The Misfits: Marilyn Monroe’s swansong gets a stage reboot
Corn Exchange is tackling Arthur Miller’s play for Dublin Theatre Festival. Ghosts of John Huston’s troubled 1961 movie loom large
Emmet Byrne, Úna Kavanagh, Aoibhínn McGinnity, Patrick Ryan and Aidan Kelly in the Corn Exchange production of ‘The Misfits’ at Smock Alley Theatre as part of Dublin Theatre Festival. Photograph: Ros Kavanagh
We are a long way from Reno. On an Autumn afternoon in Ranelagh the sun is coming through the high windows at an angle to dazzle the eye. Annie Ryan, a modest titan of Irish theatre, is calmly and confidently directing her cast from a seat behind a fan of notes. She’s in charge, but this is clearly a collaborative process. She and her cast are trying to work out how to get a whiskey bottle onto the stage. Maybe we don’t need the bottle at all. Maybe we do.
The average cine-literate observer would, if dropped in with no brief, find something familiar in the current sequence. We appear to be in a cowboy bar. Úna Kavanagh wryly observes Emmet Byrne, Aidan Kelly, and Patrick Ryan working through a zodiac of macho postures. Emmet now looks to be participating in a rodeo. Standing in for Aoibhínn McGinnity, who is out of the country for a day, Annie punctuates the male grappling with comforting sounds and biographical asides.
“I used to dance in places and everyone thought I was crazy,” she fills in. “I mean I really tried. You know?”
What is this from again?
Our imaginary observer would not pause before identifying a still from the film that is nearly being adapted (more on that shortly). Marilyn Monroe standing alone and distant on a monochrome plain. Montgomery Clift tipping back his hat. Clark Gable looking older than his 59 years. It is, of course, John Huston’s The Misfits. Ryan’s version of the story will play in Smock Alley as part of the Dublin Theatre Festival.
The picture has an awkward position in film history. It is remembered for a famously disordered production that saw Huston drinking himself stupid while Monroe refused to come out of her trailer. It remains the only original script that Arthur Miller, then still just about married to Monroe, wrote for the cinema. 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. Gable passed away before the premiere in 1961. Monroe, who failed to complete her next film, succumbed to a barbiturate overdose the following year.
Elements of the picture deserve celebration. Russell Metty’s black-and-white cinematography has enough clean beauty to be recycled and plagiarised by a thousand advertising campaigns. The Gap could have built its entire clothing empire on the look of The Misfits. The actors are all top-notch. Thelma Ritter and Eli Wallach, two of the greatest-ever character actors, offer the more glamorous leads strong support. And 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.”
For all this, The Misfits has never been celebrated as an unassailable classic of American cinema. Working with her company Corn Exchange – a body that often leans towards the stylised techniques of commedia dell’arte – Ryan has staged several productions based on classic films or that reference classic films. Twenty years ago, she made something eerie and hilarious of the already eerily hilarious What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? Corn Exchange’s version of Lolita was derived from the original screenplay – later much revised by the director – that Vladimir Nabokov wrote for Stanley Kubrick’s movie version. More recently, the company successfully tackled Ingmar Bergman’s Through a Glass Darkly.
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.
“That chimes with where we are now,” she says. “That struck me as a way of looking at the Trump voter. What does it mean to be that guy in America now? To have no skills. No money. But still to hang on to a sense of pride. They hang on to these ideas of America so tightly because without them they are nothing. In the climax of the film, Gay says: ‘They changed it all.’ This used to be a good thing to do. It used to be okay to capture these horses.”
He’s saying it’s “PC gone mad”?
“Yes, exactly. It was never fine.”
Annie reckons that a relatively small portion of the audience at Smock Alley is likely to have seen the film. Nonetheless, images of those great actors are sure to be lodged in the brain of most. The stills have been everywhere for the last half-century. However hard the audience’s brain will work in resistance, Aidan Kelly, who plays Gay, will still be grappling with the spirit of Clark Gable. Emmet Byrne has a bit of Clift hanging over him. Kavanagh and Ryan will be associated with Ritter and Wallach. Aoibhínn McGinnity has the unenviable task of taking on a role created by Marilyn Monroe.
“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.”
Digging around a little more, she came across Miller’s first version in a short story. As Annie explains, the author had gone to Reno to organise a divorce so that he might marry Monroe. The east coast intellectual met up with a huddle of cowboys and found himself bonding with them beneath the wide night-time skies. The characters do go in search of wild horses, but no woman comes along to offer them compromised redemption (and all that stuff).
