Marilyn Monroe gives her best (and last) performance in the ensemble drama The Misfits
THE MISFITS (1961)
Starring Marilyn Monroe, Clark Gable and Cliff Montgomery
Directed by John Huston
Released by Metro-Goldwyn Mayer
Marilyn Monroe will always be remembered as the dumb blonde, someone who had plenty of sex appeal and not much else, but when you look beyond that gorgeous body and baby doll voice you can see that Monroe was capable of delivering performances that went far beyond wiggling her ass for the camera. Bus Stop (1956) may have been the film where Monroe proved herself to the industry, but her strongest performance was in her last completed film, John Huston’s The Misfits.
What makes this film Monroe’s best is how real her character feels. Written by her then-husband Arthur Miller, The Misfits tells the story of Roslyn Taber (Marilyn Monroe), a woman who has come to Reno to get a divorce and do a little soul searching. And while, yes, there are moments in the film that highlight Monroe’s sexuality (there’s a scene where we see Monroe lying naked in bed for instance) Roslyn is Monroe’s only character throughout her career where it seems like we get to know the woman and not just the body.
Loosely based on Monroe herself, the parallels between the character and the actress aren’t hard to uncover: Roslyn is a divorcee who’s ashamed that she never got much of an education, had a tough childhood because of an unreliable mother and most of all yearns to find companionship with someone who will love her as a person and not simply worship her as a beautiful body.
While in Reno, Roslyn befriends her landlady Iz (Thelma Ritter, who was always great but sadly typecast as the wise-cracking sidekick). While the two have a post-divorce drink at the local bar, Monroe has her first great scene where she opens up to Iz about how her painful childhood has convinced her she’s meant to end up alone. The pain that Monroe expresses through a simple glance or the way she raises her glass to her mouth is heartbreaking.
Later on in the same scene Roslyn and Iz meet cowboys Guido (Eli Wallach) and Gay (Clark Gable). Guido never hides his immediately interest in her, but Roslyn finds herself more drawn to aging ladies man Gay.
Part of the attraction for Roslyn is definitely that Gay definitely represents a father figure type. In one scene she follows him around the house like a lap dog in pig tails as he does “man’s work”- but she also appreciates his no-bullshit approach to life.
Despite the age difference, Monroe and Gable work extremely well together as an on-screen couple. It’s exciting to see these two Hollywood legends not act out a standard G rated courtship but rather explore the complexities of an adult relationship.
After being hurt by his first wife, Gay has drifted from one meaningless relationship to the next. Yet with Roslyn, Gay begins imagining the possibility of a fresh start- as long as it’s on his terms.
Gay is in every way a man’s man and therefore has no intention of letting a woman dictate the relationship and you almost forgive Gay for it, because after all it is Clark Gable playing him. In his late fifties, Gable still manages to have the same boyish charm that in his heyday of It Happened one Night (1934) made him irresistible even when he was at his most cocky. Roslyn, meanwhile, is so filled with self-loathing she’s just happy that Gay decides to stick around after breakfast.
An important scene in the relationship is when Gay drunkenly asks Roslyn to have a baby with him. This being the early sixties, what worries Roslyn more than a domineering mate is that she’s unconvinced about her potential abilities as a mother. In his drunken state, Gay interprets Roslyn’s hesitation as a rejection of him and goes off on a rant to try and save his masculinity.
Knowing that he’s trying to save face all an overwhelmed Roslyn can do is put the drunken Gay to bed. While Monroe was a brilliant comedienne in this scene she shows just how strong a dramatic actress she could be as well.
While she can never be called a liberated woman, by spending time with cowboys Roslyn becomes more empowered then any other Monroe character. After a lifetime of men gazing at her, Roslyn has a moment where she’s allowed to admire the sexy young cowboy Perce (Cliff Montgomery).
While the two are sexually attracted to each other and better suited in age, Percy has too many parental issues himself to ever warrant any real interest from Roslyn. By the end of the film, Roslyn also gains the confidence to reject Guido once and for all and it’s by far Monroe’s best speech in the film.
The climax of the film takes place when Roslyn lashes out at Gay (and Guido and Percy for going along with him) and demands to be taken seriously. It is supposed to be the definitive changing point where Roslyn stops being the passive pretty girl and takes action, but unfortunately the scene is poorly written and basically comes off as a little girl having a hissy fit. Monroe does what she can with what’s she’s given and while the intensity of the moment is felt, it never achieves its intended affect.
Another reason The Misfits never fully liberates the Roslyn character is because it was made in Hollywood in the sixties, so they had to tack on the obligatory happy ending. As a modern viewer, it would have been much more rewarding had Roslyn moved on from the experience having discovered herself and not just ended up in a (reasonably) happy relationship.
But on the whole, The Misfits is an incredible piece of filmmaking in which every participant from the writer to director to its stars are American legends. While this is a solid reason in itself to watch the film, for this film critic The Misfits will always be the perfect example of how America’s favorite sex goddess finally showed the world that she was so much more then just a pretty face.