. Almost everything else I've seen him do has been a variation on Rhett.

      Marilyn's behavior may have driven a few mad (particularly the directors of her last five or six films), but she could hardly be held responsible for anyone's death but her own. Huston has written that Gable didn't perform all the stunts attributed to him on "The Misfits," but others recall things differently.

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  16. Some believe that Clark Gable, gives his best performance of his career in this film. I don't know about that, but... he certainly was brave to take on the role of a broken man abandoned by his family and perform the way he did..

    Marilyn Monroe, also gives an awesome performance as a damaged woman who finally stands up and fights for, something she believes in. Her scene with Monty in the bar, sitting on a pile of trash, was a perfect example of her great talent.

    Wonderful post LadyEve..

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    1. Dawn, Clark Gable was one of those who thought his performance as Gay Langland was his very best - thankfully, he was able to see the rough cut before he died and know how very good he'd been in the role.

      Marilyn Monroe was not very fond of her character and said she would rather Roslyn had reasoned with the "mustangers" and talked them out of the hunt instead of throwing a hysterical fit. Not sure if I agree with her on that - Roslyn, as written, was more emotional and intuitive than reasonable and logical.

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  17. I think.. throwing the hysterical fit seemed more realistic, than talking with "mustangers"...

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  18. I agree that Marilyn's character reasoning the mustangers into humane behavior would have been far less effective in the film than experiencing her character's pain and empathy for the animal's plight. I always felt in "The Misfits" that part of it's message was nature being ruthlessly exploited by a profit driven civilization that was severely disconnected from it's feminine aspect, which had been thoroughly devalued - basically, a macho aesthetic, lacking compassion. I don't think the Roslyn character would have reached those men with reasoning. Today is June 1 and it happens to be Marilyn Monroe's birthday - she would have been 86. For what it's worth, John Huston would be 106 and Clark Gable 111. Time marches on but on film these people are eternal.

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  19. Hi Eve -- I'm glad to be visiting your wonderful site again. (I've been ill.) Marvelous article about "The Misfits." I actually have not watched it for a very long time, and you have reminded me of the many qualities that make it one of the best. I also learned some info of which I had not been aware. Very interesting and well-done post!

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    1. Becky, Thanks for stopping by - glad you're back and that you liked this piece!

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