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The Big Idea - The Misfits
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The Big Idea Behind THE MISFITS

Saturday June, 14 2014 at 04:00 PM

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The idea for The Misfits originated when playwright Arthur Miller was forced to live in Reno, Nevada, for six weeks to establish residency so he could divorce his first wife, Mary Grace Slattery, and marry Marilyn Monroe. While there, he met a group of modern-day cowboys who supported themselves by catching wild horses to sell to dog food companies. The parallel between the two endangered species -- the cowboys and the horses -- inspired a short story called "The Misfits" that he sold to Esquire Magazine.

Wanting to make a film with new wife Monroe, he expanded the story into what he called a "cinematic novel," focusing on a divorcée who had been only a tangential character in the original story. He sent the novelization to director John Huston, who pronounced it "magnificent" and brought Miller to his Irish estate to work on the screenplay.

Monroe and Huston would receive the same fee for The Misfits - $300,000. Huston also got a $50,000 gambling allowance for the location shoot in Nevada.

Miller enlisted his friend Frank Taylor, editorial director of Dell Books, to produce the film.

Taylor and Miller first offered The Misfits to 20th Century-Fox, where Monroe was still under contract. Studio president Spyros Skouras considered it too highbrow but got his cousin, Max Youngstein, to bankroll it through his Seven Arts Productions, then distribute it through United Artists.

Huston's first choice to play aging cowboy Gay Langland was Robert Mitchum, whom he had directed in Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison (1957). When he read the script, however, Mitchum didn't understand it at all. Having endured Huston's lack of concern for his actors' comfort or safety on the earlier film, he feared the horse-roping scenes would be more than he wanted to go through. He turned down the role and told his secretary that if Huston called for him, she should "Tell him I died." (Mitchum quoted in Lee Server, Robert Mitchum: "Baby, I Don't Care")

Clark Gable was on vacation in Italy when his agent -- George Chasin, who also represented Miller, Monroe and Taylor -- sent him the script. Although moved by the writing, he didn't really understand it, but he was flattered at being offered such an intellectual script.

Against the advice of his friends, who thought the role too physically demanding and a bad fit for the actor, Gable agreed to do the film. One of his friends suggested the reason he did the movie was the paycheck. At $750,000 and ten percent of the gross, it was more than he had ever been offered for a film. In addition, Gable was planning to make only two more films before retiring, and he wanted one of them to be a great film. He sincerely hoped that The Misfits would be that film.

Gable insisted on some strict provisions in his contract. Not one line of the script could be changed without his approval. He worked a nine-to-five day and if the film went over schedule, he would be paid an additional $48,000 a week.

In interviews after the announcement of his casting, Gable told one reporter that the film was "about people who sell their work, but not their lives."

Gable went on a crash diet to lose 35 pounds before The Misfits's March 3, 1960 start date.

Many who knew of Miller's friendship with Montgomery Clift thought the playwright had written the role of broken-down rodeo rider Perce Howland with the actor in mind. In particular, the character's phone call to his mother, in which he warns her that she won't recognize him after an accident in the rodeo, bore an eerie similarity to the change in the actor's life after a near-fatal auto accident during the shooting of Raintree County (1957) destroyed his famously handsome face.

Clift had some doubts about the script and sent it to his friend, comic actress Nancy Walker, who told him he had to do it. When he started picking the script apart, the two got into a screaming argument. Then he accepted the role.

Gable was leery of the film's New York actors -- Clift, Eli Wallach and Kevin McCarthy -- who were known for their "Method acting." They, in turn, weren't sure what to expect from a legendary movie star like Gable. Taylor's wife, Nan, broke the ice for them by throwing a dinner party for the cast shortly before location shooting started. The New York actors arrived first and made some disparaging comments about their leading man. Then Gable and his wife arrived, deliberately late (the actor was noted for his punctuality). After making a grand entrance, he held court, but also impressed the rest of the cast with his appreciation of the script. He also expressed interest in Clift's working methods. When Clift asked him how he approached a role, Gable replied, "I bring to it everything I have been, everything I am, and everything I hope to be." That won the Method actors over.

As Miller developed his script, he added details from Monroe's past and their lives together. When her character prepares for her divorce hearing, the lines are lifted from the divorce plea she had filed against second husband Joe DiMaggio. To make matters worse, however, the script began to reflect Miller's growing disenchantment with his wife, with scenes and lines that depicted the character's neediness and insecurity. Some of the speeches in which Wallach's character, Guido, criticizes Monroe's Roslyn could have been read as Miller's personal assessment of his wife.

by Frank Miller

Sources:
Donald Spotto, Marilyn Monroe: The Biography
Lee Server, Robert Mitchum: Baby, I Don't Care
Lyn Tournabene, Long Live the King: A Biography of Clark Gable
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