A fitting look at "The Misfits'

Published Sept. 30, 2002|Updated Sept. 3, 2005

It didn't take long for Harry Spencer to detect trouble on the set of The Misfits in 1960.

Marilyn Monroe's frequent tardiness caused annoying delays for co-stars Clark Gable and Montgomery Clift, and director John Huston. The snags, blamed on Monroe's pill-popping, helped make the movie, written by her then-husband, Arthur Miller, one of the most expensive black-and-white films made.

"I was disappointed that Monroe was so vacuous, and you couldn't carry a conversation with her. She was very spacey, not quite there," says Spencer, a publicist then at the Mapes Hotel in Reno, Nev., where Monroe and other cast members stayed.

The Misfits, filmed from July to November 1960, was the only movie Monroe and Gable appeared in together and was the last completed film for both.

Its behind-the-scenes troubles, and the blurring of life and art, are examined in Making the Misfits, a documentary that premieres Wednesday on PBS's Great Performances.

The one-hour special features interviews with Miller, supporting actors Eli Wallach and Kevin McCarthy, and Reno residents such as Spencer. It also offers rare footage and photographs of the stars shot during the filming.

"It felt like the right time to re-examine The Misfits, a film so underappreciated at its release," documentary director Gail Levin said. Though rejected by critics and audiences in 1961, "it's one of those films that still lives. It has an aura and mystique to it."

Despite the all-star cast and acclaimed director, plenty went wrong during filming, according to the documentary.

"Gable would be on the set at 7:30 or 8 in the morning with lines memorized and ready to go," Spencer said. "(Monroe) would arrive at noon. She didn't seem focused, and it would take a lot of time for her to do her scenes right. It was like it was a jinxed movie."

Filming not only was delayed by Monroe's tardiness, but by a drug overdose that prompted her to seek treatment in Los Angeles. She and Miller took separate rooms during the filming and divorced a short time later.

Miller had written the screenplay as a way for her to try to rebuild her self-esteem after a miscarriage.

Twelve days after filming ended, Gable died of a heart attack at 59. Less than 21 months later, Monroe died at 36 of a drug overdose that was ruled a suicide. Clift appeared in several other films before he died at 45 in 1966.

"I do think there is a haunting quality to the movie because of what followed," Levin said. "The movie is the end of an era. It freezes them in time."

The blurring between art and life is remarkable in The Misfits because Monroe, Gable and Clift played characters so much like themselves, Levin said.

The movie centers on an aging but sensitive cowboy, played by Gable; a troubled but kind rodeo rider, played by Clift, and an insecure, lonely divorcee, played by Monroe.

"I think Monroe knew it was too close to the truth," Levin said. "She puts on a brave face in the movie like in real life."

Miller, who based the movie on the loners he observed in Reno when he divorced in 1956 to marry Monroe, said it was difficult to watch her go through "such torture" during the filming.

"I think there was a struggle believing in herself in a part that serious, where . . . her body would have meant so little in the course of the story," Miller said.

Gable was like the cowboy he played: rugged, handsome and fiercely independent, said Marilyn Newton of Reno, who was 15 and a movie extra during the filming.

"He was really down to earth and would go out of his way to be nice to everyone," Newton said. "He was even warmer than his Hollywood image.

"Clift was friendly, but he was a loner. Monroe was very beautiful but didn't live up to her Hollywood persona. She seemed vulnerable and almost timid."

Howard Rosenberg, a movie critic and art professor at the University of Nevada, Reno, rates all three stars' performances as among their best.

"This movie is profound and makes you think," he said. "Americans want to be entertained, and they didn't want to deal with its message when it came out. I think more people are willing to take a look at the message today."

But Spencer isn't sure: "I think people will find the making of the movie, and what it reveals about the stars, more fascinating than the movie."