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Making the Misfits

Making the Misfits
Image Entertainment
2001 / Color & b&w / 1:78 anamorphic 16:9 / 55 min. / Street Date November 26, 2002 / $19.99
Starring Arthur Miller, Eli Wallach, Brian Dennehy
Cinematography Dewald Aukema
Film Editor Pascal Akesson
Written by and
Produced by Gail Levin, Margaret Smilow, Jac Venza
Directed by Gail Levin

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

Another documentary about Hollywood that showed a while back on PBS, Making the Misfits is superior work in a field crowded by indifferent DVD Docus. One hour looking at just one picture might seem a rather narrow focus, but the 1961 John Huston film The Misfits is truly exceptional. Some of the last century's greatest movie and theatrical talent gathered in the desert, for what for several of them would become a last stab at Art.


Through the reminsicences of Arthur Miller, Eli Wallach and key crewmembers and still photographers, the stormy, troubled filming of John Huston's The Misfits is remembered. All three major stars would be soon be dead. The film marked the end of Marilyn Monroe's marriage to Miller, and Gable overtaxed himself in the physical scenes. Miller discusses the characters, and the supporting testimony paints a picture of actors immersed in their sad roles.

Near the end of this show, some of the crew talent, now 40 years older, wistfully talk about how The Misfits was a picture that didn't make it, was almost good, but not quite. They must be talking about its commercial failure, because it's a show that's weathered the decades and remained a key source of interest.

Making the Misfits basically blends some incredibly clear interviews (this is some of the best-shot video I've seen - it looks like High Definition) with behind-the-scenes newsreel footage, and a hundred or so fascinating photographic images from the Magnum Photo organization. Back in 1959, someone at Magnum made the deal for exclusive coverage of the shooting, and sent 9 of their top artists to the sets in the Nevada desert. Henri Carter-Bresson was one; another, Inge Morath, is one of the interviewees.

The photos are very impressive, often more eye-catching than the film footage on view, and are remarkably effective at illustrating the strange atmosphere on the set described by writer Arthur Miller and others. Magnum surely sensed the gathering of iconic powerhouse figures on this one show - Miller, Montgomery Clift, Eli Wallach, Huston, Clark Gable, and of course Marilyn Monroe.

Made after Some Like it Hot, with Monroe's unreliablility factor soaring under the pressures of a failed marriage (it's said out in the open that she did indeed have an affair with Yves Montand on Let's Make Love), we get an emotional look at the atmosphere on a set which sounds more like a Tennessee Williams situation: the superstar siren lost and depressed, her writer husband caught between art and frustration, the aging King of the Movies in bad health and taking risks with his health, and the intense young method actor with his own emotional confusion, who ends up being the most reliable actor on the set. And don't forget the director who gently and patiently pulls it all together, while losing a fortune each night gambling in Reno.

It's all here, on film, in stills and the memories of the participants. Acting 'coach' Paula Strasberg is seen hovering around Monroe constantly, to the frustration of the director. Actor Kevin McCarthy recounts how his whole performance was reduced to an over-the shoulder walk-on by Monroe's inability to say her lines. Witnesses express their dismay at seeing Clark Gable overextend himself in horse stunts, and suffering his heart attacks almost immediately after filming. The careful narration is by Brian Dennehy.

To some the show may seem disorganized, but I think it just refuses to give a pat structure to a story that even its surviving main participants can't figure out. Arthur Miller's sincere interview stays loyal to the memory of his wife Monroe, while trying to express how lost he was at the time. We get the idea that he's not yet sorted out what really happened then. Eli Wallach also does his best to characterize the personalities: Huston seems more human and less reckless, Thelma Ritter added personal experience to her role, and Monroe does seem to be a lost soul, sometimes unable to emotionally collect herself. We get a good account of Gable's first reaction to playing a scene with Montgomery Clift - 'Damn, he's really good!"

The image quality of the graphics, film transfers and video interviews is stunning, and makes a real difference on the impact of the show. The feature film clips are in perfect widescreen 16:9, looking far better than the transfer on MGM's flat 1:66 letterboxed DVD.

Making the Misfits deserves being released as a stand-alone disc; I'd put it in the same category as Burden of Dreams, the docu on Fitzcarraldo that's as interesting as its subject film. I'm really glad Image has brought this one out.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Making the Misfits rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: none
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: November 8, 2002

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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