Marilyn’s Ghost in Arthur Miller’s The Misfits and Everybody Wins (Part Two)

*contains spoilers

Arthur Miller’s one act play Some Kind of Love Story (1984) barely rates a mention in Timebends and I don’t think Miller considered it an important play. Like Norman Mailer’s Tough Guys Don’t Dance, it was apparently based on a real life case in a New England town. This time a teenager was put on trial and found guilty of the murder of his mother and there was a case to overturn the conviction.

Everybody Wins (1990) poster

There was a 1978 television movie on the case entitled Death in Canaan, while Miller’s play came later and was first performed in 1982. Timebends was written before he wrote the much-damned screenplay Everybody Wins for the 1990 movie, so there is no real record of Miller’s creation of it.

He said of the play: “The objective world grows dim and distant as reality seems to consist wholly or partly of what the character’s needs require it to be.”

The screenplay in print

That the female character is mentally ill, she draws in the male investigative character into the plot as well as a sexual relationship with her. Something which obviously won’t last. Is there any reflection of Marilyn and Miller? Slight, but it’s there, especially the, sometimes, bewildering and maddening female character.

As Miller continued about the characters of the play, it “leads them with the anguish of having to make decisions they know are based on illusion and the power of desire.”

Marilyn’s mental illness destroyed her

Miller’s main character, as played by Debra Winger (1955-), is a woman with an, at times, profound mental illness, who is trying to exist and create a normal life in the real world, while trying to reach out from herself to exact justice and find a sexual connection with men.

Winger wants to clear a young man of murdering his uncle, a local doctor, something she is certain he didn’t commit, but at the same time it may implicate herself. She is also a part time prostitute.

Nick Nolte (1941-) is the aging investigator she calls in to help and whose moral commitment to justice is blurred slightly by Winger as a result, while his dormant sex drive is stoked.

Arthur Miller also wrote the screenplay for The Crucible (1996)

The critics of Everybody Wins screenplay and the resultant film have been scathing. Many critics said Miller just threw elements of his other plays such as the religious fanaticism of The Crucible, the little guy squashed by the system in Death of a Salesman, corruption in All My Sons and sexual enthrallment in After the Fall. That I nicked this last sentence from the Rolling Stone review is not ironic as Leonard Maltin’s Movie Guide nicked the sentence about Winger’s part being impossible to play, labelling it a BOMB and putting off generations from ever watching the film, something the Stone did in equal measure.

It’s not a major Miller play, more of a soufflé, which rises on Winger’s and Nolte’s – in fact much of the cast’s – performances. Other cast members who rate a mention are Will Patton (1954-) as Jerry and Jack Warden (1920-2006 renal failure) as the judge. But it’s a substantial soufflé as there is also some deft and amusing dialogue in Everybody Wins.

Nolte and Jack Warden on the left as the judge in the dressing room

Here the nephew is in jail for murdering the doctor and Winger brings a private investigator played by Nolte back to her place…

We’ve already had the credits of Nolte in his car listening to Leon Redbone (1949-2019 complications of dementia) singing I Want to be Seduced. It’s a light touch and obviously this movie isn’t going to be a thriller in any real sense of the word. Remember it is based on a play.

Winger invites him into her apartment acting sweetly, enthusiastic about the case, showing him some coverage of the trial on VHS.

A beautiful portrait of Debra Winger in Everybody Wins

“You may hear some people calling me the Swede… not that I’ve ever been to Finland.” Yes, she’s an odd character from the start as she continues: “Everything in the world is suggestion you know… Everything’s just one step away from a dream”, as she tells him of the time she willed away a cancer diagnosis in her mind while giving up sex and alcohol. Is she for real? She explains how the murder victim was a great friend as Nolte and Winger visit his convicted murderer in prison.

Peter Reilly was the real teenager found guilty of murder

Nolte gets a gut feeling there may be an injustice from the interview and the transcripts… A retrial quickly denied in court and Winger takes him back to her apartment…

They’re watching us… the corner, the cops. They just pulled away,” she says but Nolte see’s nothing. Is she mad? Paranoid? Up in the apartment she says to him: “Would you like some vitamins or something?”

She quickly puts on mood music, gets changed and clears the bed before closing the blinds. Nolte still thinks she wants to talk about the case, which she does when she says she knows who the real murderer is and that person is “just the tip of the iceberg”. She then seduces him on the bed.

A portrait of a man who must decide whether to help a woman who is obviously mentally ill

Back home with his sister, who describes Winger as “absolutely ditzy”, Nolte still believes in the case, despite a seed of doubt planted by his sister suggesting the whole thing “strange”.

Nolte goes to the boondocks and visits an obviously very mentally ill girl named Amy who says: “Jerry did it.”

The rundown neighbourhood is inhabited by a number of bikers, and in the cemetery next to the house there is a grave of an American Civil War hero Major McCall. Amy says Jerry’s usually there.

