Marilyn Monroe was truly a star that stood out from the crowd. A blonde bombshell with the face of an angel and a body to match, she was, and remains a sex symbol and style icon. During her heyday in the 50s though, Monroe was first and foremost a siren of the silver screen, with a blissfully bright and bubbly public persona that took Tinseltown by storm
The problem, now, is that her everlasting emblematic status transcends her memory as actress. We all know her face, we’ve all seen her smile, but sadly some of us have not had the pleasure of seeing her sparkle in the likes of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and Some Like It Hot.
Shamefully, fewer still are likely to have seen Marilyn in her fragile final role as Roslyn in John Huston’s The Misfits, which plays an extended run at the BFI Southbank this month as part of a wider season dedicated to the Hollywood starlet. In an otherwise problematic film, it’s a profound and poignant performance that tragically mirrored much of the pain felt by Monroe in her personal life, and proved her to be an actress of real virtue.
Told against the backdrop of Western Nevada, we meet Roslyn as she tries to pick up the pieces of her life following a shotgun divorce. The only solace she can find is in the company of her best friend Isabelle (Thelma Ritter). However, the chance for a fresh start soon surfaces in the form of three erstwhile cowboys, Gay (Clark Gable, who died of a heart attack just days after filming was completed), Guido (Eli Wallach) and Perce (Montgomery Clift), who are each struggling to find their feet in an ever-changing west.
With the likes of Monroe, Gable and Clift in front of the camera and John Huston sitting behind it, working from a script by Arthur Miller, The Misfits should by all accounts be a cinematic classic. But it just never succeeds in being as strong as it sounds on paper. Much of this is down to the notorious problems that plagued the film’s production. Huston was regularly drunk on set, and is known to have repeatedly fallen asleep during filming. Whilst Miller and Monroe found themselves sinking into personal pits of despair as their marriage crumbled.
Such stumbling drawbacks cause the film to falter quite considerably. At its heart, The Misfits is meant to be a deconstruction of the Old West. But only in its stronger final third, which sees the three cowpokes and Roslyn head out to the salt flats in search of wild Mustangs, does it actually manage to give any substance to its subject. For the most part unfortunately, The Misfits is a shallow and soapy story of love and compromise, told at an agonisingly slow pace that, given the 2-hour runtime, means it really is quite a slog to sit through.
And yet you can’t help but be entranced by the performances. Contemporary critics have often cited Gable’s performance here as being amongst his best, and they’re not wrong, but he’s supported all the way by Clift and, in particular, Wallach, who both craft laudably layered supporting characters. With quiet heartbreak however, the film belongs to Monroe. Her sudden explosion of emotional rage in the finale stands as a testament to her commanding dramatic capabilities, which were, tragically, rarely seen in any of her previous pictures and would never be seen again.
The Marilyn Monroe retrospective runs at the BFI Southbank throughout June. To book tickets for The Misfits, or any other film showing, please click here.