Playwright and occasional screenwriter Arthur Miller (1915-2005 bladder cancer) was, of course, married for several years to troubled actress Marilyn Monroe (1926-1962 sleeping pill overdose). He tried to save her but she either didn’t want to, or was unable to, save herself. He wrote the classic plays Death of a Salesman and The Crucible, for which he wrote the excellent screenplay for the 1996 movie.
Of interest to me are two other movies of his screenplays. One is the “gift” he wrote for Marilyn, which he hoped would kick start her dramatic career, entitled The Misfits (1961). The second is a movie script based on one of his one act plays, which has a mentally disturbed main character, played very well and without any apparent direction by Debra Winger. Whether it is a nod to Marilyn is possible but the character is more schizophrenic than neurotic. That movie, which of course everyone hates for some reason, is Everybody Wins (1990).
To start with The Misfits, which along with Monroe in her last role, has Clark Gable (1901-60 heart attack) who died a matter of days after shooting finished, as well as Montgomery Clift (1920-66 heart attack) and Eli Wallach (1915-2014 natural causes).
The original story for The Misfits was published in Esquire magazine and a friend of Miller’s said it would make a great movie. The script written and Miller’s marriage was already on the rocks by the time production was to begin because of Marilyn’s miscarriage and her apparent affair with French actor Yves Montand (1921-91 heart attack) on the set of Let’s Make Love (1960).
I will relate the story behind the scenes of The Misfits as told by Miller in his autobiography Timebends…
Gable in the beginning didn’t understand the screenplay, which is about modern day cowboys who live on the fringes in and around Reno, a place where everyone gets a quick divorce. The movie follows these misfits and divorcee Monroe as they go to a rodeo and the desert to catch mustangs for pet food.
Miller told Gable: “It’s about our lives meaninglessness and maybe how we got to where we are…”
Perhaps a perfect observation of the planet today and how we don’t really care for it and often other people.
Miller went on to explain about how it was a type of Eastern Western beyond the bad guy in black hats, where “the good guy is also part of the problem.” He said to explain it further to Gable would be fruitless as “I’ll get both of us so mixed up I won’t know what I wrote”.
Gable read it again and agreed there was more to the script than he first thought. A playboy for most of his life, people close to him said he had grown more introspective, especially now his latest wife was pregnant with his first child. Montgomery Clift was also on board with director John Huston (1906-87 emphysema). While Monty’s self-destructiveness caused no insurance company to underwrite the movie, he never missed an hour’s work and his part was memorised even before shooting began.
Marilyn’s first shot in the movie is when she stands on a Reno bridge to throw her ring, left over from her divorce, into the river. Symbolic of Miller’s marriage to Marilyn, it was as if he had disappointed her for not saving her. At this stage, she was almost tied to Lee Strasberg (1901-82 heart attack) and his wife Paula (1909-66 bone marrow cancer), acting coach and teacher who developed The Method form of acting. Director Elia Kazan said Strasberg showed his weakness as a teacher through the fact he made his students more dependent on him rather than less.
That Paula Strasberg shadowed Marilyn throughout the production of The Misfits didn’t help the Miller’s relationship – and the tumultuous story of The Misfit’s screenplay, taken to heart Method-wise, especially by a vulnerable actress like Marilyn, would also help spell disaster. The Misfits was meant to be constructive for Marilyn but unfortunately it was destructive.
Huston only took two takes on the bridge, but Marilyn wanted a third, something which had alarm bells go off in Marilyn’s head as she thought he was only settling for “good enough” and not exemplary. Marilyn felt she hadn’t been exhaustively used, while Huston, on the first day wanted to keep it light – without too much meaning and effort.
Paula and Marilyn would retire together to the trailer, falling silent in the presence of Miller and Huston. According to Miller, Marilyn had “all but disappeared into herself”. She could almost no longer see him though her absorption into the part. Huston quickly took to ignoring Paula, listening to her with “a seriousness so profound as to be ludicrous.”
Huston was directing and believed in the actor’s job of acting. Paula was perhaps to him a useless appendage for Marilyn. Huston showed he believed in Marilyn the actress and not the invalid.
But as The Misfits shoot began, Miller thought any chance of theirs –Miller and Marilyn – being a co-production in artistic terms was never going to be as he thought and that the character emerging in Marilyn’s performance was one of a troubled woman. Miller thought that if there was a key to Marilyn’s despair, he now knew he didn’t have the key.
Monty Clift and Eli Wallach remained pillars of the production but as time began to pass, Marilyn became more and more unreliable, turning up late for set. A pattern that was repeating from recent film productions. Clift, incidentally, did the “telephone” scene with over a page of dialogue in one take.
As Gable waited patiently for Marilyn to turn up – he thought of her as a woman in physical pain – he told Miller how he used to churn out movies in the early 1930s and how half the time, when it came to character, you “just made up something as you went along.”
“This one’s altogether different,” Gable told Miller.
Miller was uncertain about the end of The Misfits and was thinking of changing it. His gut feeling was a nihilist ending with the people walking away from each other. But Miller willed them to be together where “taking uncertainty to heart left them feeling free.”
Free to follow a star, perhaps even together, the ending of the film suggests… with no end credits, just a fade to black from the star in the sky. The ending is open ended.
Marilyn came up to Miller during production and without emotion said: “What they really should do is break up at the end.”
