‘The Misfits’: Unhappy Trails for a Hollywood Era of Big Stars + Behind the Scenes Photos
Like a Western riding off into the sunset (which it was), The Misfits also served as a black-and-white coda to an era which ended around 1961.
The movie’s misfits include a tired beauty (Marilyn Monroe) who never can get to the heart of things; an old cowboy (Clark Gable) weary of a changing West; an ex-World War II pilot turned crop duster (Eli Wallach) who only feels safe up in the air; and a drunken bronco buster (Montgomery Clift) who lost his ranch inheritance to his mother’s next man. None of these folks are going much further than tomorrow (except maybe to drink); so much for Jet Age thrills.
Along with the A-list stars, Hollywood added further muscle with an Arthur Miller screenplay and putting John Huston — who already had Key Largo (1948) and The African Queen (1951) under his belt — in the director’s chair.
Marilyn Monroe (left) arriving in Reno, Nevada greeted by Gail Sawyer, daughter of Nevada Governor Grant Sawyer
Misfits director John Huston
Screenwriter Arthur Miller and actor Montgomery Clift
John Huston, Marilyn Monroe and Clark Gable out to dinner during production
Filming, however, was difficult. Monroe’s marriage to Miller was disintegrating and she was drinking and using prescription drugs. She was often late for shooting. Huston had to use soft-focus lenses to hide the damage. Miller kept rewriting the script as the direction of filming changed. Huston was bitter and drank heavily, too. Delays were interminable. Production stopped altogether for two weeks when Monroe was hospitalized for depression. On top of all that, they were shooting in Nevada, where daily temperatures sometimes climbed over 100.
John Huston, Marilyn Monroe and Arthur Miller deep in discussion
Still, expectations were high for the film. Given all the talent, surely the result would be something truly great — another Streetcar Named Desire. Numerous photographers were dispatched by the studio to take promotional shots; while many moments were preserved, Monroe looks washed-out and hard in the eyes, Gable looks angry and Clift like he got lost en route to the moon.
The cast and crew of line up for a publicity shoot in 1960
Like a failed test flight in the desert, everything went downhill after that. Two days after filming wrapped on Nov. 4, Gable suffered a heart attack, and 10 days later he was dead, at age 59. The Misfits would be Monroe’s last film, too; the next year she was dead, at 36, from an overdose of prescription drugs. Clift would die in 1966 at age 45, the long result of injuries sustained in a 1956 automobile accident.
Arthur Miller and Clark Gable
Despite intense promotion for the film trumpeting its star power — producer Frank E. Taylor called it “the ultimate motion picture” — The Misfits premiered in February 1961 to disappointing box office sales, barely covering the film’s $4 million budget.
Reception has improved over the years, with Gable, Monroe, Wallach and Clift lauded for their performances. Rotten Tomatoes gives The Misfits a 97% Tomatometer score.)
Marilyn Monroe signing autographs on set
A young fan approaches stars Monroe & Clift
The stars of The Misfits had all found glory in the 1950s — our memories of that time are rich with them — but by the close of 1961, something had changed. Hollywood was losing some of its greatest stars. American involvement in the Vietnam War became official. Beatlemania and a youth revolution was just around the corner. Soon the Sixties would be officially in full roar.
We wouldn’t have a chance to look back and remember for some time, and when we did, these misfits were nowhere in sight. Their glory days had ridden off into the sunset.