Reinventing Marilyn’s ‘Misfits’ in Dublin

A stage adaptation of The Misfits is set to open at the Dublin Theatre Festival on September 27. Ahead of the premiere, Donald Clarke surveys the production for the Irish Times. As the photos indicate, the cast and crew are not going to replicate the 1961 movie (Aoibhinn McGinnity, who will play Roslyn Tabor, hasn’t seen it.) This is probably a wise decision as the original is so iconic – however, director Annie Ryan has much to say about it, and Marilyn’s performance.

“The picture has an awkward position in film history. It is remembered for a famously disordered production … Most poignantly, the last scene in The Misfits, showing Monroe and Gable sharing the front seat of a truck, stands as a farewell to both those imperishable stars.

Elements of the picture deserve celebration … Monroe really does make something of a dramatic role. Working with Paula Strasberg, one of the era’s great acting coaches, she managed to excise almost all traces of the breathy comic persona that helped her to superstardom.

‘The work in it,’ Ryan sighs. ‘You can really feel Paula Strasberg right behind the camera. She is going for a moment-to-moment method acting truth, but what I see there is the effort in every scene. I watch it thinking: that poor woman. From an acting perspective, it is absolute torture.’

The Misfits is something different. Even before we sit down, Ryan, her Chicagoan accent still largely intact, is giving out about the way Thelma Ritter is underused and about how uncomfortable she is with Miller’s attempts to ‘save’ Marilyn through art.

‘This isn’t a great film. It’s a really flawed film,’ she says. ‘I came upon it because it’s in his collected plays. My impulse came before the 2016 election. There isn’t a strong narrative, but there could be something to it. And it only has five people. I can’t afford a bigger cast than that unless I partner with a bigger company. Part of my thinking was: Can this work?’

She mentions the 2016 US presidential election. Obviously, all American art is now about Donald Trump. You can’t get away from him. The Misfits finds Monroe’s Roslyn, in Reno for a divorce, meeting three very different, but equally damaged, hunks of cowboy masculinity and then following them as they hunt mustangs in the nearby desert. Over 50 years ago, these characters were already complaining that the world had passed them by.

‘I suspect 60 or 70 per cent of those going in won’t have seen the film,’ Ryan says. ‘But they’ll know the iconography. They’ll have seen the photographs. Everyone knows about The Misfits even if they haven’t seen it. The image of the expanse. The image of Marilyn in the hat and the shirt. They are famous images. You have to accept they are in the room.’

It helps that Ryan is not working from the original script. Her production of The Misfits is officially an adaptation of a novella that Miller published to tie in with the release of the film.

‘That’s what I have the rights to cut,’ she says. ‘It’s very hard to get the rights to a film because the film company owns the rights.’

‘I think Miller did [Marilyn] a disservice by writing a version of herself,’ Ryan says. ‘He did this as a gift. But there’s no mask. She has an innocence. She has a compassion for all living things, which comes from Marilyn. She has an incredibly dysfunctional family background, which comes from Marilyn. Men are falling over each other to be next to her. There is a lot of language in the text about “the golden girl” arriving. No actor can play themselves. Most actors can’t face speaking in public, They just can’t bear it.’

Echoes of the #MeToo movement creep into The Misfits. The production will have much to do with how men interact with (and sometimes ignore) women in social engagements. Marilyn Monroe suffered more from those abuses than most. You see it in her films. You read about it in her life.

‘We see how she has become expert at saying “no” in a really nice way,’ Ryan says of Roslyn. ‘We have all been there to some degree. What would it be like to imagine that character now without sexing her up?’

 Some reclaiming and revaluating is in order.

‘I feel that we are doing this for Marilyn’s ghost in some way.'”

Marilyn, Jayne Mansfield and a Hollywood Taboo

Bathing Blondes: Marilyn in 1962 (left), and Jayne Mansfield in 1963 (right)

In 1962, Marilyn was set to become the first American actress to appear nude in a mainstream movie since Pre-Code days – but following her untimely death, that honour went to another blonde star, Jayne Mansfield, in a film released just a year later, produced independently with Tommy Noonan (who had played Marilyn’s love interest a decade earlier in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.) And as with Marilyn’s shelved nude scene, Jayne’s big moment would make the cover of Playboy.