It was like The Method was controlling her own life and Miller’s attempt to create a character with a home in the world had failed and so had their relationship. As the production continued, Marilyn moved out of the apartment she shared with Miller in their Reno hotel, to Paula Strasberg’s rooms. Such was the Strasbergs’ control over her. Huston meanwhile played craps at the casino all night, occasionally falling asleep in the director’s chair. Huston had to acknowledge Paula when Lee Strasberg later turned up later on.
Meanwhile Marilyn dropped words from the script, something Huston wouldn’t allow, leading to ten takes or more. Strasberg’s teachings were crippling Marilyn as she sought freedom in speaking the lines spontaneously rather than the script itself. Huston thought it as self-indulgence.
Marilyn had achieved some of her greatest work in Billy Wilder’s Some Like it Hot without deviating from the comic script. That too had been a nightmare for Wilder in terms of the number of takes. But it was just as important in her first dramatic role that she stuck to the script.
Miller saw himself as not essential on set but he was there for the scene where Marilyn and Gable go swimming at the lake. What was supposed to be a paradise of silent contemplation was really motorboats and hot dog munching sightseers behind the scenes. Marilyn was just a tad self-conscious, the neurosis that she had to be Marilyn Monroe the movie star in public lingering in her performance. It was something of which she could never quite rid herself – this public persona was deeply ingrained as a part of her own self.
By this time, Miller was almost out of her life and to him the whole make believe business of the Strasbergs and acting seemed detestable. But he marvelled years later at Marilyn’s performance under the circumstances. He wondered if acting was merely an acceptable excuse for narcissism, an unholy absorption in the self – rather than a celebratory observance of mankind.
When Lee turned up in cowboy garb in Reno, insulted that Paula was being treated poorly by Huston, he threatened to leave… which would be the end of the picture and Marilyn’s career. They didn’t realise how brittle and sick Marilyn really was, especially her addiction to sleeping pills. It was the same old story with Marilyn and Miller felt sick knowing that no one would ever stick with her.
Doctors were called to the hotel room and while Marilyn slept, Miller spent some time wondering if only she could live away from the stardom that was everything for her. Just to be able to go to sleep an unremarkable woman…
“She was ‘Marilyn Monroe’… and that was what was killing her.”
Huston saved the picture by sending Marilyn to a private clinic where she was taken off sleeping pills. Ten days later and production was in full swing again.
The final shot where Gable looks with growing love in his eyes, was also one of the last filmed. Miller thought Huston botched it from a distance but Gable reassured him, it’s all in the eyes! When Miller saw the rushes he knew Gable was right. The last time Miller saw Gable was after a rough cut of the film when he said it was the best picture he had made in his life. Eyes twinkling with excitement, a firm grip on the hand and a warm touch on the shoulder… Gable was dead of a heart attack a matter of days later.
Marilyn would be dead a couple of years later from an apparent overdose of sleeping pills. Miller always thought they would bump into each other some time after The Misfits and maybe even fall in love over again.
What kept returning to his mind was when he said to her: “You’re the saddest girl I’ve ever known.” To which she replied: “Nobody ever said that to me,” and she laughed with an inward looking surprise. It is a line used in The Misfits.
Miller described the film in retrospect as a “mystical” experience and he is not far wrong. With several actors who would pass away shortly after, this black and white meditation of characters who shudder at the thought of “wages” and who would rather be free, whether to ride the rodeo or live on the land, come together for a time… like the making of the movie itself.
Miller wrote about Marilyn it was strange she never had the right to her own sadness and couldn’t believe her own innocence. He didn’t go to her funeral because, as many of us know of loved ones: “She won’t be there.”
Miller didn’t like Norman Mailer’s biographical volume about them and wondered if it would have eventuated if only they had invited him over for dinner as once planned. It was Mailer’s book that first extolled the theory that Marilyn was murdered by the FBI. There was a more recent biography by someone else who said he’d seen photos of JFK and RFK together in bed with Marilyn such has the conspiracy theory grown over the years.
The Misfits is probably a little pretentious with its displacement of commitment of the main characters and their moment-to-moment existence. But there’s nothing wrong with a bit of pretentiousness as it can create great art. Yes, it is simply about people trying to connect but afraid to connect.
If there is any epic psychology in The Misfits, it’s magnified by the men who want to capture and destroy the misfit mustangs. They must be destroyed by Gable and Wallach’s masculinity – or beaten into submission. The fact that Gable takes on the stallion himself with his bare hands and then lets it go is God-player and alpha male at work. Gable did some of the stunts, which put a strain on his heart. That Gable dies at the hand of a bigger God-player – or, er, God – in the bigger picture, does make the film “mystical” on more than one level.
When Marilyn screams for them to stop the madness of their planned killing of the misfit mustangs, there are no close-ups as she is dwarfed by the landscape and the enormity of the big picture. The madness of realising how small and insignificant you are in that big picture. Everything is out of her control on that desert plain… Will Gable slaughter the mustangs? Especially after she seems to question his very masculinity by offering to pay for the mustangs? Are her screams in vain? Man…
“Like flies to wanton boys are we to the gods, they kill us for their sport,” to quote Shakespeare’s King Lear, about The Misfits epic qualities.
If only Marilyn could have seen beyond herself, that really she was only one woman in the big picture, not just “Marilyn Monroe” the creation… but she failed to connect… if only she could have had that child which miscarried with Miller, things may have been different.
Hang in there for a look at Miller’s much-maligned Everybody Wins in PART TWO