Friday, January 27, 2012

Director's Spotlight #3.8: John Huston's The Misfits

In the world of film, it is not the actor, nor the screenwriter, nor the producer who makes or breaks the movie. Whatever their contributions, it is ultimately the director who is the sole author of the film. Every month, Director’s Spotlight takes a look at an auteur, shines some light on a few items in the director’s body of work, points out what makes them an artist, and shows why some of their films work and some don’t. January’s director is master craftsman and storyteller John Huston. Next up, 1961’s The Misfits.

Grade: 92 (A)
By the early 60s, several of the great early Method Actors weren’t doing too well. Marlon Brando had torpedoed his career with his notoriously difficult behavior. James Dean had died in a car crash, cutting his promising career short. Montgomery Clift’s own accident left him clearly disfigured and in chronic pain, which he self-medicated with alcohol and pills. Marilyn Monroe spent her career dealing with physical and mental illness, depression, addiction, dissatisfaction with her marriages, and a feeling that not enough people took her seriously as an actress. Her then-husband, playwright Arthur Miller, wrote a story about a divorced woman and aging cowboys in Reno, Nevada, and felt that she might play the lead role. John Huston, who had given Monroe her break in The Asphalt Jungle, was one of the few major directors who still took Monroe seriously, and their resulting collaboration became more famous for its troubled production and tragic aftermath than anything else. What a pity: The Misfits is one of Huston’s finest films, a mournful last hurrah for the Old Hollywood crowd.
Roslyn Tabor (Monroe) is a recently divorced woman in Reno. She and her elderly friend Isabelle Steers (Thelma Ritter) meet a pair of auto-mechanics: Guido (Eli Wallach) a middle-aged man whose wife died in childbirth, and Gay Langland (Clark Gable), an aging ex-cowboy and womanizer with a distant relationship with his children. Both men take a liking to Roslyn, but she falls for the more glamorous and charming Langland. Roslyn also meets the men’s friend Perce Howlan (Clift), a drifter rodeo rider with a history of emotional trauma. The three men compete for Roslyn’s affections as they go on a trip together to capture and sell a group of wild, misfit mustangs, but it isn’t long before Roslyn sees the ugliest sides of each of them.
Huston’s mastery of location is in full effect here: Reno’s seediness is felt in its bars, restaurants, and social gatherings. It is a place for abandoned men and women who drink away their pain, a background for failed relationships and dying dreams. Drinking and gambling can lead to a good time, but they can also be used to fill a void (Huston knew this all too well). Miller’s script is more character-driven than Huston’s usual plot-driven films (The Maltese Falcon, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre), but the director keeps things moving briskly anyway. Every conversation reveals something heartbreaking and essential to a character’s being, and it’s damn near impossible to imagine any scene being cut (that Huston is working with one of the greatest of all American playwrights doesn’t hurt). It’s a noir by the way of American realism, underlined by a terrific Alex North score that’s spiked with loss.
The director frames each shot precisely to highlight the relationships between each character from scene to scene: Roslyn dances with Guido (who knew Eli Wallach had such moves) without ever getting too close to him; her focus is on Gay. When she meets and grows close to Perce after a night of heavy drinking, it’s telling that a passed out Gay is in the back, Roslyn is in the middle with a passed out Perce resting on her, and the lovestruck Guido is driving. The space tells the whole story without ever being heavy-handed.
The most prominent of Huston’s pet themes in the film is that of the doomed lovers in a rather frank look at divorce and adultery for the time. Gay and Roslyn fall for each other, but he’s old enough to be her father (Gable was 59, Monroe 34). He’s a womanizer, she’s lusted after by every man in town. He sees through her beauty and sees someone who’s profoundly sad, she sees through his bravado to find a man without any real love in his life (he sees his kids “from time to time”). She also sees how he uses a drunken, messy Perce to win money in a rodeo, and his treatment of animals leaves something to be desired. Guido, meanwhile, yearns for Roslyn, claiming he never knew a woman (not even his wife) that made him feel quite the same way; it’s no use, he’s too plain. Even Isabelle, the sweet, funny old woman, has her own sad story: she has a sweet spot for Guido, who’s too busy focusing on Roslyn. Worse, when she runs into her ex-husband and his current wife, she’s overjoyed to spend time with them. Her bubbly personality hides some serious pain.