Although Jayne would reveal more than Marilyn did, both scenes showed the stars bathing (Marilyn in a pool, Jayne in a tub), and discovered by a shy, bespectacled man (Phil Silvers and Noonan respectively.) Kristin Hunt reports on the story behind a Hollywood watershed for Vulture – and if you’d like to learn more about Jayne, read Puffblicity, an illustrated biography by April VeVea, author of MM: A Day in the Life.

Marilyn in ‘The Misfits’ (left) and ‘Something’s Got to Give’ (right)

“Monroe filmed two nude scenes — one for 1961’s The Misfits and one for 1962’s Something’s Got to Give — but neither made it into theaters in one piece. The first scene was cut and the second was a mere fragment of an unfinished movie … The Something’s Got to  Give scene was a little more intentional. Monroe’s character Ellen is supposed to swim nude, as a means to entice her estranged husband Nick from his hotel room. The footage of Monroe skinny-dipping in a pool is now available in multiple YouTube clips, but the movie never screened for era audiences, since Monroe was fired and then died before filming wrapped.

Either scene would’ve made Monroe the first American star to go nude in a Hollywood movie in decades. But in Monroe’s absence, it was Jayne Mansfield who shattered the long-standing tradition. Like Monroe, Mansfield was a buxom blonde with a complicated reputation — but unlike Monroe, she craved the industry’s constant spotlight, and frequently used her body to get it.

While onscreen nudity certainly existed before 1962, it had been outlawed in the U.S. for decades under the Production Code … It was against that backdrop that Mansfield made her topless debut in the 1963 swingers cruise-ship comedy Promises! Promises! The actress was in a bit of a career slump at the time … Mansfield had always been famous for her crass publicity stunts, which often involved her ‘accidentally’ losing her clothing … Those blatant headline grabs had launched Mansfield’s career, landing her a star-making role in the 1956 comedy The Girl Can’t Help It, and they also made her distinct from her blonde-bombshell rival Monroe, who generated tabloid fodder without really trying.

Shortly after Monroe’s 1962 death, The New York Times ran an article explaining why each ‘successor’ to Monroe was an inadequate replacement: Ava Gardner was too reclusive, Kim Novak too serious, Natalie Wood too slight. But the newspaper reserved some of its meanest comments for Mansfield. ‘Jayne Mansfield, whom 20th Century Fox was building as a Love Goddess nominee, suffers from too much publicity and too few roles,’ The New York Times wrote. ‘She has become rather a caricature — like Mae West — and alienates the segment which takes sex seriously.’

If she was already a caricature, it made sense for Mansfield to seek out the absurdity of a sexploitation film. Promises! Promises! was a translation of Edna Sheklow’s 1960 play The Plant, about two couples on a cruise ship who swap partners in a drunken haze, and then have to figure out who fathered which pregnancy. Actor Tommy Noonan purchased the film rights after nearly starring in the stage show, planning to write, direct, produce, and act in the movie.

Tommy Noonan co-starred with both Jayne and Marilyn

Noonan would’ve known as well as anyone the risks of including a nude scene, even within the context of this racy plot … But a code violation didn’t carry the weight it once did, because by 1963, the entire system of censorship was running on life support … Mansfield’s nude scene arrives fairly early into Promises! Promises!, soon after the couples have settled into their cabins. Her screen husband Jeff (Noonan) has just been to see the ship’s medic about his sperm. When he returns — in high spirits, after receiving a placebo from the doctor — he finds Sandy (Mansfield) stepping out of a bath, where she was just cooing the song I’m in Love under a blanket of bubbles. She appears in the doorway, patting down her torso with a towel that does nothing to obscure her chest. The shot lingers for a few seconds before she closes the bathroom door to dress.

As the crew filmed, a photographer for Playboy took extra shots to run in the magazine, pocketing them for the eventual publicity campaign. Despite Mansfield’s name, Promises! Promises! was a B-film to its core, shepherded by an actor-turned-auteur who was not quite a household name and who harbored no artistic pretensions. The movie entered markets without MPAA approval or studio backing, which meant it had to rely solely on advertising. You can guess what the publicity team focused on.

