The Misfits (1961)
Written by Arthur Hiller
Directed by John Huston
The Misfits is a heartbreaking film, both from what you see on screen and what was happening behind the scenes. This would be both Clark Gable and Marilyn Monore’s final performances. Montgomery Clift, who would only make three more appearances before his death in 1966, had a troubled background and struggled with his health and sexual identity. It was very fitting that these actors be the ones playing these broken characters, lost in the Reno wastes, trying to figure out where they were going and how to connect with others. While not a violent movie, The Misfits is the bleakest picture I’ve seen from John Huston. Despite its slightly hopefully ending, there’s a lot of uncertainty about what happens next.
Rosalyn Tabor (Monroe) has just divorced her husband and goes to a bar with her landlady & friend Isabelle (Thelma Ritter) by her side. They meet Gaylord “Gay” Langland (Gable) and his tow truck driver pal Guido (Eli Wallach). After some drinks & good conversation, they keep the celebration going at Guido’s old house in the Nevada country. Rosalyn learns Guido’s wife died here during childbirth, and despite the dance & drink, that idea lingers with her. Guido lives elsewhere and offers the place to Rosalyn as somewhere she can restart her life. She develops feeling for the aging cowboy Gay and the two move into the site together, sprucing it up and making it a home.
Gay notices rabbits are eating in the garden, and he says he’ll sit up with his rifle and stop them. Rosalyn is incredibly appalled about death, especially a person taking an innocent animal’s life. The quartet ends up going to a rodeo nearby where Rosalyn meets Perce (Clift), a bull rider and old friend of Gay and Guido’s. She is shocked when Perce is thrown from a bull and struck, bleeding from the head. It becomes clear Guido and Perce are slightly jealous of Gay and clearly lust in varying degrees for Rosalyn. Everything comes to a head on a trip into the mountains where Rosalyn learns of pretty barbaric practice the three men engage in that becomes a breaking point for her.
While The Misfits was being filmed, Marilyn Monore was unknowingly living out the last year and a half of her life. Arthur Miller was her husband at the time and had written the script for her, carving out the part of Rosalyn to play to her strengths. Monroe took prescription drugs and drank to excess in the evenings after shooting; her mental illness and anxiety exacerbated. Production had to be suspended for two weeks while she was in the hospital when her depression paralyzed her. Huston said she was consistently late to the set and, on some days, never even showed up. From all accounts, the cast & crew seemed to be very gentle & understanding with Monroe. They understood how critical her performance was and came to care about her very deeply.
It’s clear to me that Huston never wanted to glamorize those aspects of American culture that were otherwise held up as great mythologies. In 1952, Huston had left the United States to permanently move to Ireland. He cited his disgust with the House on Un-American Activities (HUAC), a witch hunt led by American legislators to suss out suspected Communists in the country. These hearings blacklisted many of Huston’s friends in the film industry, which enraged him. He would later say that the worse you could say about the Communists being hunted down was that “Their social conscience was more acute than the next fellow’s.” In 1964, he would renounce his U.S. citizenship officially.
In The Misfits, we learn that Guido, the widower who lost his wife in childbirth, was also a bomber during World War II. He reveals this to Rosalyn under the impression it will impress her, likely thinking he’s a war hero. Later, when she’s had enough of him and other others, she throws that back at him. Rosalyn talks about the men, women, children, babies he would have killed and taken homes from. She’s clearly confused as to why he has pride in this fact. She even makes connections between that and how he felt when he lost his wife, which upsets him immensely. Rosalyn eventually learns Perce’s backstory, how his father died, and his mother remarried a man who stole the family estate from him. This set Perce out into the world, aimless, riding bulls and refusing to work for another man. Then she learns Gay’s history, a wanderer with children around the country he doesn’t know but sees maybe once a year. He gets blindingly drunk the night after the rodeo and hallucinates seeing them.
The end of the movie is haunted by change. These men used to go and round-up wild mustangs for people to own & ride. Now they do it to sell the animals to the dog food factory. Guido killed for his country, came back to build his dream house, and lost his wife and child. Now he has nowhere to go. The world didn’t help these people adapt to the way things were changing; it kept selling them a dream they’d never be allowed to have. The most powerful moment for me is Rosalyn, unable to articulate why she hates seeing them drag these horses to the ground, screaming out into the Nevada desert. It’s a wail of demand from the universe to restore a sense of humanity & life. We never learn if that call is answered. She and Gay drive off into the night, following the stars, hoping things can be better but not really knowing how to make that happen.