In 1956, while waiting for the divorce that would allow him to marry Marilyn Monroe, Arthur Miller spent six weeks in Reno, Nevada. The city, on the edge of a vast unforgiving desert, populated with wounded souls steeling themselves for the next, solitary part of their lives, made an indelible impression on Miller.
His short story The Misfits was published in Esquire the following year, but Miller wasn’t done with this material. He transformed his vignette into a valentine screenplay for his new bride. The part of Roslyn, the incandescent angel who bled, Kwan Yin-like, for all the world’s pain, was a couture fit for Monroe. It showcased her Method seriousness while still requiring her inimitable effervescence to spangle this parable about, as Miller described it, “people loving each other against the presence of death”.
Roslyn was Monroe’s finest and final role. (Her follow-up film with the sadly prescient title Something’s Got To Give was never completed). Seen today, it’s scarcely believable Miller didn’t have a premonition of his wife’s early demise. You sense he wanted to write a happy afterlife for her, his version of her former husband Joe DiMaggio’s annual gesture of fresh roses on her grave. In regrettable coincidence, The Misfits was Clark Gable’s final picture as well. As hearty at age 59 as the sickly Monroe was at 35 (she’d suffered an etopic pregnancy, several overdoses, miscarriages, and a gall bladder surgery), his heart attack, days after principal photography wrapped, was a complete surprise.
Viewing The Misfits through the lens of this double tragedy (not to mention the coda succumbing of supporting player Montgomery Clift in 1966) reveals a haunting, empty poignancy. Maybe it’s that undercurrent of doom that New Jersey teen Glenn Allen Anzalone (later Glenn Danzig) saw when he chose to christen his equally tenebrous band The Misfits in homage to this curious, tragic, bittersweet film.
Miller’s self-described “Eastern Western” opens on the words “RENO” announcing our whereabouts, just as Dante queried his guide over which level of hell he’s entered. The word is painted on the tow truck Guido (Eli Wallach) is driving to pick up Roslyn’s smashed car. “It’s the darn men in this town, they keep running into her just to start a conversation,” says her landlady Isabel (played by the matchless Thelma Ritter). She asks Guido for the time, claiming she lives in a house with six clocks that don’t work. This is our first warning that the careless get trapped in this timeless city like ants in honey.
Upstairs, Roslyn (Monroe) is brushing on lipstick and practicing her testimony in a rosary-reciting whisper. She’s her own undertaker, making herself up for a viewing and dressing in funeral black. We’re so used to seeing Monroe on coffee mugs and calendars that seeing her in motion is a reminder how startlingly pretty she was. But here Monroe’s trademark wiggle is less a come-hither gesture and more a nervous, unhappy fidgeting; a tormented woman trying to get comfortable in an over-plush skin that has caused her no end of grief. Later shots in the film will be in soft focus (to disguise the rigors of two hospitalizations during the course of the film) but here, in her boudoir, her baby face holds its ground in sharp focus, her pretty, worried eyes searching skyward in St. Theresa like mid-ecstasy.
Crossing a bridge together, Isabel, an experienced guide who’s already overseen 77 divorces, entreats Roslyn to throw her ring in the river below. Roslyn frets over the token around her finger but doesn’t throw it in. They may not require coins over the eyes to pay the toll on the River Styx, but a little gold is always appreciated and there’s “more gold in that river than there is in the Klondike,” Isabel claims. She takes Roslyn to a cocktail bar, somewhere they can get a drink and play the slots and contemplate her freedom, but Roslyn isn’t having it. “I suddenly miss my mother. Oh, isn’t that the stupidest thing?” cries Roslyn, a blonde Persephone again regretting eating that damn pomegranate.
It’s Tom Dooley the hound dog who facilitates the first meeting between our two icons. Dooley (the animal is named after a condemned man of folklore) ambles over to the soft-hearted Roslyn. She feeds him snacks from the table and makes the acquaintance of his owner, Gay (Clark Gable). He’s leathery male leads get no soft focus coddling from director John Huston but still every inch the movie star that the young Norma Jeane Mortenson pretended was her make-believe father. Gay sits down and makes small talk, Dooley’s jaws snap and slaver in front of Roslyn’s face as they chat. She doesn’t seem to realize that she’s bribing Cerberus with morsels of food to let her in the door, so that Gay can invite her to the country to “just live.” “How do you just live?” Roslyn asks. “Well,” says Gaylord, this cowboy “lord” of the limbo outside city limits, “You start by going to sleep.”
