The Misfits (1961)

Sometimes it’s better to start with the ending. I’d never seen any of Marilyn Monroe’s films until recently, though I’ve always admired her extravagant femininity and the dominant, native intelligence of her style and photogenic savoir faire. As an object of both glamour and human frailty, she remains on top of the heap. She’s easy to view alternately as both thing and person- the ever enigmatic public figure, the feminist puzzle, the cinematic cipher dripped in fantastical sheen that seemingly never dulls. How glad I am that my first Monroe film, her last, is the one about which its director John Huston quipped, “She had no techniques. It was all the truth, it was only Marilyn.”

The Misfits, released in early 1961, was, by the reckoning of any age, a financial and emotional boondoggle of production. The monetary costs were the most ever for a black and white film at four million dollars. The cast and crew suffered both self-inflicted maladies and the punishing heat of a desert locale. The story itself is less wasteful, spare even. Four people meet in Reno, Nevada and decide to party at the deserted ranch home of one of them, Guido, played by Eli Wallach. The revelers are themselves remnant of brighter, younger days. Clark Gable portrays a middle aged cowboy, Gay Langland, Wallach an underemployed WWII pilot, Thelma Ritter an older woman, Isabelle, who rents an apartment to new divorcée Monroe, as Roslyn Taber.

Intoxicated by one another as much as by the desert air and whisky they’re inhaling, the quartet form an instant bond, a rectangle of connection whose corners are solid. Ritter and Monroe, mutually protective and solicitous, are ends to sides of the two longhorns immediately fixated upon Monroe. Gable and Wallach, jockeying for position and attention, spend the evening dancing with Roslyn, getting her drunker until she whirls into the desert for something Rumi himself might smile upon.  Monroe,  shot-in-soft-focus be damned, unwinds early in The Misfits, her voluptuous glory and unique presence powering at you from somewhere real within, daring you to come along, make yourself fractionally as vulnerable as she is, then hang on for the bull ride.

For it’s to a rodeo they soon go, lazily picking up Montgomery Clift enroute. Clift’s Perce Howland is unforgettable, one moment all false bravado and the next a crumpled heap of confused and rejected cowboy. In my favorite scene, Perce luxuriates in the tender ministrations of Roslyn as they rest unceremoniously in an alleyway, Monroe’s dusty legs and dress serving as his pillow and rejuvenation. It’s an incomparable stretch, two shockingly beautiful humans, one with a comically bandaged head, licking their wounds and communicating with no wasted words, no junk, amid the garbage cans.

Monroe bonds with each man in the truest sense. She befriends them in three distinct ways, evolving into their moral compass, their not-so-silent inner voice. Guido, Gay and Perce plan to go “mustanging”, rounding up wild horses that they sell for a very rough maintenance. Monroe goes ”along for the ride”, but that’s such a tremendous expression of disservice to the emotional power she brings to the film’s centerpiece. It’s impossible to rope you any further without giving away much of this film’s dry, prickly beauty, which, to my surprise and delight, has nothing to do with any of Monroe’s physical appearance and everything to do with what can only be described as her guts. John Wayne was never this strong. Monroe in The Misfits is an almost feminist marvel, and for the first time I really saw her as a person, someone making a statement about what her life meant. And, equally, I wondered how she could manage such strength even as that life unraveled.

In searching for just the right photo to use here, I learned that earlier this fall, most of her images were judged as belonging to the public domain. She’s ours now, lock, stock and barrel, the push-pull between any vestige of her privacy and that of her stardom forever tipped to the side of the hungry public. But these are just photos. She lives in The Misfits.

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