The Column of Lasting Insignificance: June 6, 2009
Marilyn Monroe had Clark Gable as her co-star almost half a century ago, in the last movie that either of them made, and the making of the film has survived as Hollywood legend even more than the movie itself. Also in the cast of characters in this momentous desert drama were Marilyn’s almost-estranged hubby Arthur Miller; the predictably irascible (and often drunk) director John Huston; and brooding Montgomery Clift.
These colorful, indeed, narcissistic figures, were accompanied, and sometimes obstructed by, punk singer Glenn Danzy who reportedly had a crush on MM (and later wrote a song, Who Killed Marilyn?), Eli Wallach, Thelma Ritter, her omnipresent mentor Paula Strassberg, and the set photographer Inge Morath who later married Miller.
Paula wore a long black dress that looked as if it had been cut from a gunny sack, and a black hat. Everybody called her Black Bart, and she was so overweight she made walking look difficult. She didn’t get out of the limo. She descended. Paula could turn buying a roll of toilet paper into a monumental act, John thought, and wondered if she knew that Lee was fucking Marilyn when he’d been a student at what Paula liked to call The Studio.
Also on the near-Reno set of the $4million production, was 22-year-old Arthur Knight. A nomadic college graduate at the time, and finding himself fortuitously around the scene, he became privy to much of the backstage action, from which he recently constructed a fascinating Roman à clef. His relatively obscure memoir Misfits Country (Tres Picos Press) is adroitly presented as a work of fiction — “totally the products of the author’s imagination.” Each of its 30 short chapters is headed with the name of the protagonist, and what was on his/her mind at the time.
Sometimes John could cheerfully have killed everyone who was connected with the Actors Studio. They made him tired, talking about their craft. Why didn’t they just learn their lines and recite them like Gable, instead of intellectualizing everything?
At the time, late 1950s, Misfits was the most expensive black and white film ever made and Knight’s coverage of it may or may not have been anything like a documentary. But it certainly offers an absorbing read.
She was breathless when she spoke to Clark. “I’m sorry, I’m so sorry. I just can’t seem to get organized before noon…I don’t mean to cause any trouble. It’s just all the pills… I take…”
Clark smiled back, touching her hand lightly. You’re not late honey. He’d always been a good liar. It was what actors did best.
“Why’d you decide to do this picture?” Marilyn asked.
They’re paying me a lot of money.
“I didn’t mean that.”
What do you mean? He watched his hand shake as if it belonged to some one else; he clutched his drink.
“I mean people must have told you…I’m difficult to work with”.
Honey, everybody’s difficult to work with.
Mongomery Clift, a self-hating gay, quickly became best buddies with his young co-star on the set of The Misfits — an appropriate name— spending considerable amounts of time with the melancholy Marilyn. Much of this she spent acting as a mother hen, consoling and commiserating with the 40-year-old Clift.
He stared at his flaccid penis. “We shouldn’t have tried.”
Marilyn stood beside him, her breasts gleaming…
”You should never give up trying. It’s good for people who care about each other to…to be together.. You’re not queer. You’re just…confused.
“I’ll make it better,” Marilyn said, kneeling before him.”
“Jesus, Marilyn, you don’t need to do that…I thought you vowed never to suck another cock once you were famous.”
She paused, looking up at him. “This is different,” she said.
The movie, which has become a cult favorite over the years, was not well received by the critics, but it did win a Golden Globes award for Marilyn and a nomination for Huston as best director from the Directors Guild of America. In a 1968 review, Damian Cannon, wrote that what seemed to have floored viewers of the time was the lack of a clear-cut hero, the absence of a solid central figure. “In what is nominally a cowboy flick it must have felt as if John Huston betrayed the genre. Yet the point is that for writer Arthur Miller, cowboys are mere metaphors. In belonging to a vanished age, they are symbolic of the many folk left behind by progress.”
“Why don’t you sing ‘Happy Birthday’ to Arthur?”
To Arthur? She’d rather sing Happy Birthday to the parking lot attendant she’d had sex with earlier that evening…Arthur and I had stopped being nice to each other a long time ago. I thought you knew that. She was going to divorce Arthur as soon as the picture was finished.
“Yeah, I kind of noticed things were tense between the two,” John laughed. “I just get forgetful when I’m drinking.”
Don’t we all, Marilyn said.
Producer Frank E. Taylor, a book editor at the time, (he died in 1999) has only one other minor movie credit to his name and (in Knight’s version) was bemused throughout the filming.
Frank said, “Sometimes I think I must be the only normal person in Reno. I barely drink or smoke, and I don’t gamble or take drugs. I even sleep seven or eight hours a night, and I almost never have bad dreams. Everyone I work with thinks I’m a freak.”
Nan laughed. How can a normal person be freaky?
“I don’t know,” Frank said. “You’d have to ask Marilyn. Or Monty. Or even John. They could tell you.”
The misfits of the story were the wild horses that the characters played by Gable and Wallach were rounding up in the desert. But it might equally apply to the stressed stars. Gable, who performed his own enervating stunts, died of a heart attack three days after filming. Racked by drugs and alcohol, Monroe died of an overdose the following year, and Clift, with whom she attended the New York premiere in February 1961 died (at 46) four years later. The book jacket claims that “though a work of fiction, this may be the most honest depiction of Marilyn ever produced.”
JOHN WILCOCK IS CURRENTLY VISITING AFRICA