American playwright Arthur Miller once wrote a screenplay for his wife, Marilyn Monroe, called The Misfits (1961). It’s a somber, take-no-prisoners story, set in the bleak landscape surrounding Reno, Nevada.
“Nevada is the Leave-It State,” explains Thelma Ritter in the film, meaning it’s the place to leave your spouse, your money and your nuclear fall-out. (Nevada played host to 928 nuclear tests from 1951-1992.¹)
The landscape here is hard and dry, punctuated by scrub and rocks. It makes you thirsty just looking at it.
Monroe plays a newly-divorced woman who becomes involved with an aging cowboy (Clark Gable), a man as tough as the Nevada desert. It’s an odd pairing: Gable’s brusqueness vs. Monroe’s stubborn sensitivity. Sometimes she seems so delicate she might crumble, yet she never turns down a good fight.
In one of their relationship power struggles, Gable calls Monroe “silly”. Monroe says Gable doesn’t respect her feelings, and Gable argues she doesn’t respect him.
Added to this is Monroe’s Appeal to men in general. Eli Wallach plays a self-absorbed bush pilot who thinks Monroe will give him Prestige. Montgomery Clift is a soft-hearted cowboy who is drawn to her vulnerability.
The truth is, this group doesn’t have anybody but each other. They are misfits, like the wild mustangs in the Nevada mountains. These horses are captured by Gable and Co. and are sold to a dealer who, in turn, slaughters them for pet food.
The Misfits is rich with symbolism and features Monroe’s and Gable’s finest dramatic performances.
Monroe’s character is a demanding one – for herself and the audience. She’s a mournful soul who wants life to be Romantic and hates it when it’s not. Gable asks her, “What makes you so sad? I think you’re the saddest girl I ever met.”
However, she has a way of getting to the heart of a matter by asking maudlin questions. “We’re all dying, aren’t we?” she asks. “All the husbands and all the wives. Every minute. We’re not teaching each other what we really know.”
She can’t stand to see anything killed, which conflicts with Everything Gable Is About. When a rabbit threatens to eat the lettuce in their garden, she begs him not to kill it. Yet, when the men round up the mustangs, she becomes hysterical and suggests they kill themselves.
Nevertheless, Gable tries to explain his view of Life. “Honey, we all gotta go sometime, reason or no reason,” he says. “Dying is as natural as living. If a man is too afraid to die, he’s too afraid to live.”
As you can see, Gable’s character stampedes his way through life. He Makes The Rules, but he also has a tender soul. For example, when he unexpectedly runs into his children and misses the chance to say goodbye, he’s crushed. Yet, when he struggles with a wild mustang stallion, he refuses to be defeated.
He’s so compelling you forget this is Clark Gable, Movie Star, on the screen.
The Misfits was a troubled production. Both Monroe and Clift had dependencies on prescription medication, while director John Huston had a little too much fun with Reno’s nightlife.
Meanwhile, Arthur Miller had a habit of re-writing several pages of dialogue the night before – or morning of – a shoot, which added to Monroe’s stress level and is said to contribute to their marital breakdown.
Gable was, apparently, the calming influence on the production.² He also performed most of his own stunts, including the scene where he’s dragged by a truck across a dried lake bed.
The Misfits would be the last completed film for both Gable and Monroe. Gable had a heart attack the day after filming finished; he died eleven days later. Monroe would die of an overdose 18 months after the film’s release.
Clift would appear in three more films before his death in 1966.
Now, we might have made things seem a bit scandalous and/or morbid, and that isn’t our intent. The Misfits is a Grown-Up film with complex characters and life’s Big Questions. You ought to see it.
The Misfits: starring Clark Gable, Marilyn Monroe, Montgomery Clift. Directed by John Huston. Written by Arthur Miller. United Artists, 1961, B&W, 125 mins.