Will Patton as Jerry, who creates his own church to help others in need

 As Nolte follows the food chain he find’s Jerry’s place where a collection of once “strung out” bikers gather and where Jerry is forming a church based on McCall. In fact, in a warehouse, there is a large statue of McCall in some makeshift altar… and Nolte bumps into Winger alone there. She’s had a personality change, taking on a superior and well-enunciated tone: “ Don’t you understand anything?… I must say your insensitivity comes as a surprise!” Not making much sense at all, she storms off after this imaginary argument, where she thinks she’s saving his life. Well, maybe she did, but she’s too strange and he decides to drop the case…

Also directed by Karel Reisz Who’ll Stop the Rain (1978) also stars Nick Nolte

This is a problem for the mentally ill as they strive to make a connection and often times they destroy that very connection with their unpredictable and odd behaviour, even when they think they are doing the right thing. So Winger’s “impossible” part to play rings true at this point. Winger’s performance seems to be judged by the actress herself as if director Karel Reisz (1926-2002) has given her free rein. It was, incidentally, Reisz’s last directorial feature effort and he, interestingly, devoted the rest of his life to theatre.

Nolte, however, is drawn back to the warehouse…Later, when he bumps into Winger, she is wearing sunglasses at night.

“What? Did I do a number of something?,” she says unaware of her performance at the warehouse. She’s got a black eye and they kiss in the car while a real police car shadows them. Nolte still doesn’t know whether to drop the case but, sexually, he’s hooked.

Nolte cares for Winger, who he often finds infuriating, like the other men in her life

But that Nolte is taking the word of a hooker that she knows the real killer above that of the police chief doesn’t go down well with the district attorney… However Nolte knows a judge who is influential and sympathetic…. Back at Winger’s apartment she is reading Mommie Dearest and says her father raped her for years.

“My father raped me, but I’m not writing books about him,” she says, her personality changing before our eyes, as Nolte ignores her apparent rape and brings up the case, which has her scream in rage: “You know I’ve been a hooker… you jerk off choir boy!” She wants him to take her forcibly before she falls silent on the bed almost sucking her thumb. He pulls the covers over her.

It’s quite a magnificent scene, since you don’t see many of the like, not overplayed to distraction, as Winger runs the gamut of her apparent split personality. She doesn’t understand or have much insight into herself at times, which is the worst form of mental illness. Yet, still, she functions.

Marilyn’s mother Gladys Baker was also mentally ill

It should be noted that Marilyn Monroe’s mother was diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic and that Marilyn herself was sexually abused in foster homes.

Nolte finally meets Jerry, who hides his mental illness well, or also copes though communicating and “unloading your feelings”, as he calls it.

“Tell it, get rid of it, put it behind you.” Otherwise known as the Three F’s: Face it, Fix it and Forget it!

That Jerry refers to Major McCall as some sort of deity and carries his gigantic knife the Major apparently gave him, personally, causes alarm bells in Nolte. Jerry though has worked out a way for himself to function day to day in an uncaring world. Especially in the Untied States with no real medical support. Is Jerry’s mental illness a direct result of the murder or was he always mentally ill?

Then Nolte meets Winger again, who tells him she’s been under psychiatric observation but nothing like this has happened in three years. So she does have some insight into herself.

Nolte is confronted by multiple personalities in Winger’s “free” performance

As an indictment on the plight and the treatment of the mentally ill in the United States and how often it is linked to criminality – and the hopelessness of recovering and escaping that life – Everybody Wins may not be exactly powerful or searing but at least it is making these points obvious, even though you might not be interested. It shows at a grassroots level how some of the forgotten and downtrodden survive – if they are not forced to sell themselves. They may not even be well enough to do that!

When Nolte sees the doctor’s throat was cut by a large knife in a file… there are further alarm bells about Jerry and at the derelict home where the doctor was murdered, someone has written in spray-paint: “Jerry is God.”

Everybody Wins (1990) trailer

Meanwhile, Nolte’s judge thinks Felix is innocent of murdering his uncle after reading the transcript, while Nolte’s sister wonders if Winger is sleeping with the judge as well.

As it turns out, the doctor was a drug kingpin in the town and owed Jerry money and connections at the top sent Felix to jail.

“This case goes to the top of the mountain. The top!,” says Winger, who might be lying, and when Nolte questions her the personality changes again to the cultured lady and then the whore.

Has she been driven insane by the pure hypocrisy and conspiracy that surrounds her? It is certainly keeping her intermittently insane.

Will this be Winger’s fate!? Here a still from The Snake Pit (1948)

Here’s where the impossible performance tag comes in again. But the reviewers obviously never knew anyone as troubled as Winger’s personality, or if they do, they just want to forget it. It is too complex for them and they are too immature or too bewildered to accept it. They don’t want to know Winger’s performance!

So too for Nolte, who describes them all as a part of her “misbegotten dreams”.