While Huston’s literal “quest” films were largely finished with Moby Dick, The Misfits features a failed quest of its own, aside from relationships doomed to fail. In the film’s final act, as Roslyn, Guido, Gay, and Perce go mustang hunting, Roslyn learns the purpose of the hunt: the misfit mustangs are to be made into dog food. Suddenly the mistreatment of animals in the rodeo and Gay’s attempt to kill a rabbit in his garden seem like frightening precursors to Roslyn, an animal lover. Huston himself was an animal enthusiast, and this marks the director’s willingness to engage subjects others were uninterested in or unwilling to address. It’s a case where the doomed quest isn’t even a noble one. Miller’s script uses these last remaining wild horses as a clear symbol for the major characters, lovers cut down for ugly purposes, tied down against their will. The symbol could have been an overwrought ending to a great film, but Huston handles everything with such a light touch that it becomes a rather beautiful image of compassion.
One of Huston’s greatest strengths was his ability to perfectly cast his roles; he succeeds on all counts here, with Ritter as a perfect mother figure for Monroe and Wallach, one of the all-time great character actors, as a regular guy filled with genuine pain and ugly secrets. It is with Clift, Gable, and Monroe, however, that Huston makes the greatest impression, in no small part due to how the actors’ roles mirror their real lives.
Clift was suffering from illness and struggling with addiction. Once considered one of the finest actors of his generation, the actor was now in shambles, and he would only finish three more films before his death in 1966 (including another outing with Huston, 1962’s Freud: The Secret Passion). Perce is a young man whose past is filled with hurt and frayed relationships. His mother gave his stepfather the estate Perce’s father had promised him, and he feels he has no one to depend on. He now wanders the world, taking cheap rodeo jobs that have left him permanently scarred (which mirrors Clift’s own disfigurement from the car accident). In Perce, Roslyn sees a kindred spirit, another young person kicked around by the world (Monroe described Clift as “the only person I know who’s in worse shape than I am”). In Roslyn, Perce sees one of the few people who truly understand him, not to mention one of the few who are kind to him. His act of goodness towards Roslyn near the end of the film is then a rather moving gesture, both as an act between the characters and as a symbolic act of kindness between the actors.
Clift, Monroe, and Wallach were the first Method actors Huston worked with. Gable, on the other hand, was as old fashioned an actor as they came, a movie star with unlimited charm but limited range. Gable was intimidated by Clift and company’s Method talents, and that intimidation shows through in his performance as a man fading away. He’s alone, without love in his life (Gable was never quite the same after his wife, Carole Lombard, passed away), and the person whose presence has given his life new meaning finds him sad. When Roslyn’s attention shifts towards Perce, Gay begins to drink heavily. This brings out the worst in Gay as he meets his children by chance in a bar; before he can bring Roslyn back to meet them, they’ve already left. Gay is distraught, a blubbering, screaming, drunken mess. It’s the rawest, most vulnerable piece of acting Gable ever put on film, and the actor felt it was the best performance he ever gave. Ten days after the film wrapped up, he was dead of a heart attack.
Finally, there’s Monroe, a gifted actress put into a ditzy-blonde box, idolized by millions but understood by few. Huston was one of the few directors who took her seriously anymore, and he took a gamble casting Monroe, given her frequent illnesses, depressive bouts, and tendency to show up late. Huston recognized that Monroe was “on her way out”, her marriage to Miller failing, her career waning, her health deteriorating. That pain and suffering shines through in one of her finest performances. Roslyn’s latest marriage ended badly, men desire her without understanding her, her new lover kills innocent animals and has a poor relationship with his children, and everything is going to hell. Men treat her as an object: one notable scene features a bet that she can’t hit the ball on a paddle-ball ten times in a row; as she tries, she dances around with glee. Men focus on her body, and one man spanks her. She’s been sexualized her whole life, and she hardly feels whole anymore. The film’s optimistic ending after such a rough going could seem like a cop out.  I’d like to think of it more as wish fulfillment: none of these people found happiness in real life. Giving them the opportunity to make right, to “raise a child as a full human being”, is Miller and Huston’s hope that after everything goes wrong, it will all turn out alright.

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