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‘The Misfits’ Finally Gets Some Respect

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Plagued by a difficult shoot, burdened by bad reviews and marked by the death of its leading man shortly after production was completed, “The Misfits” suffered the biggest indignity--audience indifference--when it was released in 1961. That’s what makes the growing appreciation for the drama during the last four decades especially surprising.

What seems clear now is that the hauntingly poetic drama--written by Arthur Miller and directed by John Huston--was ahead of its time. Now the somehow appropriately titled film is the subject of a “Great Performances” documentary that airs Wednesday on KCET.

As the documentary points out, “The Misfits” marked the final screen appearances of its larger-than-life stars Marilyn Monroe and Clark Gable. The latter died of a massive heart attack less than two weeks after production wrapped.

“I think audiences expected Gable to be dashing and heroic,” says Gail Levin, producer of the new documentary, “The Making of the Misfits.” “He’s not. He’s burned out. And she wasn’t what you always expected of her. I think rather than take it on its terms, the audience took it on the audience’s terms, so they didn’t allow themselves to find it.”

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Levin, who first saw “The Misfits” on television as a teenager, says her lingering affection for the film is what motivated her to make the documentary. “It was so eerily close to the bone for all of them. It couldn’t have been better cast. It is just an extraordinary moment in time. Everybody was who he or she [was]. And Huston was the perfect person to direct this thing.”

Monroe plays Roslyn, a beautiful but troubled woman who has just gotten a divorce in Reno when she meets up with two friends, the aggressive flier Guido (Eli Wallach) and aging cowboy Gay Langland (Gable). Added to the mix are aging rodeo star Perce Howland (Montgomery Clift) and the much-married Isabelle Steers (Thelma Ritter).

The film ends in the desert with a disturbing and allegorical roundup of wild mustangs--much to Roslyn’s hysterical dismay--by Gay and his friends.

But there was more drama going on behind the camera than in front of it. Shooting locations were difficult; the Miller-Monroe marriage was crumbling before everyone’s eyes, and her chronic lateness and difficulty remembering lines caused the film to go over schedule and budget. The only person Monroe would take direction from was her acting coach, Paula Strasberg. And because of a drinking problem, Clift was considered unstable.

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Nine photographers from the renowned agency Magnum Photos--including Inge Morath, who later married Miller--documented “The Misfits” production. Levin features these evocative photographs, along with clips from “The Misfits,” and interviews with Miller; cast members Wallach and Kevin McCarthy; Huston’s son, Tony; and others.

Miller was the last person she approached about doing an interview for the documentary. She decided she wanted to talk to the people involved with financing and producing the project before getting to the writer.

The two met at lunch, arranged with one caveat from Miller: He would not talk about Monroe. “But I did want to talk to him about the role of Roslyn, which he specifically wrote for Marilyn. So when we came to do the interview, I said to him, ‘I know you don’t want to speak about Marilyn, but will you speak about Roslyn?’ And he did. But speaking about Roslyn was also like speaking about Marilyn. It was always a little bit veiled.”

Those interviewed for the documentary were blunt about the insanity surrounding the production. Even 40 years later, Ed Parone, who was assistant to producer Frank E. Taylor, is still appalled by Monroe’s tardiness and the fact that no one scolded her for holding up production. Script supervisor Angela Allen admits that she found Monroe’s behavior “despicable.” And Nan Taylor Abell, the producer’s widow, recalls a particularly nasty fight between Monroe and Miller in their hotel room, so venomous that Abell acquired another room down the hall for Miller so he could work on the script.

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Wallach recalls that Huston was very understanding of Monroe, whom he had directed in one of her first films, “The Asphalt Jungle” in 1950.

“He never upset her or accused her or took it out on her,” Wallach says. “He said, ‘Of course, my dear. We’ll do it again. Don’t worry.’ I found he was gentle and lovely with her. She was in a terrible state because the marriage was breaking up.”

In general, Wallach says, Huston wasn’t big on giving direction to his actors. “His attitude was if you hire great musicians and you wield a baton, they know how to play the instrument. You are not going to tell him how to play it. His concern was to find the moments of truth in every scene that was played.”

But Huston did give Wallach a bit of sage advice during a scene in which the actor and Gable were being very drunk and loud at a bar.

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“After they shot it two times and while they were lighting the scene, he came over to me,” Wallach recalls. “He said, ‘Eli, do you know the drunkest I ever was?’ I said no. He said, ‘Yesterday.’ And then he walked away.”

Wallach couldn’t believe his ears.

“I had seen him ride a camel in a race with a horse at the rodeo and he said that was the drunkest he ever was in his life. We started to shoot and I thought, he’s telling me that a drunk doesn’t say, ‘Listen I’m drunk’ and act drunk. A drunk tries to be sober.”

The actor also says he doesn’t believe that it was Gable’s insistence on doing the physically demanding stunts with the mustangs at the film’s conclusion that led to his fatal heart attack.

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Wallach says the actor, who was 59, was in good shape. “You have to have a physical before you can do a movie,” he says.

“He had had all of his physicals. He had lost a little weight to do it, but it was hot as hell out there,” Wallach adds. “He was a pro and at 5 p.m., no matter where we were in the shooting, he would stop and go home. His wife was pregnant and his baby was born several months after his death.”

Along with the 1956 film, “Baby Doll,” written by Tennessee Williams, Wallach is proudest of “The Misfits.”

“I feel richer for having done those two pieces. Sure, Arnold Schwarzenegger can blow up half the city and that movie makes a lot of money, but that is not a success to me. What is a success is that these people experimented and tried.”

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“Great Performances: The Making of the Misfits” can be seen Wednesday at 8 p.m. on KCET.


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