Well, I don’t know if I’d agree that the late Eli Wallach’s character Guido in The Misfits was “likable” as one press item put it. He was a very memorable misfit who flew his beloved temperamental plane over the bare Nevada desert in mustang hunts pursuing a big financial strike and lusting after Roslyn–Marilyn Monroe’s beleaguered divorcee character. He gave a truly convincing performance of a lustful male pressuring her for personal affirmation and sex. It is hard to imagine any other actor of that time outdoing Wallach’s portrayal of persistence, transparent superficiality, and raw need. Easily one of his best performances in an amazing 100+ film career.
He was joined in this 1961 ‘flawed’ classic by several other misfits. John Huston, the celebrated eccentric maverick director, drank, gambled, and womanized the nights away on the 110+ degrees-in-the-shade desert set. Despite this, he patiently tolerated Marilyn’s numerous delays and a pill meltdown which jeopardized completion of the shoot. No one else could have directed this tense, behind-schedule, over-budget movie. A lover of literature, he made sure that Arthur Miller’s script was closely adhered to.
Montgomery Clift had been through serious accidents and added to his physical problems by injuring his nose (bandaged in scenes) when he tried working with the rodeo animals himself. His alcoholism and penchant for self-destruction had made him uninsurable, but Miller and Huston backed him up so he was able to do the film. He turned out to be the scene-stealing rodeo bum Perce who has two powerful scenes–the phone booth call to his mother in a single-take extended monologue and the one close-up with Roslyn. Clift had no problem with his lines, unlike Monroe who did as many as 17 takes in the church steps scene. Though a true misfit, he acquitted himself very well.
Clark Gable gave the performance of his life, so he felt and many critics agreed, as Gay, the hard-living, restless womanizer-cowboy. His drunk scene outside the casino in which he pleads with his imagined, alienated son is a classic. Gable took all kinds of risks and did his own stunts as much as possible, even being dragged which injured him and likely hastened his heart attack the day after the shoot ended. Like Monroe, it was his last movie, and it was strong, Oscar-worthy performance. (Clift and Wallach could also both have been nominated for Best Supporting Actor and Ritter Best Supporting Actress.) Though playing a misfit character, Gable was also the sunny, sunburn-faced hero who cuts the stallion free in the climax. (For the record, the mustang hunt is one of the most powerful man vs. Nature scenes ever committed to film.) Miller got close to ‘The King’ and even dedicated his original novella to him.
Marilyn Monroe’s relationship with Miller was in break-up mode after she had an affair with Yves Montand in her previous movie. Frequently fumbling her lines, she was totally dependent on intrusive method-coach Paula Strasberg who was an ever-present black-clothed blight (the others called her Black Bart) and completely controlled Monroe, threatening and undermining any shred of self-confidence that her still-loyal husband Miller had tried to instill by gift-writing her the Roslyn part and movie screenplay. It is amazing she ever completed the shoot, frequently disrupting it by showing up late or not at most of the time. The shoot even had to close down when she had an overdose and had to return to L.A. to recover.
That, and the pathetic dissolving-marriage-on-set did much to invest a sense of doom and gloom about this movie which made it even more unique and powerful finally. To Monroe’s credit, she has several powerful scenes that showed she was extremely talented when momentarily focused and lost in a role. She is frequently moving and vulnerable throughout the picture, especially in the scenes in which she is ‘hunted’ by the various misfit male characters. Her best scenes are the one on the desert where she is filmed in long shot screaming at the ‘death side’ men, and the one in which she is dancing in abandon around a Garden of Eden tree. Again, no one else could have rendered these scenes more beautifully and deeply.
The movie itself is about the death of the American Dream–cowboys reduced to chasing beautiful, wild, free mustangs to turn them into dog food. All the characters are alienated and disconnected. This is one of the most powerful movies ever about the failure to communicate and a certain incompatibility between men and women which Miller immortalized forever. And all of the actors (including Thelma Ritter as the delightful, ‘older but wiser’ Isabelle) made the film work. They were all that focused and serious about doing their best work. Even Monroe when she made it to the cameras.
The passing of Wallach yesterday poignantly brought back many memories of these other great actors long gone. He was the last of “The Misfits” from 53 years ago. The last link to movie greats and greatness, and a whole other age long passed. It was a special time and a very special, remarkable movie. One of my favourites, indeed.
According to Miller, Monroe was described by Huston as “some kind of a crazy genius”. Miller also described his misfits as demonstrating “displacement in life of commitment”, living in “moment to moment reality’; “people trying to connect and afraid to connect.”