The real-life tragedy of John Huston’s Misfits

Few movies can reflect and predict – without knowing, of course – the real-life tragedy of the people involved in their making as accurately as John Huston’s off-beat and fatalistic film from 1961, The Misfits, starring Clark Gable, Marilyn Monroe, Montgomery Clift, Thelma Ritter and Eli Wallach. Huston’s film is drenched in the tragic fate of its three leading stars; Gable died of a heart attack (some argue provoked by the intensity of making The Misfits) at the age of 59 two weeks after filming ended; Monroe died of a drug overdose less than two years later with The Misfits being her last completed film; Montgomery Clift fell into a downward spiral of drug addiction as he battled with the pain brought on by a serious car crash he’d been victim of in 1956 that left him disfigured and from which he never recovered until his premature death in 1966.
In other words, The Misfits has been hailed as a haunted picture and what some might consider the true testament of three Hollywood stars who all shared similar hardships inflicted by the public eye.

Marilyn Monroe in her last on-screen role.

Written by Monroe’s husband, playwright Arthur Miller, The Misfits starts out as a tale of loneliness in sleepy Reno, Nevada, with a cast of characters from different backgrounds who decide to join forces and kill this overwhelming sense of boredom and alienation.
Monroe plays Roslyn, the new gal in town looking to complete her divorce proceedings. When asked about her reasons for the divorce, Roslyn simply replies, “Well, he wasn’t there. I mean, you could touch him, but he wasn’t there.” This is the first of many lines that rings true when we take into account Miller and Monroe’s failing marriage and his insistence on turning her character into a helpless victim throughout the film. Despite her obvious sex appeal, Roslyn is soon revealed to be a tragic, insecure and deeply fragile person in a world that values anything but human fragility.
In Reno she meets Guido (Eli Wallach) – a tow truck driver who believes in the American dream – and Gaylord Langland (Clark Gable) – an aging cowboy who refuses to buy into the modern ways of life. Both men look upon Roslyn with the eyes of predators seizing up their prey. Eventually they are also joined by down-on-his-luck cowboy Perce Howland (Montgomery Clift) who’s willing to do anything but work for wages. As Gable’s character repeats on multiple occasions, “Anything’s better than wages,” as in anything’s better than being part of society.

Clark Gable initial plan to seduce Monroe’s Roslyn soon falls apart.

The titular misfits at first want to have fun. They go drinking, dancing and soon end up at a rodeo show where we see the first cracks appear in our characters’ psyche. Once again, fiction meets reality when we find out that Clift’s character, Perce, similarly to Clift himself, has had to undergo plastic surgery after a bull-riding incident. And, just like the actor, Perce has a tendency to engage in self-destructive behavior as he forces himself to get back on the rodeo just to get thrown around and end up with a head injury. Roslyn sees through Perce’s pain, which, again, alludes to the real-life tragedy of Monroe meeting Clift on set for the very first time and telling him, “I’ve never met someone in worse shape than me,” – two lost souls recognizing each other’s suffering after years of being surrounded by people who denied them that right.
Both Perce and Roslyn have gone through life as if by accident. When they meet, although both are more or less the same age, they look wilted, tired, imprisoned by their fears and the terrifying awareness that ultimately they must go on living by themselves. “Maybe you’re not supposed to remember anybody’s promises,” says Roslyn. “Maybe all there really is is just the next thing. The next thing that happens.” Life is a matter of survival, it seems like.

There is a lot of pain in Clift and Monroe’s pairing.

The film proceeds to unfold in the Mojave desert, where our misfits, with Gable’s veteran Gaylord leading the pack, plan on wrangling wild mustangs. The fate of those poor animals is to eventually be turned into dog food. Miller’s metaphor is far from subtle: the film (directed by John Huston, who at the time of filming was constantly drunk and throwing production money down the drain due to his gambling habit) assumes the form of a surreal, psychological thriller where the wrangling of horses equates the wrangling of men and women by the Hollywood industry.

Perce’s days of rodeo seem to be over.

Gable – who at this point in his life was anything but his sexy, charming and handsome version from “Gone with the Wind” – is seen personally perform life-threatening stunts with the demeanor of a man who knows the end is near. On the last day of filming, the actor was reportedly heard saying, “I’m glad this picture’s finished. She damn near gave me a heart attack.” Gable knew. Just like Monroe and Clift. All three actors wrestle with their own personal demons. Whereas Monroe is busy fighting her husband’s projected version of her in the form of Roslyn, Gable must face his own decline playing an over-the-hill, good-for-nothing cowboy whose lifestyle has finally caught up with him. Clift, on the other hand, is still evidently struggling with recognizing his own persona. He’s no longer the handsome devil and sex symbol of the early 50s with hits like A Place in the Sun and From Here to Eternity. He’s weak, slender and jittery. He’s like a restless animal, seeking shelter and peace. There are instances where Clift is clearly avoiding the gaze of the camera and often prefers to remain in the background, concealing his bruised identity from the audience. It is a tragic reminder of how life has its own ways and things like fame, money, sex can do absolutely nothing to stop it.

Gable is not afraid to make a fool of himself in his last film.

As the trio sets out to wrangle the wild horses, the initial excitement of the endeavor turns into a nauseating and obsessive rite of passage with Roslyn having to witness the pain inflicted on the animals by the group of men whom she considered friends. These men, obsessed with power, with being in charge and perceived as strong and macho, are just looking for meaning in the most primitive of ways. They’re blood-thirsty, but they refuse to admit it to themselves. For them, wrangling a horse and seducing Roslyn are more or less the same thing. “You have to get something to be human?” she asks them.

Roslyn can only watch in horror as the men go horse-wrangling.

Because that’s what The Misfits does so well: it presents us with the true, broken down nature of Hollywood stars. It is the final farewell to Gable and Monroe, as well as one of the last major productions Clift was involved in. On the night the actor died, his maid had reportedly asked him if he wanted to watch the film as it was playing on TV. Clift refused. Similarly, Monroe hated the film and her performance. It was perhaps too personal, too painful to bear to have something as honest and intimate out on the street, in theaters and on the small screen. For Gable, on the other hand, this, along with Gone with the Wind, was the only piece of work he was truly proud of, although he died before he could see the completed version of the film.
In writing about The Misfits, I wanted to bring to light the clash of reality and fiction. Fiction, which in the hands of Arthur Miller and John Huston, assumed a whole new meaning when put in the context involving the troubles lives of our stars. Eli Wallach – who plays Gaylord’s sidekick Guido – felt oddly out of place. Wallach was just starting out. For him, the movie should have been exactly that – just a movie. But for Gable, Monroe and Clift, it was more than that – it was a matter of setting the record straight, of doing something meaningful. All three of them seemed to have been yearning for that kind of material. A story that would allow them to finally be honest with themselves. That’s the power of film. It can bring to the surface things we never imagined we had in us.

A moving farewell to some of Hollywood’s biggest stars.

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