- Famous Faces Yet Not Themselves: The Misfits and Icons of Postwar America
Before The Misfits (directed by John Huston) was released to mixed reviews and disappointing box-office returns in February 1961, this film was already well known because of the notoriety of its production while on location in Nevada. The shooting of The Misfits in 1960 was characterized by long delays and budget overruns; by rumors about the causes of those delays in Marilyn Monroe’s ill health and/or unprofessional behavior on set; by discreet revelations about the project’s inability to stop the dissolution of her marriage to playwright Arthur Miller (who wrote his only screenplay as a “gift” for his wife and was on set with her); and by speculation about the production’s role (because of Monroe’s unpredictable periodic meltdowns, [End Page 36] because he did his own stunts to keep from being bored while waiting for her) in Clark Gable’s unexpected death from a heart attack, which occurred shortly after filming finally concluded. Decades later The Misfits has a more legendary reputation mainly because it featured the last completed performances by two Hollywood icons since it would turn out to be Monroe’s final film as well as Gable’s. Today, this film still serves as a sort of privileged view of Monroe’s private and professional turmoil. Additionally, The Misfits stands out as a lament for the demise of the cowboy hero at mid-century, an antecedent for other end-of-the-West Westerns such as Lonely Are the Brave (1962) and Hud (1963) that followed in rather quick succession..
What is probably forgotten six decades after the notorious location shoot in Nevada’s deserts and small towns is that the producers of The Misfits had contracted with the specialized photo agency Magnum to cover the filming, sending out nine of the most prestigious photographers in its roster at roughly two-week intervals: Inge Morath, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Dennis Stock, Eve Arnold, Ernst Haas, Cornell Capa, Bruce Davidson, Elliott Erwitt, and Erich Hartmann. As an archive, the expansive photographic record documented by those nine photographers tells a story surpassing the gossip about a famous star troubled by self-doubt and self-destructiveness.
In Famous Faces Yet Not Themselves George Kouvaros revisits The Misfits through this photographic record, sensitively and insightfully commenting on the Magnum imagery, often in conjunction with that of the finished film. He reads these images as, in effect if not intent, meditations on Hollywood stardom and the labor required of it: on the waiting and interruptions, the oscillation between stillness and duration, that distinguish the manufacturing of a motion picture and that produced these images of acting in the desert. Thus, while all first-hand accounts of the film’s production blame its troubles on Monroe’s addictions and insecurities, creating “the picture of an actor whose behavior pushed the production, and the reputations of all those involved, to the brink of catastrophe,” Kouvaros sees in this photographic record a more profound “failure to manage time,” a failure by all concerned parties to incorporate the “delays and downtime” characteristic of filming in a difficult location like the Nevada desert “within the routines and strict schedules of moviemaking” (115). To call such mismanagement a “failure,” Kouvaros maintains, does not assign blame to individuals like Monroe or director John Huston but rather depicts an important shift in the postwar period as to how movie acting was perceived and how that perception circulated. This shift was characterized by the prominence of the Method as a theorized school of acting, an association which Monroe shared with costars Montgomery Clift and Eli Wallach, and which in many respects signified the postwar modernity of New York-trained actors in contrast with studio-manufactured stars. The Magnum photos, as Kouvaros explains, “visualize” Method acting through their invocations of 18th-century painting’s tradition of representing states of absorption, a [End Page 37] tradition studied by Michael Fried, whose work provides Kouvaros with a template for his analysis. More...