Marilyn and Jayne’s nude scenes were (un)covered by Playboy

Playboy published its behind-the-scenes images in the June 1963 issue, promising ‘The Nudest Jayne Mansfield’ on the cover. Enterprising movie exhibitors were only too happy to join in the ogling … But in many cities, the exploitative advertising and lack of MPAA approval were a liability, with censorship boards in Maryland, Cleveland, Pittsburgh, and other markets attempting to keep the film out. When the Playboy issues hit newsstands, Hugh Hefner was arrested and hauled into Chicago court for ‘publishing and distributing an obscene magazine.’ The city based its complaint on two ‘particularly obscene’ images showing Mansfield lying naked on a bed with a fully clothed man. The case ended in a mistrial, letting Hefner off the hook.

Though Promises! Promises! made money, it was too crass and too indie to recoup Mansfield’s struggling stardom — and her career never bounced back to its 1950s heights. Critics savaged the film, with Variety calling it unsuitable for ‘anyone whose mentality surpasses that of a 5-year-old.’ But the topless scene did indicate where films were heading in respect to the policy against nudity. The following year in 1964, The Pawnbroker challenged the Production Code with a much more artistic — and much more upsetting — use of nudity through a Holocaust flashback sequence. The film had a celebrated director in Sidney Lumet and a serious method star in Rod Steiger, and due to this pedigree, it had more of a lasting impact than Promises! Promises! could, setting a precedent that would make it easier for movies to include nude scenes.”

Roll Call for Magnum (and Marilyn)

Writing for the Mutual Art website, Jordan Mitchell explores the history of the Magnum Photos agency through ten iconic photographers. Marilyn is mentioned in relation to Eve Arnold (see above), but three more of the other artists also photographed her on the set of The Misfits

Henri Cartier-Bresson
Bruce Davidson
Inge Morath

Did Marilyn’s Nude ‘Misfits’ Scene Survive the Final Cut?

A briefly nude scene from The Misfits – cut by director John Huston – may have survived, according to Charles Casillo, author of the new biography, Marilyn Monroe: The Private Life of a Public Icon.

Still photos attest that Marilyn was indeed semi-nude in the bedroom scene, in which stayed in the movie after being edited. She wanted to keep the footage intact, but Huston dismissed the idea. Marilyn was more attuned to the mood of the times, as minor nudity was already becoming commonplace in films made in Europe.

Dalya Alberge reports for the Daily Mail 

“Charles Casillo interviewed Curtice Taylor, son of the film’s producer Frank Taylor, and was taken aback to learn that he has kept the footage in a locked cabinet since his father’s death in 1999.

Mr Taylor said: ‘A lot of times, unused takes were destroyed. But Frank Taylor believed that it was so important and so ground-breaking that he saved it.’

The footage, with sound, lasts about 45 seconds. Curtice Taylor, a photographer and teacher, understands why his father was so keen to include it: ‘It’s much more passionate.’

He said: ‘So Gable’s fully clothed. He comes into her bedroom. She’s asleep. He caresses and kisses her neck, turns her face around and gives her a good lip-lock. That exists in the scene in the [final] film – but not to the passionate degree of this one, which is much better. The smile on her face when he’s kissing her shoulder is just sublime.’

After Gable leaves the room, Ms Monroe holds up the sheet to put on her blouse. Mr Taylor believes that she dropped it partly due to her training as a method actress.

He said: ‘Why would a woman sitting up in bed, with nobody in the room, pull the sheet up and then try to put a blouse on at the same time? It makes no sense. So she just drops the sheet. I think it’s one of the reasons she did this. There are quite a few takes of this scene. Whenever she dropped the sheet, which she did a few times, Huston would say “Cut, remember the sheet, Marilyn”.’

Mr Taylor was surprised that the footage is an edited sequence, and wonders whether the censors had insisted on its removal.

He attended the shoot at just 13-years-old, and said he remembers Ms Monroe talking to him and asking him to do ‘little favours’. He said: ‘She’d give me $5 to go get something.'”

‘The Misfits’ On the Stage

The Misfits will have its first ever stage adaptation (as far as I’m aware) at the Dublin Theatre Festival from late September to mid-October, as Jennifer O’Brien reports for The Times. While I don’t think the movie should ever be remade, I’m glad to see Arthur Miller’s creation getting a new lease of life.

The Misfits already has an Irish connection, as prior to filming in 1960, Arthur had visited director John Huston at St. Cleran’s, his estate near Galway, to discuss the project (while Marilyn was filming Let’s Make Love in Hollywood.) No dates have yet been announced, but it will be staged at the Corn Exchange – and I’ll be keeping you posted, so watch this space!

