THE MISFITS (1961 United States)

Marilyn-Monroe-on-the-set-of-The-Misfits-3On one hand we have the female sex symbol of them all giving her all – on the other side of the ledger  – we have a man named Gay. And he was the biggest male sex symbol of his era, an era where rugged men were called… Gay. And to think Montgomery Clift was in this too but he was lucky enough to be named Perce.

Guys like Gay (Clark Gable) are littered throughout small towns across North America – these are folks who remember how it ‘Used to Be,’ and who feel lost in the New World Order, where the sort of machismo that manifests itself in wrestling stallions to the ground is no longer a ruling concern. Gay’s mantra, `Better than wages, ain’t it?’ is his ode to a simpler time when free men didn’t have to work for The Man, but could take care of themselves. When they were free to be christened Gay without everyone assuming they were a fruit.

Roslyn (Marilyn Monroe), on the other hand, is a more rare bird: flighty and sensuous, beautiful and beaten, she is this world’s canary in the coalmine. This is easily Monroe’s finest work in a serious role, a tremulous and delicate performance. She actually managed to pull the performance of her life from somewhere in the desert of her soul. She seemed to be emerging from her sex-pot shell in her impersonation of a drifting divorcée drawn to a trio of struggling, aimless Nevada ranch hands. Her expressions and mannerisms are natural, at times weighted with a sadness, a tiredness that may not have been acting at all.

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Whether intentional or not, these facial shots of grief and pain are exquisitely disturbing, as much for their fleshing out Marilyn’s personal struggle at the time the film was made as for the mixed-up character she was playing. Playing Roslyn, she is a recently divorced woman who meets up with a couple of older men, Guido (Eli Wallach) and Gay (Clark Gable), and escapes with them to a country house. The men are besotted with this naive, sexy blonde who has a certain verve for life. They meet with Montgomery Clift’s rodeo rider, Perce, as they venture out to the desert first for rodeo, then to catch some Mustang horses.

When Roslyn discovers that the men plan to sell the horses for dog meat, her attitude towards the men, and their dying practices changes. But she is not there just for the purpose of altering the outlook of these gruff men, or to push modernity into the plains. Like the real Marilyn, Roslyn craves the attention of men, – Norma Jean never knew who her real father was, and her mother was less than interested in her – so she was especially needy for a father figure; a man she could fully trust and rely on.

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This collusion of Marilyn’s real-life and the character in The Misfits is no accident of course. The screenplay was written specifically for her by her then husband, playwright Arthur Miller, and he clearly knew her need for that elusive father figure, and her need to soak up attention, using her body image to mask her internal pain, and tragic sense of abandonment. It is to Miller’s credit that his plot highlights people’s lives as being marked by long stretches where “nothing happens,” yet how many of us describe our lives as gray, empty and consistently devoid of meaning?

It’s the moment at which Miller’s characters are caught — between unhappy pasts and uncertain futures, where nothing seems to be happening but anything might in the immediate future — that brings forth beautifully wrought tension and drama from lives seemingly free of either. Whilst certainly not her best film (director John Huston had stated that she was difficult, and the decision to shoot in black and white was due to her bloodshot eyes – caused by alcohol and prescription drugs), but this is absolutely her greatest and most revealing role. The Misfits also shows how some of us are suckers for nostalgia and other people’s pain.

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