The version audiences saw in 1961 has often been read as a film about Marilyn Monroe. Many are the documentaries that make pointed use of the late scene that finds Roslyn begging the cowboys to set a lassoed horse free. “You’ve won. You’ve won. Let him go!” she weeps as Gay hauls the animal into submission. Even if Miller intended no such parallel, subsequent commentators have insisted on seeing the trapped, tortured horse as a projection of Monroe. Roslyn is certainly a version of the actor who plays her. That’s something that sits uneasily with Ryan.
“I think Miller did her 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.”
Ryan has been thinking about these things for some time. Raised in Chicago, one of the world’s great theatre cities, she first trundled along to a theatre workshop at the age of 12 or 13. This being the Windy City, it was not some gimcrack operation above a dry cleaners. Founded by Joyce and Byrne Piven, The Piven Theatre Workshop has trained such actors as John Cusack, Aidan Quinn, Lili Taylor, Kate Walsh and the mentors’ son Jeremy Piven.
I came to Trinity and met Michael West and Lenny Abrahamson and a whole bunch of other people. I thought they were the funniest and smartest people
Ryan worked hard and got places quickly. She spent time developing commedia dell’arte with the likes of Piven and Cusack in an LA company named New Crime. She can be seen briefly in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.
“I still get paid for it – a few bucks in residuals. You wouldn’t get that here,” she laughs.
Then she came to Ireland. Ryan has done well for herself. Corn Exchange has become one of the nation’s most respected companies. She married the writer and actor Michael West, a frequent artistic collaborator, and made a happy life for herself. Relaxed, but still at home to precision in language, she is the model of a well-adapted emigre.
But I still wonder why she decided to stay after studying at Trinity College Dublin. Just look at the connections she had in the US.
“I came to Trinity and met Michael and Lenny [Abrahamson] and a whole bunch of other people,” she says. “I thought they were the funniest and smartest people. Maybe they are. I decided to stay because I was afraid of following John Cusack and Lara Flynn Boyle out to LA.”
Nobody would question the particular charms of West or future Oscar-nominated director Lenny Abrahamson. But did she not find the artistic environment less serious than its equivalent in the United States? The Americans aren’t nearly so relaxed about their theatre.
“Yeah, but I liked that,” she says. “There was something about that seriousness in America. Everyone had to work out. Those guys were popping ginseng pills. They really were! They were going down to the Southside to get colonic irrigations. It was so intense. But they weren’t that great as theatre artists. They really just wanted to drink beer and ‘fuck the system, man!’ But when I met the posse in Trinity I felt these people really wanted to do something and I had all this technique nobody had heard of.”
Ryan goes on to laugh about the “international career” she never had. I get no sense that she harbours any serious regrets. Indeed, over the last year, in the fallout from the Weinstein affair, she has found herself grimly considering the darker side of the US business.
“With the #MeToo stuff I am remembering all kinds of things that went down in my teens,” she says. “I know too many terrible stories about actresses. The big clincher was I was asked to audition for the film Dracula. The audition, which was to be taped and sent to LA, was that I was to have an orgasm on a tombstone and I thought: no way. I am not going to do that. I didn’t mean to become a creator. But I am glad that I am in control of my work.”
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.”
Final bows for five great American actresses
The Misfits has a special place as the last completed film starring Marilyn Monroe. Not a bad way to go out. Some did better still. Some did much worse.
Katharine Hepburn – On Golden Pond (1981)
Yes, it was a bit of weary Oscar bait, but this lachrymose film gave Hepburn her fourth Oscar. That’s still the record for any actor.
Bette Davis – Wicked Stepmother (1989)
You came so close, Bette. If she’d stopped one film earlier she’d have gone out – alongside Lillian Gish – in Lindsay Anderson’s The Whales of August instead of this dumb comedy.
Joan Crawford – Trog (1970)
Crawford actually did a little better than her great rival Bette Davis. Trog may be a dumb British horror about a surviving troglodyte, but, directed by the great cinematographer Freddie Francis, it has its fans.
Audrey Hepburn – Always (1989)
Again, not a bad way to go. Always is one of Spielberg’s least well-known pictures, but the fantasy romance has its charms. Hepburn plays a sort of spirit guide to a recently dead Richard Dreyfuss.