Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Arthur Miller writes The Misfits for his wife, Marilyn Monroe

Fifty years ago today United Artists released the most expensive black-and-white film made until that time. Arthur Miller wrote The Misfits, his first original screenplay, as a vehicle for Marilyn Monroe, whom he had married four years earlier. Biographer Christopher Bigsby quotes Miller:
I would not have written it except for Marilyn. I wrote it for her. It was the only time I did write anything for an actor and, had I not known her, I would not have begun such a thing. She had lost a child in early pregnancy, which really upset her a lot, so it was a kind of a gift. It was also the expression of a kind of belief in her as an actress.
Miller and producer Frank Taylor assembled a dream team for the project. John Huston, who had directed Monroe’s breakthrough picture, The Asphalt Jungle, would direct, and her leading man would be Clark Gable, the screen idol of her youth. But the dream quickly dissolved. In Miller’s words: “By the time we got to make the film . . . we were no longer man and wife. The film was there but the marriage was not.” At one point Huston had to halt shooting to send Monroe to a rehab hospital.

The Misfits was the last movie for both Monroe and Gable. Two days after filming, Gable suffered a heart attack and died ten days later. While the box office was weak, some critics felt that Miller delivered his desired gift. Reviewing the movie for The Village Voice, Jonas Mekas wrote:
Marilyn Monroe, the Saint of the Nevada desert. . . She haunts you, you’ll not forget her . . . It is MM that tells the truth in the movie, who accuses, judges, reveals. And it is MM who runs into the middle of the desert and in her helplessness shouts: “You are all dead, you are all dead!”—in the most powerful image of the film—and one doesn’t know if she is saying those words to Gable and [Eli] Wallach or to the whole loveless world. . . There is so much truth in her little details, in her reactions to cruelty, to false manliness, nature, life, death, that she is overpowering, one of the most tragic and contemporary characters of modern cinema.
New Republic critic Stanley Kauffman was less enthusiastic, writing that Miller wasn’t able to escape the “dialectical dialogue” that was the bloodstream of his theatrical art: “these uncommonly loquacious Westerners almost seem to be competing for the girl by offering her their troubled souls.” Kaufman found Miller more “bemused [by Monroe’s character] than perceptive about her.”
It is something like a man becoming infatuated with an attractive but undistinguished girl and, out of a sense of guilt, investing her with qualities which the world simply doesn’t see.
Yet Monroe’s performance won her the 1962 Golden Globe for “World Film Favorite,” just five months before her death. During the filming Monroe bonded with her co-star, fellow drug user Montgomery Clift. It was one of his last films and he did not have fond memories of the shoot. At 1 a.m. on July 23, 1966, The Misfits was on television and Clift’s live-in personal secretary asked if he wanted to watch it. “Absolutely not,“ Clift replied and, because he suffered a fatal heart attack a few hours later, those were his last words.

Also of interest:
  • Desert USA documents the filming of the movie in the Nevada desert
  • The PBS website features a gallery of photos related to the Great Performances documentary Making the Misfits
  • Read about Arthur Miller's collaboration with Elia Kazan on the productions of All My Sons and Death of a Salesman in a previous Reader's Almanac post
Related LOA works: Arthur Miller: Collected Plays 1944–1961 (includes the novella based on the screenplay for The Misfits); American Movie Critics: An Anthology from the Silents Until Now (includes reviews of The Misfits by Jonas Mekas and Stanley Kauffmann)

4 comments:

  1. I'll side with Mekas on this one.

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  2. I watch the film at least once a year, and it gets better and better with each viewing; now that I actually live in Nevada, "The Misfits" has an extra layer of resonance. Incidentally, the piece was originally written as a short story by Miller while awaiting his own Reno divorce from Monroe.

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  3. Rodger: You are correct that the story "The Misfits, or Chicken Feed: The Last Frontier of the Quixotic Cowboy" was written before either the screenplay or the novella.

    But the story was written in 1956, the year he divorced his previous wife (from, yes, Reno) and then married Monroe. He actually finished the story in New York, just weeks after the wedding.

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  4. Ha! Thanks for the clarification. I should know better than to trust the liner notes on a DVD.

    ReplyDelete

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