“The production, directed by Annie Ryan, was announced as part of the line-up for the Dublin Theatre Festival … [Aoibhinn] McGinnity, 31, said that while she was looking forward to playing Tabor at the Corn Exchange, she had not watched the film that inspired the play.

‘I hadn’t seen the film, but had met Annie to chat about the concept, and it was like, You know what, maybe don’t watch the film,’ she said. ‘We are not going to play it like Marilyn Monroe; we are going to do our own spin.’

Ryan has promised that her version of The Misfits will offer it ‘the space to come into its fullest expression’. ‘Annie is trying to rewrite it from a different angle and it brings in so many things about feminism and masculinity,’ McGinnity said.”

UPDATE: The Misfits will be staged at Dublin’s Corn Exchange from September 27-October 1. More details here.

A First Review, and Second Take on ‘The Misfits’

‘Blonde Cherry’ by Daniel Fernandez (2018)

The Misfits was first released in the UK in June 1961. This rave review from The Guardian, published on July 10 of that year, hails it as a masterpiece. Interestingly though, the same newspaper had published a more ambivalent review just a month before, and was unduly harsh towards Marilyn (see here.) Perhaps the later article was an attempt to rectify an injustice? In that case, history has proved her admirer right. Neither author is named, but could the second take have been influenced by W.J. Weatherby, the Guardian reporter who befriended Marilyn on the set?

“Occasionally a film arrives which gives the cinema a new dimension … It is not going too far to say that The Misfits is in this class. [It] does not rely on a strong story for its effect but instead wins the audience’s attention through the development and interplay of the characters. The main danger was that the film, left to [Arthur] Miller, would have been too literary, but John Huston has grafted on Miller’s prose visual images which give it a deeper significance. When, for instance, Monroe screams her defiance at the corruption of a commercial civilisation, Huston makes her a black dot on a screen dominated by a Nevada desert.

The individual performances are so good that with a thrill of recognition one sees what acting in the cinema can achieve … Miller’s heroine is so obviously based on his former wife – one half expects the cast to blurt out Marilyn for Roslyn every so often – that her performance is difficult to judge. Yet if she is merely playing herself she does it remarkably well.”

Celebrating Marilyn in Finland

A new exhibition, Marilyn: A Woman Behind Her Roles, has opened at the Vapriikki Museum in Tampere, Finland. Showcasing the collection of Ted Stampfer, it’s a unique opportunity to see a wide range of Marilyn-owned items and memorabilia, and will be on display until December. Additionally, Risto Pitkänen’s collection of MM postcards will be displayed at the Postcard Museum from June 19-August 26. And Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, The Seven Year Itch and The Misfits will be screened at the Niagara Arthouse Cinema this summer.

Fans follow Marilyn’s handprints at Vapriikki

Miller (and Marilyn) Haunting the Stage

This month sees three plays looking at Arthur Miller’s legacy reaching the stage. Firstly, Jack Canfora’s new play, Fellow Travelers – looking at Miller, Marilyn and Elia Kazan, set against the backdrop of the red-baiting era – is at the Bay Street Theater in Sag Harbor, NY, until June 17, with Rachel Spencer Hewitt playing MM. Over in London, Miller’s last play, Finishing the Picture – about the filming of The Misfits – will have its European premiere at the Finborough Theatre from June 12-July 7.

Finally, Bernard Weinraub’s Fall – now at the Calderwood Pavilion in Boston – looks at Arthur’s conflicted attitude towards Daniel, his son with Inge Morath, who grew up in institutions after being diagnosed with Down’s Syndrome. While Arthur was a public figure, Daniel (who is still alive) is not, and it all seems in questionable taste to me.

“Miller, not having recorded his thoughts about his son, cannot defend himself here,” Jesse Green writes in the New York Times. “I’m not sure Mr. Weinraub would let him anyway. He seems to want to take Miller down, and not just as a man who made an abominable choice like thousands of other parents in his day.”

‘Finishing the Picture’ in London

Arthur Miller’s last play, Finishing the Picture, looks back to the filming of The Misfits and although Marilyn (depicted as ‘Kitty’) is seldom seen, she is the force that binds together the other characters (based on Miller, the Strasbergs, Huston etc.)

From June 12-July 7, Finishing the Picture will have its European premiere at the Finborough Theatre, above the Finborough Arms pub in Earl’s Court, London. More details will follow – but for now, read my review of the play here.