What’s recorded by the camera is […] at least metaphorically, a ghost of something that was once as it appears in the picture but is no more. And so that’s why film has been called “the haunted medium” more than any other art form.

– Guy Maddin1


When everything has been said about The Misfits […] she still remains there, a new screen character, MM, the saint. And she haunts you, you’ll not forget her.

– Jonas Mekas2

It was the last completed film Marilyn Monroe made. Clark Gable died a mere 12 days after filming ended. When asked if he wanted to watch it on television, Montgomery Clift said what would turn out to be his last words: “Absolutely not!”3 It’s almost impossible to watch The Misfits without sensing a cloud of death looming over the whole production.

But death is not the only thing that haunts The Misfits. It is equally haunted by its stars’ lives. An astonishingly metatextual film, it’s near impossible to separate the actors from the characters they are playing. The connection is clearest between Marilyn Monroe and her character Roslyn – a role that was specifically written for her by her then-husband Arthur Miller. “Did Miller and Huston create a character”, Jonas Mekas wondered in his review of the film, “or simply recreate [Monroe]?”4

After getting divorced in Reno, the kind-hearted and directionless Roslyn falls in with a pair of cowboys named Gay (Clark Gable) and Guido (Eli Wallach). Central to The Misfits is the conflict between these cowboys’ violent attitudes towards animals and Roslyn’s empathy for them. Like Monroe, who once walked a shoreline throwing beached fish back into the water, Roslyn is “over the top about animals, children, old people”5, and “fierce about protecting them”6. This brings her into direct conflict with the cowboys, who make a living from the abuse and murder of horses.

This conflict is clear in their reactions to the rodeo they attend. While the men are calm and matter-of-fact about the violence unfolding, Roslyn is outwardly horrified and distressed. When Guido explains that without animal abuse they “wouldn’t have a rodeo”, Roslyn’s response is blunt and immediate: “They shouldn’t have a rodeo.” She operates from a place of simple logic: if it harms someone, it shouldn’t exist. But since her reasoning inconveniences the men, they characterise her as irrational, hysterical and naive. Roslyn “possesse[s] a revolutionary idealism” when it comes to animal welfare, but rather than being treated like a revolutionary she is dismissed and infantilised7 – or, occasionally, deified. In the eyes of the men, Roslyn is either a naïve child or an angel of goodness. Never is she simply their equal.

The rodeo introduces Roslyn to a young cowboy named Perce (Montgomery Clift). Clift, who had undergone facial reconstruction surgery after a horrific car crash, is first seen in The Misfits on the phone to his mother, saying: “My face is fine. It’s all healed up. It’s just as good as new. You would too recognise me!” While Miller denied writing the role specifically for Clift, the real-world parallels are uncanny. Perce, like many of Clift’s screen characters, can also easily be read as queer – a youthful, sensitive figure of failed and wounded masculinity, a departure from the machismo of Gay and Guido.

The relationship between Perce and Roslyn also mirrors that of Clift and Monroe. They share a silent affinity and mutual respect, untainted by the leering sexual intentions evident in the other men – a connection based on kinship, transcending mere friendship or romance. As producer Frank E. Taylor said: “Monty and Marilyn were psychic twins. They recognised disaster in each other’s faces and giggled about it.”8 When the wounded young man rests his head on Marilyn’s lap, Pietà-style, in one of the film’s most tender scenes, there is a sense that these two lost souls have found some small solace in one another.

And then there are the animals, who form the central concern of much of the narrative. Each minute of the film brings its characters closer to their much-anticipated mustanging trip. Due to the era of The Misfits’ production, there was evident disregard for animal welfare on set, resulting in several unsimulated scenes of animal abuse, which only amplify the sense that Roslyn’s distress is justified. This violence is also present materially, as all analogue film contains gelatin made from animal skin, tendons, ligaments and bones. On a starkly literal level, every frame of The Misfits is haunted by a slaughtered animal.

The animals of The Misfits also take on symbolic meaning. Roslyn demonstrates a kinship with them throughout the film, and her own dehumanisation somewhat mirrors the animal experience. Both Roslyn and the horses she tries to protect are abused and exploited, their flesh violated. Leering gazes dismember her body into pieces of flesh for consumption — rump, thigh, breast. (Guido: “Good enough to eat.” Gay: “She’s real prime.”) When Perce tells Roslyn, “I don’t like the way they grind up women here”, the phrasing is eerily evocative of mincemeat. The atmosphere of looming slaughter is inescapable.

As ageing cowboy Gay Langland, Gable relates to the younger Perce with “a corrupt and ersatz paternity” – discomfortingly, his romantic relationship with Roslyn also frequently takes on a paternal tone. (It doesn’t help that in childhood, Monroe liked to imagine that Gable was in fact her father.) If Perce and Roslyn function as Gay’s symbolic children, perhaps there is new meaning to be made of a scene in which Gay’s actual son and daughter abandon him outside a bar. Gay stumbles around, drunkenly calling for his children in pathetic desperation, receiving no response. Perhaps this scene foreshadows Perce and Roslyn’s own rebellion against the patriarch at the film’s climax. The group heads out mustanging, with Roslyn reeling from the new information that this trip will lead to the horses’ death. As Roslyn protests against the violence and conflicting ideologies come to a boiling point, the only man to support Roslyn is Perce, the sole figure of non-traditional masculinity in the film. Roslyn and Perce, the “children”, revolt against entrenched tradition with their insistence on the horses’ right to live.

