The Misfits (1961)
“The Misfits” is a film about endings — both thematically and in the real lives of the cast and crew.
It was the final film for both Marilyn Monroe and Clark Gable, and many observers have deemed their respective performances the finest of their careers. I’d have to agree about Monroe, certainly with regards to her non-comedic work, though I haven’t seen a large enough portion of Gable’s movies to make such a dispositive statement.
He would suffer a heart attack just two days after production wrapped — some contend because the 59-year-old insisted on doing the strenuous stunts contained in the movie himself, including wrestling a bucking mustang stallion and being dragged on the ground up to 30 miles per hour. Gable died a few days later, an icon for three decades during his life and many more after.
Monroe lingered on for another 19 months, descending further into her spiral of drugs and self-torment. Co-star Montgomery Clift, his own career derailed by substance abuse and a car wreck that required reconstructive facial surgery, would make only three more films before perishing at age 45, the denouement of what’s been called “the longest suicide” in showbiz.
And the marriage between Monroe and Arthur Miller dissolved during the course of filming, as he continually rewrote the screenplay while he and director John Huston wrestled over their conceptions for the movie. One of Hollywood’s oddest marital pairings ended in divorce shortly before “The Misfits” premiered. Monroe was often late to the set or a complete no-show, and at one point production ground to a halt during her two-week hospital stay.
And yet the old Hollywood proverb — that pleasant productions result in disappointing final results, while tumultous shoots produce some of the medium’s best works — holds true with “The Misfits.” It is a glorious, brave, imperfect portrait of flawed people yearning for freedom and respect, but pulled by the primal urges of love, lust and pride to trap themselves in cages of their own crafting.
The movie’s story, and its method of storytelling, also stand on the doorstep of changeover from the dependable “old way” to a risky, grittier new. The tale centers on modern day (for 1961) Nevada, emblematic of a frontier life that is not disappearing, but disappeared. Aging, antediluvian cowboys stubbornly try to eke out an existence based on a fierce sense of individuality they know only from adolescent wanderings and John Wayne movies.
Huston and Miller embraced a mode of filmmaking that was less about laying down a spotlighted runway carpet of plot than creating indelible characters, throwing them into a pot together and seeing what comes out of their simmering emulsions. It’s no surprise “The Misfits” is the sort of movie Method actors were drawn to, where the performances drive the story rather than the other way round. Clift, Monroe and co-star Eli Wallach all studied with the Strasbergs.
Monroe was often dismissed as a sex object, but in “The Misfits” she literally is one. Roslyn Tabor, recently divorced and emotionally fragile, is like a butterfly in a meadow full of predators. All the men she meets desire her physically, and all three of the male main characters fall in love with her. She is aware of her sexual power, has used it in the past to her benefit, but now it’s become a burden she’d rather cast off.
It reminds me of what Hannibel Lecter said about another killer in the book and movie “The Silence of the Lambs.” What is his first principle, i.e. what is the essence of his being? He covets. Roslyn is the flip side of that equation: her existence is defined by being coveted.
“Celebrating” her divorce with her older, jaded companion Isabelle (Thelma Ritter), Roslyn bumps into Gay Langland (Gable) and Guido, a pair of itinerant cowboys who believe God’s country is their bequest, and freedom their daily manna. On a whim, she hooks up with them and moves to Guido’s cabin in the plains, where Gay becomes her lover, almost by default.
Guido is 40-ish, a WWII bomber pilot who was studying to be a doctor until his wife died on him. She was loyal and “uncomplaining as a tree,” he says, and he clearly thinks Roslyn should be the second iteration of her. Guido is the smartest and most sensitive of the bunch, but something in him is like biting on tinfoil. “You could blow up the whole world and end up feeling sorry for yourself,” Roslyn observes, hitting the mark square on.
Gay is much older, probably about Gable’s actual age, but he’s still virile and hard as creased leather. (Gable reportedly lost nearly 40 pounds for the role, which could have contributed to his health issues.) Freedom is his lifeblood and his mantra. To him, women are deceitful creatures always trying to trip him up and tie him down. The most dire insult a man can commit is to offer him a paying job.
“It’s better than wages,” Gay and his companions are often heard to say, with the clear implication that nothing much is worse.
And yet, Gay is willing to sacrifice his freedom, or at least a piece of it, in order to make Roslyn remain with him. He helps her plant a garden and fixes up Guido’s half-finished house. What’s more, he stays in once place for weeks and months, shrugging off the wanderlust that is his sword and shield.
The last addition to the group, almost like a lost puppy taken in from the storm, is Perce Howland (Clift), a young rodeo tough. His father died not long ago and his mother remarried a man he can’t stand, so Perce (rhymes with “purse”) is essentially a grown-up runaway. The family ranch was meant to be his, and when his stepfather offered him wages (!) to work on his own land, it was more than he could bear.
Perce is a living variation of the parable of the prodigal son, but instead of squandering his inheritance he worries about being cheated out of it. The life of a rancher is all Perce has ever aspired to, and he’d rather bust himself to pieces riding broncs and bulls than accept anything less than his full birthright.
Perce is touched when he is injured in a rodeo and Roslyn weeps for him. Empathy is a novel concept in his travels. Straightforward and simple-minded — and possibly addled from so many blows to the head — Perce is in many ways as much a symbol of purity as Roslyn. In truth she would be better living and loving him than either Gay or Guido, but Perce is too decent to even think of horning in on another man’s gal. And she, despite her new-found independence, still wants a man to chase her.
Gay convinces the others to “go mustanging” — chase down and corral a passel of the few remaining wild horses in Nevada and sell them off to a dealer. They used to roam the range by the thousands, but all they can gather up is one stallion, four mares and a colt — barely enough to pay for their gas and a few dollars apiece. It takes more than crumbs to make a meal out of the glory days.
Further soiling the spirit of the Old West they embrace, Gay & Co. don’t do their herding from horseback, but scatter the mustangs using Guido’s dilapidated biplane and roping them from the back of a flat-bed truck, using old tires as anchors to wear them out.
For Roslyn, the final blow comes upon learning the mustangs will not be sold as riding animals — Gay repeatedly praises the speed and hardiness of the small horses — but as meat for dog food. At this she flips out, cursing her “three sweet damned men” and swearing to have nothing to do with them ever again. “You’re only happy when you can see something die!” she shrieks.
Eventually the horses are released — after a showdown between the men where Gay nearly kills himself to prove that no one can make up his mind for him. He’s been living in a cloud of self-delusion, wearing his mantle as a carefree cowboy like armor. Gay resolves to give up the wild life and settle down with Roslyn.
With the passing of Gay and his ilk, the film suggests, America is forced to pull the shroud over the ideal of a land of limitless opportunity, where men and women can forge their own idea of what it means to be happy and free.
And in the end, that’s what “The Misfits” is about: The death of the cowboy.