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Sunday, March 19, 2017

My Week with Marilyn: The Misfits (1961)

Director: John Huston
Starring: Marilyn Monroe, Clark Gable, Montgomery Clift, Eli Wallach, Thelma Ritter

The marathon comes to an end, appropriately enough, with The Misfits, a film which has "the end" written all over it. It's the final film that Marilyn Monroe completed, the final film of Clark Gable, its production was the final nail in the coffin of Monroe's marriage to Arthur Miller (who wrote the screenplay), and its story is all about things ending and people struggling to accept it. There's something funereal about The Misfits, something which makes it as poignant as it is upsetting (on the whole I wouldn't describe the film as "upsetting," but that last 20/30 minutes is pretty hard to watch). It's a melancholy film about very sad people, but it's a great film and I don't think Monroe was ever better than she was here, even if the making of this movie took everything she had left.

Set in Reno, Monroe stars as Roslyn, who has been staying at a boarding house run by Isabelle (Thelma Ritter) while she waits out her six week residency period in order to get her divorce. At loose ends once the divorce comes through, Roslyn falls in with Guido (Eli Wallach), who offers to let her stay in the house he has out in the country while she considers what she wants to do now, and Guido's friend, Gay (Gable), an aging cowboy with whom she strikes up a romantic relationship. Though things go well at first, as Gay helps Roslyn fix up the house, which Guido abandoned after the death of his wife in childbirth, they begin to take a turn when everyone - Roslyn, Gay, Guido, Isabelle, and Gay and Guido's friend Perce (Montgomery Clift) - spend some time at the rodeo in Dayton. While there, Roslyn's sensitivity begins to get on Gay's nerves, while the roughness of Gay's lifestyle begins to fray Roslyn's nerves. Things come to a head when Gay, Perce, and Guido go mustanging and bring Roslyn along, leaving her shocked by the cruelty of their actions.

Directed by John Huston, The Misfits is a film that feels deeply elegiac in virtually every respect. On a narrative level, it's about a bunch of people that time has passed by, trying to hang on to a past that has already slipped away. Nothing better encapsulates that than the film's final sequence, in which the men try to hunt and capture wild mustangs that can be sold and turned into dog food. While all three men can remember a time when hundreds of horses could be captured at once, now they can only find six, a number so small that Perce doesn't even think it's worth the effort of capturing them, and which eventually causes Gay to reflect that the pursuit seems a lot more morally questionable when there's so few animals in play. If there was ever anything noble about it, it's now long gone, and the men can either fade away with it or they can find another way to live.

The casting of the film further emphasizes this bygone feeling. Gable, even if he hadn't passed away 10 days after completing filming, was in the twilight of his career, a holdover from an earlier era of Hollywood that was itself in its death throes as what remained of the studio system was collapsing; like his character, he's an artifact from another time, one viewed nostalgically as having been more glorious. Then you have Clift and Monroe, both of whom had that air of tragedy about them by the time they made this film, their lives and careers marked by addiction and instability. Clift's Perce is a broken man, his body and mind all banged up by years spent on the rodeo circuit, full of physical punishment and substance abuse, and his spirit damaged by the events of his past that he's still trying to grapple with emotionally. The cowboy archetype is usually defined by its remoteness - the strong, silent type - but Clift's performance is one of intense vulnerability and open emotion and fragility, the kind that makes it tempting to question the amount of separation between actor and character, but which is ultimately the simple result of the fact that, even as far gone as he was by 1961, Clift remained a deeply intuitive and skilled actor.

As the sensitive, emotionally delicate Roslyn, Monroe was never better, though she was said to have hated her performance. Her negative self-assessment can probably be chalked up to the negative associations that she would have had with the making of the film, because the performance is beautifully complex and touching, demonstrating Monroe's power to hold the screen as well as her ability (not often employed by the films that relied heavily on her surface charms) to subtly draw the viewer into the interior life of her character. If nothing else, The Misfits leaves you wondering what Monroe's legacy might have been if she hadn't died when she did, if she'd managed to conquer her demons, and if she'd moved away from the glamorous/sex symbol roles and towards down to earth character parts. Her character here is designed to act as an audience surrogate, opening up this coarse, foreign world that Guy and Guido and Perce are part of, but Monroe makes her more than just a vessel for the horrors that she witnesses (and it is pretty horrific once the film gets to the scenes with the horses, as Huston presents it in an unvarnished way that foregrounds the terror of the animals); she's a fully fleshed character with a history that is subtly expressed and Monroe's raw, open performance is arguably the film's greatest strength.

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