In this way, The Misfits is also about the death of an American era – one that may have been illusory all along. As the 1950s came to an end, the dominance of traditional white American masculinity was challenged. Happy nuclear families are replaced by divorcees. Direction and purpose make way for aimlessness and alienation. Violent elders are challenged by youthful pacifists. Gay and Guido still cling to tradition, afraid of the inevitable change that comes with the passage of time. “I’m doin’ the same thing I always did”, Gay laments, “it’s just that they changed it around”. But by remaining stagnant, refusing to grow, these men are not truly alive. Roslyn tells them as much soon after the mustanging begins; unable to bear the cruelty, she runs into the desert and screams: “I pity you! You’re three dear, sweet, dead men!”

Monroe famously disliked this scene. “I guess they thought I was too dumb to explain anything, so I have a fit — a screaming, crazy fit. I mean nuts,” she said. “[Miller] could have written me anything, and he comes up with this.”9 But Monroe’s performance only reads as “crazy” through a misogynist lens (as in Guido’s grumpy reaction: “She’s crazy. They’re all crazy.”) Instead, the final onscreen product comes across as the culmination of long-repressed outrage, a damning indictment that the men have no way of ignoring. Roslyn has already tried kindness and gentle reasoning. It didn’t work. The only thing left is to scream.

In 1961, while institutionalised, Monroe wrote a letter to her psychiatrist in which she described the trees outside her window. “The trees give me a little hope — the desolate bare branches promising maybe there will be spring and maybe they promise hope.”10 “Did you see ‘The Misfits’ yet?” she continued. “In one sequence perhaps you can see how bare and strange a tree can be for me. I don’t know if it comes across that way for sure on the screen – I don’t like some of the selections in the takes they used. As I started to write this letter about four quiet tears had fallen. I don’t know quite why.” Monroe’s tremendous sensitivity is evident in this excerpt – the letter’s melancholic tone reflects that of her performance as Roslyn, making it impossible to know how much of Monroe’s onscreen sadness was the character’s or her own. 

In the sequence Monroe references in her letter, Roslyn dances alone in the garden and embraces a tree. She seems averse to letting it go. Earlier in the film, Guido tells Roslyn about his late wife. “She wasn’t like any other women”, he says. “Stood behind me 100 per cent, uncomplaining as a tree.” Staring blankly ahead, Monroe murmurs, “Maybe that’s what killed her”.

The Misfits (1961 USA 125 mins)

Prod Co: Seven Arts Productions Prod: Frank E. Taylor Dir: John Huston Scr: Arthur Miller Phot: Russell Metty Ed: George Tomasini Art Dir: Stephen B. Grimes, Bill Newberry Mus: Alex North

Cast: Clark Gable, Marilyn Monroe, Montgomery Clift, Thelma Ritter, Eli Wallach, James Barton, Kevin McCarthy, Estelle Winwood


  1. Maddin cited in Murray Leeder, “Ektoplasm-o-vision! with Guy Maddin”, Luma Quarterly, 1 (Summer 2015): https://lumaquarterly.com/issues/2015/001-summer-2/ektoplasm-o-vision-with-guy-maddin/.
  2. Jonas Mekas, “Jonas Mekas and Saint Marilyn Monroe”, The Village Voice (23 January 2019): https://www.villagevoice.com/2019/01/23/jonas-mekas-and-saint-marilyn-monroe/. Originally published on February 9, 1961.
  3. Cláudio Alves, “Monty @ 100: The Misfits and the Specter of Death”, The Film Experience (15 October 2020): http://thefilmexperience.net/blog/2020/10/15/monty-100-the-misfits-and-the-specter-of-death.html.
  4. Mekas.
  5. Arthur Miller quoted by Christopher Bigsby, “Marilyn Monroe and Arthur Miller: Extract From Christopher Bigsby’s Biography”, The Telegraph (16 November 2008): https://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/donotmigrate/3563288/Marilyn-Monroe-and-Arthur-Miller-extract-from-Christopher-Bigsbys-biography.html. See also, Bigsby, Arthur Miller: The Definitive Biography, Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 2009.
  6. Miller quoted in Bigsby.
  7. Papiya Ray, “‘MISFITS’: Marilyn Monroe and Arthur Miller”, World Affairs: The Journal of International Issues, 1. 2 (December 1992): 70.
  8. Frank E. Taylor quoted in Patricia Bosworth, Montgomery Clift: A Biography, New York, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1978, n.p.
  9. Lena Pepitone and William Stadiem, Marilyn Monroe Confidential: An Intimate Personal Account, New York, Simon & Schuster, 1979, n.g.
  10. Ian Smith, “The Sad Letter that Marilyn Monroe Sent to Her Psychiatrist”, The Vintage News (19 April 2016): https://www.thevintagenews.com/2016/04/19/the-sad-letter-that-marylin-monroe-sent-to-her-psychiatrist/?chrome=1.

About The Author

Ivana Brehas is a film critic and playwright based in Narrm. Her work has appeared in Senses of Cinema, Bright Wall/Dark Room, The Big Issue, Dazed, 4:3, and more. She is a Lecturer in Film and Television at the Victorian College of the Arts.

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