Then she shows evidence of her ties to the top of the mountain and a compromising pic of her and the district attorney, who gave her the black eye. Meanwhile Felix is starving himself to death in jail – wasting away.

A good Aussie film about surviving on the fringes with mental illness Angel Baby (1996)

It is part of the film’s rejection along with the mentally ill by “normal” people as the ill seem to have mind-bending thoughts which confuse or anger the “normal” person – or even the mentally ill person themself. It is at its saddest when the mentally ill person doesn’t recognise they are their own worst enemy and are further isolated by that rejection and fall through the cracks into criminality and then often suicide. It’s the nature of the beast.

Director Karel Reisz abandoned film for theatre

They can be like an innocent trapped in jail! Isolated from the world because of their minds, forever testing friends and family and then left alone to fend for themselves with only their demons for company.

“You’re her lifeline now. You’re all that connects her to reality,” Winger’s priest tells Nolte, after he is invited to visit Felix in jail.

The church was the connection and that the church can no longer reach Felix or Winger is amplified in Jerry’s case, no longer a part of a “normal” church, he builds his own anti-church for other lost souls in the name of desperation and yet with total clarity. There can be hope among the hopeless no matter how misguided and it is no surprise that the mentally ill often band together. They have no one else.

Pink Floyd’s Syd Barrett took too much LSD and ended up living on the fringes

Winger is meanwhile having a silent breakdown at the local Burger King. How many have happened there over the years!? She tells him of the district attorney’s abuse of her… But she has his letters locked away in her apartment and when they return there, they find it has been ransacked. Nolte is then physically attacked and bitten by Winger when he tries to recover letters left behind – repulsing him again. Despite being her lifeline, he cannot cope with her behaviour… and, typically, may turn his back again.

If you are rich like Peter O’Toole in The Ruling Class (1972) you can afford to be mentally ill. Here is the actor in that film with a Christ fixation.

Still he returns to Jerry to plead with him to admit to the murders and set Winger and Felix free… Apparently all Jerry wanted was money to build his church and he took Winger with him to the doctor so the doctor would unwittingly unlock his door.

Jerry is ready to confess, riding his motorcycle to the judge but throwing himself under a truck at the same time in some moment of Christlike ascendance while Nolte follows in his pick-up. A doctor would call it psychosis or a manic episode.

Winger at the scene of the doctor’s murder helps clear Felix but she’s in trouble as an accessory. “Maybe I dreamed it.” She saw it all… the hacking off of the doctor’s head. Nolte even suggests she may have helped.

Jerry is about to throw himself under a truck

And then we have a key line by Winger, who finally has pure insight into herself: “Maybe now you get the feeling, do you, that everything is possible yet impossible at the same time, right? You feel it? That’s what I live with all the time.” Winger’s desperation is finally put into words. Paranoia and conspiracy are almost one. She is finally telling it straight and to the right person who can solve it all for her – not just a psychiatrist nodding politely.

Nolte takes her to the judge, who treats her courteously and takes her coat. Nolte leaves her there… and the next morning wheels are in motion to free Felix and indeed he’s freed! As for going all the way to the top… the judge says no… it won’t happen… Winger’s sleeping with the judge now and there’s a party at the judge’s house where all the corrupt officials are going to drink and eat canapés together… including the district attorney.

Singer Leon Redbone whose songs bookend Everybody Wins

“This way everybody wins,” says Winger to an exasperated Nolte, who, for a moment, wants to strangle her, just like the district attorney.

Nolte has to accept they would kill her otherwise. Behave and belong. Carry on and have a good time. Despite all the false idols… Major McCall, Marilyn Monroe, Debra Winger…

That a damaged poor girl like Marilyn was accepted into the intellectual society of Miller and others but still couldn’t cope makes her a cautionary tale and also an icon for girls with a mental illness who try to cope in a world or society that isn’t so accepting… one where you may even have to sell yourself to get by. That and being a pure sexual idol! Even Marilyn wanted to be Marilyn and that was her tragedy.

Marilyn outside the Roosevelt Hotel where tour guides tell you her ghost haunts every room

Nolte walks away from the party just getting underway like Miller did Marilyn hoping that in this corrupt and uncaring world she would be safe… from herself.

An unexpected and unwanted performance by Winger, just like her character. It wasn’t Terms of Endearment (1983). Winger in that on left.

Hopefully, Winger’s character is no longer alone in the prison of the self and her performance is one of the actresses freest, if only slightly misjudged. And that misjudgement was by the critics! Ever so slightly!! They were looking for the usual emotional powerhouse from Winger and not the workings a mentally ill mind caught in events far out of her control.

But who cares? The critics didn’t, as they said skip this movie and keep business as usual. As Nolte’s lone Irishman level-headedly takes a greeting from the corrupt district attorney upon departing the party and Redbone sings over the closing credits: “There’ll be a hot time in the old town tonight!”

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