55 Years On, the Tragic Connections Behind The Misfits

THE MISFITS, from left, Clark Gable, Marilyn Monroe, 1961

At the end of The Misfits, an aging cowboy and a former dancer have found each other and are heading home in the night. The final lines of the film, the last ever spoken by Clark Gable and Marilyn Monroe on-screen, are a beautiful elegy for two of Hollywood’s greatest stars:

“How do you find your way back in the dark?”
“Just head for that big star straight on. The highway is under it. It’ll take us right home.”

In the 55 years since United Artists released The Misfits, on February 1, 1961, the film has gained in stature with critics and developed a cult following. What resonates so strongly for me personally is the theme of connection: Arthur Miller, who wrote the screenplay, described it as a story of “people trying to connect and afraid to connect.”

“How do you just live?”

In the spring of 1956, Miller was living in Reno, Nevada, to fulfill the six-week residency requirement for a quickie divorce. The celebrated playwright wanted to ditch his first wife and marry Monroe. Through the friend of a friend, Miller happened to meet three cowboys whose job it was to catch wild horses that would then be sold to dog food companies. Miller turned his fascination with these men—misfits in the modern world—into a short story he sold to Esquire magazine. Monroe’s friend the photographer Sam Shaw raised the idea of turning this story, appropriately called “The Misfits,” into a screenplay. Shaw also pointed out that its female character would be a role Monroe “could kick into the stands.” As film critic Serge Toubiana explains, in his essay “Black Desert, White Desert,” Miller “wanted Marilyn to have a part written especially for her that would show the studio bosses she had the makings of an intelligent and sensitive actress with a gift for serious drama.”

Arthur Miller and Clark Gable on the set.
Arthur Miller and Clark Gable on set.

The role of Roslyn Taber, the former dancer, would be Miller’s offering to his wife, who had just suffered a miscarriage. Monroe was initially reluctant to accept her husband’s gift, however, thinking the character was too close to her real self. Miller’s “original play for the screen,” as he billed it, was sent to John Huston, one of the few directors Monroe trusted; he called it “magnificent.” Producer Frank E. Taylor promised The Misfits would be “the ultimate motion picture” and felt only one actor could portray aging cowboy Gay Langland: Clark Gable, the classic King of Hollywood. With Gable on board, Montgomery Clift, Eli Wallach and Thelma Ritter quickly followed. But before filming could begin, Monroe had to complete her work on the musical comedy Let’s Make Love, which an actors’ strike delayed for five weeks. By the time the cast and crew gathered in Reno to start filming The Misfits, on July 18, 1960, the daily temperature averaged 100 degrees in the shade.

“What makes you so sad? I think you’re the saddest girl I ever met.”

Monroe arrived in Reno with her press agent, two hairdressers, one makeup man, one body cosmetician, a masseur, a seamstress and a secretary, plus a husband she now disliked and an acting coach the husband hated. Monroe’s notorious lateness and inability to remember her lines forced the crew to wait and wait in the desert heat. Miller laid the blame for Monroe’s bad behavior squarely at the feet of her acting coach, Paula Strasberg. “Paula had nothing to give Marilyn that could help her, except to reaffirm her suspicions about others,” he said. (Strasberg was nicknamed Black Bart by the cast and crew.)

THE MISFITS, Marilyn Monroe, 1961Now self-medicating with Nembutal, Monroe collapsed in August and was flown to a Los Angeles hospital. With its troubled star under psychiatric care, the production shut down for 10 days while Monroe recovered. Ironically, Clift, the actor Monroe described as “the only person I know who’s in worse shape than I am” was a total professional during the shoot. Gable was supportive of his costar, telling Coronet magazine that Monroe worried about “her lines, her appearance, her performance. She is constantly trying to improve as an actress.” The Misfits concluded filming—over budget and 40 days behind schedule—on November 4, 1960. At the time, it was the most expensive black-and-white movie ever made.

“We’re all dying, aren’t we?”

Gable died at age 59 of a massive heart attack, less than two weeks after shooting his final scene in The Misfits. Monroe died on August 4, 1962, of a drug overdose; The Misfits was her last completed film. (Miller next married renowned photographer Inge Morath, whom he had met on the set of The Misfits.) Clift, whose life after a disfiguring 1956 car accident has been described as the longest suicide in Hollywood, died of heart failure at age 45, on July 23, 1966. On that hot summer night, Clift’s assistant asked the actor if he would like to watch himself in The Misfits on television’s late late show. Clift’s last words were “Absolutely not.”

Photos: Everett Collection