Tuesday, January 31, 2017

“The Misfits” and Politics Now



A movie which illustrates the divide between political camps in America right now is the 1961 flick “The Misfits,” starring Clark Gable, Marilyn Monroe, and Montgomery Clft. Directed by John Huston, with screenplay by playwright Arthur Miller.

Do you know the plot? Obsolete, aging cowboy “Gay” (Gable) becomes involved with younger woman “Roslyn” (Monroe). They like each other. They like the difference of the other person, which broadens each one’s experience of the world. They’re so different in outlook they inevitably clash—with striking emotion depicted in some of the most heart-wrenching moments seen on a movie screen. (Superlative acting from all involved.)

An early dispute is when Gay and Roslyn disagree over rabbits which have been disturbing their nascent lettuce patch, at the idyllic ranch (owned by troubled ex-bomber pilot Guido) they’ve been staying at. Gay goes for his rifle. Roslyn, played by Marilyn as a proto-flower child; a kind of pre-hippie—a person of total feeling and empathy—doesn’t understand why he has to do what he’s set on doing. Which is, kill the rabbits. His interest is in protecting their little turf. Conflict is delayed by the arrival of a small plane—flown by Guido (the person with no sympathy for anyone or anything, played by Eli Wallach). Guido has spotted a small herd of wild mustangs. Which for the two men is a means to avoid “wages” i.e., social conformity. A way to stay out of the societal hive. Before going on their excursion after the horses, the group recruits the Montgomery Clift character as an extra roper.

Conflict between the two leads, male and female, explodes when Roslyn realizes the cruelty involved in rounding up the mustangs—and how they’ll end up. (Dog food!)

The conflict is, in a sense, between two halves of society. Between two halves of the self—the male and female. Clark Gable represents the prototypical alpha male, wanting independence—control of his own life—above all else. Marilyn Monroe represents empathy and emotion.

Their struggle is played out through Gay’s final struggle to submit the mustang stallion to his will. The tiny herd’s own alpha, which has become a symbol for himself.

Clark Gable the actor was under stress from the moment he agreed to star in the film. It meant holding his own on screen with younger actors who were heavyweights of Method acting—Clift, Monroe, Wallach. He, Gable; who had skated through so many movies on mere reputation and charm. For the first time in decades he would be required to act.

His co-star would be the sex symbol to end all sex symbols. . . . The epitome of soft, voluptuous feminity. Also a troubled woman from a broken home who’d once used a photo of Clark Gable as a father substitute.

In the film, Monroe and Clift take Method acting to the furthest extreme, stripping their personalities down to their naked core; giving you themselves, unfiltered. Gable struggles to do likewise.

More significantly, Gable insisted on doing many of his own stunts, including in the grueling final struggle between man and horse. A sequence which is magnificent and heroic but harrowing to watch, particularly when you realize the struggle killed the man. Clark Gable had a massive heart attack upon completion of filming, and died eleven days later.


Where’s the parallel to today’s politics?

Only in that Donald Trump perceives himself to be an alpha male, and behaves like one. This alone for many people is a shock. When he says he wants to make America great again, he subconsciously means that he wants to return to the days when America was a less regulated, more rugged and masculine country.

By this viewpoint, America has become feminized the last couple decades; embracing a “kinder, gentler” vision of itself. More feeling, more caring— becoming as a result more vulnerable.

The female personality feels, as Rosyln feels, for every living thing. The idea of cruelty in the universe is unbearable. Intolerable. And so, screening migrants, or restricting them, or controlling one’s borders—which the male personality sees as a way to reassert control over one’s life, or the nation’s life, becomes, to the female side of the nation’s psyche, pure hate.

(There’s a lot of cruelty in the film, especially toward the band of misfit humans.)

Is Trump’s stance protecting borders logical? To him it is. It might be nothing more than a futile gesture; a stubborn willfulness against fate, the same as Gay/Gable’s determination to impose his will upon an alpha horse. A holding back of the future. An embrace of a declining past. Or it might not be futile. Only the future will tell.


There is some basis from history for Trump’s instinctive stance. It’s in a long series of examples of prosperous civilizations which as a result of their prosperity became soft and decadent; an attractive jewel for less civilized parts of the world.

One thinks of the warlike early Romans and their determination to defeat wealthy trading city Carthage. In turn, centuries later, decadent Rome invaded by barbaric Gothic hordes intent on plunder. Or Cortez and his ruthless conquistadores toppling fabulously wealthy but hesitantly uncertain Montezuma and the fate-dominated Aztec empire.

The targets had become soft, voluptuous cultures.

From this stance, America today sits as a prosperous, declining land. For the ruthless male from a more masculinized culture, a woman waiting to be taken and dominated. Isn’t this how the young men of ISIS view the affluent West?

The conflict raging within America is about what kind of civilization we’re going to be. Tough, hard, ruthlessly logical in protecting our interests and our status in the world? Abiding the hard lessons of history? Or like Roslyn/Marilyn, indulging our “better angels” and feeling for—and opening our arms to—virtually everyone?

It’s important that alpha male Clark Gable destroyed himself making “The Misfits” while protecting his status as an alpha male—but too-sensitive-for-this-world Marilyn Monroe destroyed herself as well. It was her final completed film.


Postscript: Though the performances of Monroe, Clift, and Gable were phenomenal, they received no Oscar nominations for their work. The film won not a single Academy Award. Meanwhile, a conventionally p.c. film, even for 1961, the musical “West Side Story,” swept the nominations and awards that year. It’s an excellent film, very well made—but without the depth or the significance of the cruelly underrated movie “The Misfits.”


JeffOYB said...

Thanks. An awesome, shattering flick. It was Clift's last flick, too, right? Crazy! (So realistic and symbolic at same time. My uncle's life and location to a tee.) Seems like equally good Night of Iguanas compares in some ways.

JeffOYB said...

PS: Yeah, one of my fave pics. My uncle was the first to show it to me. He and his friends refused to work for wages, too. They lived in the Sierra foothills, did ranching, fixed cars, had schemes and reputations, skill and expertise. They all died as a result. But they had some good times. Always on their own terms. Last of the breed, perhaps. Well, we'll see. I always keep my eyes pealed and ears to the ground for the futile old ways.

JeffOYB said...

PPS: Thanks for the review. I enjoyed Eli Wallach's autobio. He sure appreciated his challenging days with those folks. I wonder if actors these days have as much collegial gusto as they used to. So many seemed to be larger than life and keyed off of each other w boisterous energy and creativity. Often living together as much as filming together. I'm enjoying Warren Oates' bio right now -- written -- hey! -- by an old punk zinester! With foreward by John Doe.