Making the Misfits (2001)

What went wrong with The Misfits? It’s a question not asked often enough, because the 1961 film, written by Arthur Miller at the height of his powers, directed by John Huston, and starring Clark Gable, Marilyn Monroe (both in their final screen appearances), and Montgomery Clift, has become, maybe inevitably, so iconic. How could it not be with talent like that, a setting like the striking high deserts of northern Nevada, and a thematic preoccupation with a West in decline, the great American frontier as dead end? The film was highly anticipated, and seemed poised to become a fundamental American movie epic, but it played like the swan song of squandered potential. It remains, as the prolific and oracular film writer David Thomson once said, “such a landmark of Hollywood sadness. It’s hard to watch it without feeling for them.”

One needn’t be a particularly astute critic to recognize something amiss in The Misfits, and it’s not intentional. The film somehow displays its own pitiably self-conscious loss of control. Performances inexplicably drift in and out of focus, and the visual mastery lapses — sometimes in the lazy-seeming day-for-night photography, at others in the fact that even Nevada’s scenic vistas can’t dispel the script’s occasionally stagy bearing. With its rhythmic indecision between haste and lethargy, the film has a strenuous, slightly off-kilter metabolism, like a wild animal aware of its own impending death — all of which, under better control, should have helped to dramatize Miller’s theme.

The film unfolds in a Western space where women go to wriggle free from doomed marriages and cowboys can only make their meager lives from roping and selling off wild mustangs to dog food companies. It’s neither the Old West nor a fully new one, but an exhausted netherland in which no one really fits. The script now anthologized alongside Peter Stone and directed by Stanley Donen’s Charade and Billy Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond’s The Apartment) is a masterwork about the despondent failures of American self-invention and communication; it is, as Miller describes it, “an eastern Western… about people trying to connect and afraid to connect.”

But the film didn’t connect with audiences, and Gail Levin’s documentary, Making the Misfits glances at all of the many reasons why. Examinations of doomed movies have always held a particular, if somewhat marginal, fascination for the American public, and this one, originally part of PBS’ Great Performances series, might have come in under the radar. Perhaps because The Misfits, true to the title, has been so fully dismissed from public memory already. Levin’s film is not the pièce de résistance of movies about movies, but it makes a decent companion to the original work, and is nice to have widely available on DVD. There are no extras to speak of — it’s more as though Making the Misfits is the needed and overdue “extra” for the original film.

In that regard, Making the Misfits doesn’t stand alone so well. Built primarily from truncated interviews with the surviving cast and crew, it assumes we understand its context and relevance to begin with. Perhaps that’s its justification for not looking quite closely enough at its subject matter. Composed mostly of Miller’s ruminations, the elegiac tone is right, but not especially revelatory.

For instance, anyone who’s seen the film will recognize that The Misfits was set in mid-century northern Nevada, a uniquely American landscape still not given its due in American cinema. “What intrigued me about Nevada was that the people were so little and the landscape was so enormous,” Miller says. That’s exactly right, and although it may sound condescending, Miller is still probably the most qualified American dramatist to examine the idea compassionately. For an accomplished tragedian such as him, a story of people whose promised land hasn’t emboldened them but had instead overwhelmed them seemed perfectly apt.

“It had no relation to anything I knew about,” he says. “It was full of people who’d come to get divorces or to escape something somewhere. In a way they were free people, but they were un-free in a sense, ’cause there was an unrequited longing for something that they couldn’t name.” Miller got the idea for The Misfits while in and around Reno awaiting the divorce that would allow him to marry Monroe; he wrote the role of Rosalyn for her, but their marriage collapsed during the production.

“If you see the movie carefully, you’ll see how vulnerable, how unhappy she was, for various reasons,” observes Eli Wallach, who co-starred. “Arthur had written a valentine to this woman… that made her more unhappy.” That’s bad news for any movie, but especially one made for Marilyn Monroe. During the shoot she routinely showed up hours late for her calls (the crew said nothing, simply letting their tension rise with the desert heat), and took nearly as long to get her lines right. The increasing difficulties between her and Miller drastically sapped the project’s energy; her relationships with the rest of the creative team, including the director, were strictly mediated by her acting coach, Paula Strassberg, whom, Levin demonstrates, the whole crew despised. Ironically this pervasive unhappiness mirrored the film’s narrative, yet kept it from coming to life.

Huston, meanwhile, was lubricating other members of the cast with Jack Daniels and spending late nights in the casinos. He kept his cool, but the film got months behind schedule, and far over budget. Gable insisted on performing his own stunts (which included being dragged by a horse), and irrevocably ruined his health in filming his final scenes. He had a heart attack the day after he wrapped, and another, this one fatal, shortly thereafter.

Still, perhaps the most fundamental problem, as one crew member points out, was that after some time the film itself just didn’t seem to be going anywhere. It chafed at the confines of genre and medium; instead of a single sympathetic hero on a familiar dramatic quest, it had a trio of walking wounded, stumbling over each other in the wilderness. It could have been evocative and cinematic, but came off as detached and prosaic. Screenwriting teachers will tell you that you can’t make a good movie from a bad script, but you can make a bad movie from a good script, and that’s what seems to have happened with The Misfits.

If only Levin’s piece better demonstrated the gulf of possibilities between Miller’s screenplay and Huston’s finished film, we might know better why a making-of documentary was really in order. Making the Misfits is resigned and nostalgic; it doesn’t really make an argument for why this particular Hollywood debacle is worth learning from. In fact, it doesn’t make an argument at all, and that’s unfortunate.

There’s a cautionary tale in the notion that life sometimes imitates art enough to destroy both, and this piece might have striven harder to assess which is the greater American tragedy: the story told by The Misfits or its own failure to properly tell it. That landmark of sadness comes into view, but with it should come a re-orientation, and directions for which way to go from there.