Director: John Huston
Writer: Arthur Miller
Cinematographer: Russell Metty
Producer: Frank E. Taylor
by Jon Cvack
Earlier this year I read Joe DiMaggio: The Hero’s Life (2000) which is one of the better pop icon biographies I’ve read. Aside from being a great ball player DiMaggio became involved with Marilyn Monroe, quickly developing an obsessive relationship with her. On the set of The Seven Year Itch (1955) during the iconic white dress flare up scene, a crowd gathered around and DiMaggio flipped out, demanding everyone look away. It’s one of those weird hybrids of art and history - in which it’s not just the amount of pop culture and products that extended from that scene, but that one of the most significant players in baseball history was obnoxiously present while filming. Although DiMaggio got violent with Monroe, contributing to their demise, he would continue to love her until his dying day; sending flowers to her grave for the rest of his life.
The Misfits has a comparable Hollywood tragedy facade. Made only a few years before Monroe’s death, the film was one of those powerhouse productions that, on paper, seemed en route to become a Great American Movie. Monroe had left Dimaggio by this point, entering into a relationship with playwright Arthur Miller who joined up with director John Huston for this flick.
It was a movie clearly written for Monroe where she plays a soon-to-be divorced Roslyn Tabor as gorgeous as she’s ever been; for the most part losing that naive blonde innocence and providing a more mature and damaged self. We meet her as she’s waiting for the mechanic to come and fix her car. Guido (Eli Wallach) arrives, talking to the landlord Isabell (Thelma Ritter) and anxious to get the job done as quickly as possible until he sees Roslyn in the window, immediately smitten.
Guideo fixes the truck and Isabell takes Rosalyn to the courthouse to finish the divorce paperwork, where they meet Rosalyn’s husband Raymond Tabor (Kevin McCarthy). Raymond is distraught and saddened, desperate to stay together; clearly the DiMaggio of this situation.
After the divorce is finalized, Isabell takes Rosalyn for a drink at Harrah’s Casino. While drinking, she meets a local cowboy Gaylord 'Gay' Langland played by Clark Gable. Similar to Monroe, though over 35 years her senior, Gable was in the throes of alcoholism. He’d die before the film’s release. At 67 years old he seems a decade older; slow, confused, and soft. The sharp charm we’re familiar with now is completely absent. Having just watched The Irishman a few days before writing this, I noticed the similarities between the two; that no matter how great an actor is, at a certain time, like any talent, age will slow them down. While Miller and Huston might have wanted the beaten down A-lister to match the elderly cowboy persona, the performance felt done by a man who was struggling to keep up, let alone able to give his best work.
Gay offers up his cabin out in the middle of nowhere as a place for Robyn to stay and the four take off that night, immediately breaking out the rum. An immediate tension develops between Guido and Gay as he flirts and makes his moves on Rosalyn and soon wins the battle, all while Isabel is left alone drinking whiskey. Gay moves in with Rosalyn, and without specifying that the two are sleeping together it’s obvious enough; leading to the film’s most iconic moment as Gay wakes up Rosalyn up in bed, who soon turns over topless. In real life, Monroe hadn’t told Clark Gable or the other crew that she’d go nude; shocking and offending Gable. It of course didn’t make it into the film, but nevertheless became a kind of pre-Internet cult Hollywood story. Nevertheless, the viewer gets a shocking taste of movie star skin you just aren’t used to seeing from the period.
Life is slow about the ranch. Although they try to sustain themselves with a garden, Gay battles rabbits, placing poison around the property which Rosalyn then forces him to pick it up; not wanting to kill the animals. Gay keeps talking about roping in wild mustang which they can later sell. His story has become mythological, as prior to government or private development of the land, hundreds of wild mustangs would roam the area; allowing him and his fellow cowboys to bring in a very pretty penny.
Guido joins them with his truck and they head to a rodeo to meet up with another man for the job, Perce Howland (Montgomery Clift) who’s determined to become a great showman, but struggles to compete; getting kicked in the head by a second attempt at a bull riding competition. Rosalyn case for him, igniting jealousy in Gay and renewing tension with Guido.
The next day, Rosalyn joins Perce, Gay, and Guido as they head out to round up the mustangs. Guido boards a crop duster, doing low fly-by’s to round up the horses and send them toward Perce and Gay. The sequence takes your breath away, as for as slow as the previous 80% the story is, Miller and Huston take us to the desert plains, where it sure looks like Gable, Wallach, and Cliff rounded up actual wild horses by roping their necks, bringing them to a stop, and then approaching the bucking animals determined to protect itself. It’s terrifying because it is real, and while I’m not exactly sure what it all means, the images are strong enough to burn the mind.
It’s not too difficult to see what Arthur Miller was exploring. In the end, Rosalyn gets the horses free, returns to the ailing Gay while the other men - whether slime balls or sexy - are forced to remain alone. Not so subtle sexual innuendo is sprinkled throughout the film, from the bucking and untameable mustangs to an earlier scene when Rosalyn enters and exits the house, explaining how she’s going “in and out” over and over to an onlooking Gaylord, or when she tries the mechanical bull at the saloon.
The movie is very much about Monroe as an object desired. While Miller updates her dumb blonde persona, there remains an oblivious ignorance in her character. We’re meant to buy that Rosalyn doesn’t fully understand that she has three horny men who’re on the precipice of self-control. It is a story that is entirely from a Man’s perspective.
You can feel the talent behind the film believing this would be one of cinema’s greats. Instead, it’s a film that seems written from its author’s own insecurities. It serves as a historical document of Monroe’s allure. The story is about an independent woman who provides meaning and purpose to three alienated souls in search of American greatness. Gay hopes to go back to being a cowboy though they no longer exist as defined. Guido is blue collar to his bone, blaming everyone but himself for his economic failure. Perce covers fame, but without the heart, stands only to embarrass himself. Rosalyn excuses all of these obstacles. In their minds, she would make everything alright. She would provide meaning. And in many ways - for many men - that might have very well been the case. She is so gorgeous and beautiful and mesmerizing that any man failing to find their place in the world would believably abandon their dreams for her.
The issue is that this isn’t a universal idea. Most people do not meet or know someone like Rosalyn (aka Monroe). There is no star in their lives to eclipse all else. The movie isn’t about some grand American idea, it is about an obsession toward a very specific person. It’s best to ignore the power behind this film; to instead see it as a supplement to the Marilyn Monroe Myth. Though I suppose this myth is as American as it gets.
BELOW: A movie where everything goes back to sex
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