On Marilyn in "The Misfits""

Marilyn Monroe with Montgomery Clift in The Misfits.

There is no sadder or more haunting performance by Marilyn Monroe than the one she gives in John Huston’s The Misfits (1961), her final completed film before her death the following year.  As Roslyn, everything about the Marilyn persona—the cooing voice, the sexy-baby-doll shtick—gets stripped away to reveal the raw nerves beneath.  The Marilyn of The Misfits is almost scarily quiet and spare.  There are moments when she’s happy, laughing, playing with dogs, but these too have an eerie fatalism to them.  I am continually pulled back to the scene where she begins to process the realization that the wild mustangs her lover Gay (Clark Gable) intends to round up and sell are to be slaughtered (see below).  She lies on her side throughout the scene with her back to Gable, her voice small and full of a child’s confusion.  She barely moves or speaks above a whisper.  It is as if we are watching a small piece of her soul die.      

With Gable.

Many have noted that all of The Misfits feels deathly, mordant.  It was not only Monroe’s last film but also Gable’s and Montgomery Clift’s.  (Gable died just twelve days after shooting finished.)  When Gable and Monroe drive off into the night in the final shots with the north star as their guide, it’s impossible not to see them as driving into nothingness—already ghosts.  Roslyn, earlier: “We’re all dying, aren’t we?  Every minute.”  And Roslyn again, to Gay, in reference to the rodeo rider Perce (Clift) being thrown from a bull while drunk: “What if he’d died?  It would be terrible!”  Gay: “Honey, we all gotta go sometime.” 

Driving off into the darkness.

In many ways Roslyn is an iteration of the private Marilyn, the dark shadow behind the blonde comedienne, well known to the film’s screenwriter (and Monroe’s soon-to-be ex-husband) Arthur Miller.  Roslyn is Marilyn as little-girl-lost: dreamy, wounded, fragile, doomed never to find happiness.  (This, too, would ossify into part of the Marilyn myth—a facet, like the dumb blonde or the sex kitten, that fails to tell the whole story, as Kim Morgan recently observed in an interview for the podcast The Cinephiliacs.)  Like the troubled Marilyn on-set, Roslyn runs late and can’t remember the “lines” she’s supposed to deliver in divorce court.  We learn that she used to dance in a burlesque house, and Gable has cheesecake pinups of her in his closet that may as well be shots from Monroe’s own career as a model.  

The pin-ups: "Don't look at those--they're nothing!  Gay just hung 'em up for a joke."

Earlier Monroe films like The Seven-Year Itch (1955) played on this extra-diagetic information to winking, comic effect; The Misfits plays it straight.  It asks us to see Monroe in her suffering—not as a victim, exactly, but as a lost soul.  It’s my favorite of her performances because it exactly taps into the vulnerable quality to which the comedies are mostly oblivious.  All of Monroe’s films make me want to cry, even the funny ones, but The Misfits makes me cry because it’s the only one that dares to look her dead in the face—at the sadness and the longing—without a laugh to soften the impact.        

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