Cinematographic Imperfection: The Art of Life in Film (on John Huston's the Misfits, 1961)

By Snauwaert, Maite | English Studies in Canada, June-September 2013 | Go to article overview

Cinematographic Imperfection: The Art of Life in Film (on John Huston's the Misfits, 1961)


Snauwaert, Maite, English Studies in Canada


I would like to address the way movie directors sometimes exploit the life of their actors in the making of their films, playing with their notoriety and known biography to inform the roles in which they are cast. I will base my analysis on John Huston's 1961 drama The Misfits, with a screenplay by Arthur Miller, starring Marilyn Monroe, Clark Gable, and Montgomery Clift. I will argue that in this film, the director makes an implicit use of his main actors' life events and past filmography in order to exploit a sense of time accumulation that will nurture the roles and create the melancholy that it seeks to convey. Their casting makes a claim, beyond the screen, on the private life and previous career of the actors, a claim that proves to be momentous in the aesthetic achievement of the film.

The facts of life of The Misfits' three main actors are notorious. In 1961, Marilyn Monroe had gone through repeated miscarriages and was on the verge of breaking up with Arthur Miller, who authored the script. Since the mid-fifties, Kate Beetham wrote in her notice for The Oxford History of World Cinema, "Monroe's career began to be soured by a reputation as unreliable, and by illness and personal problems played out in the glare of media attention" (257). It would be her final role. Montgomery Clift, for his part, had been in a car accident in 1956 that had required heavy reconstructive surgery and left parts of his face paralyzed, leading him to rely on painkillers and alcohol until his premature death in 1966. As for Clark Gable, he was an aging actor giving his last, and as it would be, posthumous performance, as he died shortly after filming wrapped ("Top Ten Posthumous Film Roles").

If the film is a fiction, it draws on these negative aspects of the life of its actors to embody the failures of its protagonists: Monroe plays a freshly divorced woman, Gable a disavowed father, Clift a broke and disinherited son. The three find refuge in the desert, where they start living together in a house that has failed to become a home for its owner (Eli Wallach), when his wife died in childbirth. If his is a secondary character, he is as well disenchanted and broken. All are deprived of family, as they are of any sense of continuity or belonging, to this place or any other. The hosts are unpredictable, acting like fugitives in hiding, confined and entrapped like the Sartrian trio, on the run from their lives and to nowhere. Actors as much as characters seem to be back from the ghosts and bond through their imperfection--that is, not just through the flaws of their tempers but more drastically through their unfinished suffering as human beings.

Jonas Mekas opened his review of the film in 1961 by this portrait: "Marilyn Monroe, the saint of the Nevada desert. When everything has been said about The Misfits [the film was poorly received at the time], she still remains there, MM, the saint. And she haunts you, you'll not forget her" (282). This ghostly quality is central to the movie, and with it a sense of persistence, of survival, which in Jonas's view relies entirely on the actress's physical presence, a gift to the screen and to everyone involved:

   It is MM that is the film. A woman who has known love, has known
   life, has known men, has been betrayed by all three, but has
   retained her dream of man, love, and life.

      She meets these tough men, Gable, Clift, Wallach, in her search
   for love and life; she finds love everywhere and she cries for
   everyone. She is the only beautiful thing in the whole ugly desert,
   in the whole world, in this whole dump of toughness, atom bomb,
   death. (282)

Theirs is a lost, ending world, physically eroding like the landscape or rather the plain empty land that surrounds them, and this void space is not one of freedom but of ungoverned finishings.

Indeed, if Monroe as the female character desperately tries to attend to the hurting needs of those surrounding her, it is a disappearing world that Huston is filming: the world of cowboys, conquering the space to their profit and glory, finding pride in their possession of nature. …

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