Roslyn takes him up on his offer. She’s an injection of joie de vivre to the human flotsam surrounding Gay and his friends. Yet she doesn’t immediately notice passing ominous clues that these men and these places are not what they seem. She sparkles at the idea of a trip to the rodeo, pirouetting out of the room to put on her best dress, unaware she’ll see men and animals abused alike in the name of sport. And she doesn’t notice the foreboding way the men are discussing going “mustanging”.
It’s on the way to the rodeo where the party meets Perce (Montgomery Clift), an itinerant bull rider lurking outside a phone booth waiting for a call from his mother. On the phone, Perce speaks a line that must have been personally painful to Clift: “My face is fine, all healed up. You would too recognize me!” Clift smashed his choirboy face in an auto crack-up in 1956. (Liz Taylor, a bystander, removed two teeth from his throat so he wouldn’t choke). He had reconstructive surgery, but the trauma of the accident (and ensuing years of drug and alcohol abuse) had robbed him of his icy-eyed delicacy.
As Perce, Clift is wide eyebrowed, hawk-nosed, and weathered enough to earn a double take at his name in the credits. It’s as if the character is paying for the actor’s sins, forced to loiter outside a phone booth, desperate to hear a voice speaking from the land of the living. Perce is injured after a bull-riding accident. He’s bandaged and sent on his way to get drunk at the tavern with the crew, only to unbandage himself on the ride home, trailing his wrappings like an unraveling mummy.
Roslyn learns too soon what “mustanging” is it’s buzzing wild horses with Guido’s biplane so they flee the safety of the mountains for the open plain. There, Gay and Perce can rope and bind them, leaving them hogtied overnight for the renderer who’ll collect them the next day. Roslyn is appalled. She runs into the void of the alkali-burned landscape, shrieking at the cruelty of men who would gladly condemn majestic creatures to a fate as rude as dog food ingredients. It’s easy to imagine the shattered, exhausted Monroe in Roslyn’s place, her cries directed at the bloodthirsty public that will soon rape her image for eternity. It’s a call to all the necrophiliacs who will always love her eternal blondness the look that sealed her fate. Her final condemnation belongs to both women: “You’re only happy when you see something die!”
The real world aftermath of The Misfits is no happy ending. Gable suffered a heart attack two days after completing filming and died in November 1960. (His widow blamed his demise on the frustrations of working with the irresolute Monroe plus the exertions of his final scenes with the wild horses, but Gable’s three pack-a-day cigarette habit couldn’t have helped.) Miller and Monroe’s marriage dissolved (not in Reno, but Mexico) in January 1961. The Misfits was released the next month, and Monroe met her sad end in August 1962. Clift lived another few years but eventually surrendered to his demons in 1966, the end of a torturous slide described as “the longest suicide in Hollywood”. And The Misfits did only modestly at the box office, confounding audiences with its moral ambiguity and shaded mood, and escaped the Oscar committee’s notice.
But the film itself creates a pleasant conclusion for its two short-lived leads. Gay, seeing the wisdom in Roslyn’s kindness, releases the mustangs and rides away, girl and Tom Dooley at his side. “How do you find your way back in the dark?” asks Roslyn. “Just head for that big star straight on,” says Gay. “It’ll take us right home.”
The final shot is of that star, twinkling in the cloudless western sky. Consider this scene from the eyes of someone on the movie screen, looking out over a rapt audience. In the dark, staring straight on at the projector, the lit lens looks like a distant star. Gable and Monroe are seeing their own future, eternally alive wherever a projector beams them out over a waiting audience, a point of view shot from the immortals on celluloid leaving limbo and driving toward movie star heaven. Seen that way, Guido’s earlier toast doesn’t seem so far-fetched: “Here’s to your life, Roslyn. I hope it goes on forever.”