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March 09, 2006

The Misfits


John Huston - 1961
MGM Home Entertainment Region 1 DVD

During the scenes in Brokeback Mountain after Jack Twist (Jake Gyllenhaal) has been knocked off his horse at a rodeo, he is walking around with a bandage on his head, covered by his coyboy hat. It took me a while to remember why that image seemed familiar to me until I finally recalled Montgomery Clift in The Misfits. For several reasons, it was a good time to revisit this film.

In this time of chatter about the significance of Ang Lee's misfits, one has to wonder how a younger audience would react to Huston's films. Especially at this time is the irony of Clark Gable portraying a man named Gay. Montgomery Clift, perhaps the inspiration for Jack Twist, was gay according to biographer Barney Hoskyns. One also has to wonder about the fact that Huston had planned to cast Clift as the closeted Army officer in Reflections in a Golden Eye.

Clift had past his boyish stage and was 40 when he shot The Misfits. His character, Perce, is somewhat similar to Jack Twist in that, until Twist gets married, both are estranged from their families, and are essentially transient, travelling the rodeo circuit or taking temporary work. For both Perce and Jack, the thrill of the rodeo outweighs the physical danger and limited financial rewards. Riding in spite of injury is an easy way to broadcast machismo.

Whatever weight Arthur Miller thought he had in his screenplay was increased by the death of Clark Gable and later, Marilyn Monroe. The characters constantly talk about death and nature as if it was pre-ordained that this would be the last film of Monroe and Gable. The Misfits could well have been Clift's last film as he was rapidly deteriorating until his death in 1964. The final two minutes of The Misfits may be among the most poignant in film, with Monroe and Gable driving off together, the sensitive Monroe asking how one can find there way in the dark, while the self-assured Gable replies that one follows the big star, as the film closes with a shot of the night sky.

Marilyn Monroe's name is still meaningful even to those who haven't seen any of her films. There is an exhibition of photographs of her at the Bass Museum, here in Miami Beach. The photos are of Monroe from the age of 18 through her photographic sessions with Bert Stern in July of 1962. The photographs include work by Eve Arnold, Gordon Parks, Alfred Eisenstadt, and Philippe Halsman as well as the Tom Kelley photograph that graced "Playboy" magazine. Also in the exhibit are various magazines with Monroe on the cover, plus the issue of "Life" from 1950 about several promising actresses that gave Monroe, June Haver and Eleanor Parker individual portraits, while a black and white group shot features Debra Paget, Phyllis Kirk, and in the back, Debbie Reynolds. The television screens feature trailers and documentaries, including Marilyn singing "Happy Birthday" to President Kennedy. The actress who struggled for a modicum of respect in her lifetime has been canonized in our cultural institutions.

Reading this piece on wild horses in Nevada also made re-seeing The Misfits more vital. The sub-plot of the film, concerning the capture of wild horses for sale for dog food has become more timely again. The characters discuss the possibility of the extinction of the mustangs for commercial purposes. In the end of the film, humanity and idealism win over temporary financial gain and the illusion of pragmatism. Should the wild mustangs be eliminated in real life, as is now threatened, it will add a new layer of tragedy to this heart-breaking film.

Posted by peter at March 9, 2006 01:59 PM