Musings on Mortality: The Misfits (1961)

"It shouts and sings with life!" proclaims a tagline for 1961's The Misfits. While I wouldn't say this was an accurate description of the film at any point in its existence, it's especially ironic now, with a contemporary viewer's knowledge of the tragic fates that befell Clark Gable, Marilyn Monroe, and Montgomery Clift. It now plays as a haunting swan song for the trio: each actor plays a character whose struggles are reminiscent of the star's own, making the film a study in the often hazy line that exists between real life and cinema.
While a difficult film to watch, The Misfits is one that's been on my mind a lot since I watched it over the weekend. A couple of months ago, my not-yet 4-year old cat was diagnosed with FIP, a very rare, incurable, and fatal disease. She was my first cat, after a lifetime of wanting one, and I had expected her to be a fixture in my life for many years to come--only for her life to be cut short in such an unlikely and tragic way. This news coincided with a number of other disasters in my life, but as of a few days ago, all of them had been resolved--except Nikki. I've been so grateful for every borrowed minute I've had with her, but it's also been so exhausting watching her slowly waste away. On Tuesday, in the very early hours of the morning, she let me know in her own way that it was her time to go--so that evening her adopted brother and I accompanied her on her last journey to the vet. In many ways I feel at peace, but even still, death lies heavy on my mind and heart. 

And so, the way the shadow of death looms over every frame of The Misfits feels especially relevant to me right now. There's conversations about the inevitability of death, a sequence where a character nearly does die, and of course, the final act involving the capturing horses for the purpose of slaughter--all of these bring this macabre element to the table even before the emotional baggage of the actors' untimely deaths is heaped onto it.

After seeing this film, I couldn't help being curious about the situation behind-the-scenes. Were these actors aware of each other's suffering? Were they able to bring each other any comfort? Usually I dislike learning about backstage drama, but in this case the personal struggles of the cast are so relevant to their performances on-screen that these little factoids felt like a missing piece of the puzzle to truly understanding the film. What I found out was definitely enlightening: Clark Gable was apparently very protective of Marilyn Monroe, fighting to keep her estranged husband--also the screenwriter--from cutting down her part; Monroe was in a bad emotional state due to her marriage situation, and characteristically was often absent from set; Gable, as a result, did a lot of his own stunts for the film to pass the time, which likely caused his fatal heart attack; and Monroe supposedly stated that Montgomery Clift was the only person she had ever met who was in a worse emotional state than herself.

Earlier I mentioned the parallels between the actors and their characters in this film. The most obvious is definitely between Clift and his inexperienced rodeo star: in his introduction, we see him talking on a payphone to his mother, who is worried about his recent riding accident. He assures her that his face is as good as new, and that she'd hardly be able to tell that anything had happened; by this time, a few years had passed since Clift's own accident, but I was still surprised such a blatant reference to it made it into this film. In the case of Monroe, in her character we have a woman who acts as a sun that all of the male characters revolve around, stunned by her combined charisma and compassion--she's so beautiful and alluring, yet also so sensitive and kind, oblivious to the power she wields over them. But their patience with her begins to wear thin as her sensitivity transforms into neediness, culminating in her running away from them in the middle of a desert, screaming her lungs out. I can't help but wonder if filming this scene was therapeutic for her? And then there's Gable: he plays a man trying to hang onto the past, a relic in an era that has outgrown cowboys, who eventually must come to terms with the fact that his way of life is dead. While Gable was seemingly pretty accepting of his career decline by this point--he wanted to retire and live out the rest of his days with his wife and newborn son--I did read that he was quite anxious about working with method actors, having always been doubtful of his own acting ability. This concern over the changing times nicely mirrors the worries of his faded-out cowboy.

The Misfits ultimately falls into a category of films I really love, that being the moody, talky, existential dramas that cropped up in the 1960s as the Production Code's power began to wane. These films lack any explicit sex or violence, but they're subversive in their own way, using dialogue to explore issues that had been absent in Hollywood cinema for a long time. Here, there is the age-old power struggle of long-time friends vying for the same girl, but at the center of everything is death: it hangs over every action, every word spoken. Even the last shot of the film, which is unexpectedly optimistic, there is a deep sense of loss--happiness has been gained, but at the expense of a friendship and a whole way of life. What lies ahead is completely unknown.

Films are most widely appreciated as a form of escapism, but I strongly believe that watching the right film at the right time--a film that reflects something currently happening in your life in a meaningful way--is the most wonderful and valuable role film is capable of. In this case, The Misfits has proved a very therapeutic film for me, one that both challenges and comforts me in its philosophies on death--and for that, I will always be grateful to Marilyn Monroe, Clark Gable, and Montgomery Clift for making this film a reality.


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