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Making THE MISFITS banner. All photos courtesy of Magnum Photos.
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On the Set of THE MISFITS (Inge Morath/Magnum)
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IMAGES: A Master of His Craft: Eli Wallach John Huston
Magnum Photos


By Gia Kourlas

Although not nearly as shockingly cerebral now as it must have seemed to audiences in 1961, THE MISFITS is still quite a bizarre movie. Directed by John Huston, written by Arthur Miller as a serious acting vehicle for his then-wife, Marilyn Monroe, the black-and-white film is centered around a quartet of social misfits in lonely and expansive Nevada. Monroe portrays Roslyn Taber, a newly divorced woman who becomes romantically involved with a cowboy named Gay Langland (Clark Gable). But while she is as glamorous as ever, Monroe plays Roslyn as fragile and hardly less tormented than the actress must have been herself at the time. While not a surprise -- if anyone knew her intimately, it was Miller, the East Coast intellect -- THE MISFITS shows off Monroe's range like no previous role.

But despite wonderful performances by Gable, Monroe, Montgomery Clift, Eli Wallach, and the invincible Thelma Ritter, the final product has always been overshadowed by the baggage of its stars. It was both Monroe's and Gable's final film. Though she survived an overdose during the course of shooting and was able to finish the movie, as the world knows, one year later Monroe succeeded in committing suicide. Gable, seemingly spry at 59, died soon after the film was completed of a fatal heart attack, blamed on his own insistence on performing all the dangerous horse stunts himself. Clift, who plays Perce, a cowboy with a penchant for the rodeo, also died unexpectedly of coronary artery disease not long after the film was released.

The story is less an entertaining western than a cerebral exploration of what happens when a group of discontents fall in love with the same insecure woman. Monroe's acting is superb. Huston transforms her stunning looks into something less sexy than vulnerable, and her characterization of Roslyn is full of haunting depth and subtlety.

Gail Levin, director of GREAT PERFORMANCES' MAKING THE MISFITS, always realized Huston's film was undervalued. Her insightful documentary, which records the cinematic process with candor and humor, includes interviews with Miller, actors Eli Wallach and Kevin McCarthy, and crew members as well as something extra-special: the photographers of Magnum Photos, which covered the shooting on an exclusive basis. "THE MISFITS, honestly, has been a film I've just loved forever," Levin says. "One day, while I was in the Museum of Modern Art, I happened upon a film book on the making of THE MISFITS with all the Magnum photographs. The great passion of my life is photography, and I'm always trying to figure out ways in which one can do photographic subjects on film. It's not easy."

Levin had no knowledge of Magnum's extensive involvement with the project before her discovery of the book, but what surprised her the most was that she was the first director to jump on the provocative behind-the-scenes tale. "That was auspicious somehow, because it felt like it was mine to do," she says. "I love the notion of being able to approach the creative process on several levels, including the points of view of these photographers. THE MISFITS is a great film that wasn't received in that way, but I think it's so extraordinarily modern and courageous."

All photographs courtesy of Magnum Photos.

Top banner photos: Montgomery Clift, Clark Gable, and Marilyn Monroe (Dennis Stock/Magnum and Eve Arnold/Magnum).

Clark Gable (Eve Arnold/Magnum).

Clark Gable performed his own stunts for the film (Eve Arnold/Magnum).

Arthur Miller and John Huston (Inge Morath/Magnum)

Arthur Miller and John Huston (Inge Morath/Magnum).

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