The Books: The Making of The Misfits, by James Goode

Next book on the Hollywood shelf:

The Making of the Misfits, by James Goode.

I have known about the notoriously difficult shoot for The Misfits since I was in high school just because, if you study film, even in an informal way, if you’re interested in Marilyn Monroe, or Arthur Miller, or Montgomery Clift (all of which I was back then), you would have heard about this shoot as if by osmosis. Certain movies become famous for the difficulty of the actual shooting itself and The Misfits is one of those. I had seen the movie back then, and fell in love not only with the performances (that phone call from Montgomery Clift!), but the strange melancholy of the film, mixed with humor (Marilyn with that damn paddle ball!), and interesting characters, and beautiful scenery. I’ve grown up with the movie. If you see something like The Misfits at age 16 (and I was a young 16, in many ways), you’re only going to pick up on so much. I had read Death of a Salesman and The Crucible, and was amazed that The Misfits was written by the same guy.

Preamble over. Before the Internet, before Amazon, unless you spent your time scouring the shelves of second-hand bookstores (which believe me, I did), there were certain books out there that were out of print, referenced all the time in other books, and quite hard to find. My father was a librarian and book collector, and there were a couple of things I had him keep his eye out for (as a matter of fact, a whole box of Max Shulman books showed up on my doorstep a couple years ago). Once I moved to New York and started frequenting the Strand, I started to build up my library, especially of film-related books (they have a terrific section). It was frustrating, though. Because other books would reference The Making of the Misfits all the time, and the quotes were amazing, but I felt like I was getting them second-hand. Finally, I tracked down a copy and devoured it like a madwoman. So many of the quotes are quite well-known, having been quoted in other sources and biographies, but a lot of it was new to me. What I love about the book is its on-the-ground perspective. More on that in a bit.

The location shoot for The Misfits was grueling and difficult. Marilyn Monroe had to be hospitalized and airlifted out of Nevada and production shut down. Arthur Miller had basically written the script as a gift for his wife, to show the world what she could do, but over the course of the shoot their marriage deteriorated. Everyone was on edge. John Huston spent every night at the casino, and it was, in general, a wild shoot. Monroe was sick, Paula Strasberg (Monroe’s acting coach) was causing the normal tension she usually caused, everyone had been afraid Montgomery Clift would be a mess – but he surprised everyone – blah blah – there were all sorts of problems, and those stories trickle down through the decades so that THAT becomes what the “shoot” was about. That’s the narrative. However, the fun thing about James Goode’s book is that he was there, during shooting, and while certainly there are tense times (there always will be on any movie shoot), in general he describes a happy excited cast and crew, having a blast, working hard, playing hard, and thinking deeply about what it was they were trying to achieve. The book is hysterical, at times, giving a real close-and-personal look at the absurd lengths people will go to to achieve a shot, to get it right. It’s a vast collaboration with everyone doing their best. Goode’s book is not in any way an expose. It is not a book about “How Things Went to Shit” or “How a Movie Star Derailed a Shoot By Her Shenanigans”. Not at all. People have problems, sure. The book is honest about that, but because there is no retrospect in the book – because it is all quotes from people on the ground, in the moment – the narrative that emerges is very very different from the Official Narrative of what a nightmare the shoot was, and how Monroe was sick, and Huston was gambling, and everyone was fed up with being on location, blah blah. NONE of that is apparent in Goode’s book.

In fact, the shoot was an exciting one, something new, something unique, the script one that people were thrilled about, the fact of Clark Gable’s involvement was a huge deal (old-school studio star meeting young Actors Studio types), and everyone worked their butts off on their respective parts. Many of these people had worked together before, and so it was so much fun to get out of Hollywood and go off into the desert, and basically take over this frontier town, and shoot the thing.

It just goes to show you how Narratives start to get formed, especially once people start dying, like Gable did, soon after the shoot, and Monroe did, only a couple of years later.

Yes, the budget started soaring, with the delays to filming, and shooting on location is always a challenge because there is much you cannot control. Miller and Monroe were on their way to divorce. But Making of the Misfits is, in many ways, a terrific process book. It’s not a book about scandal, and overspending, not at all. It’s about people coming together to make a movie. Goode, who was present during filming, interviewed every participant, sometimes multiple times. From Monroe down to the prop master and horse wrangler. So we have lengthy in-depth acting quotes from Monroe, something that is rare, as well as glimpses into Gable’s process, Clift’s, everyone’s. It’s a fantastic compilation of voices.

Another reason that the “making of” The Misfits is unique is that Magnum, sensing an historic moment from the get-go, sent a barrage of photographers to hang out on the location and document the entire process. Photographers like Henri Cartier-Bresson, Eve Arnold, Ernst Haas, Bruce Davidson, Inge Morath (Miller’s wife after Monroe, coincidentally) … and more. This became one of the most documented shoots EVER, and these are not engineered publicity shots. They are casual, candid, revealing, fantastic (one of my favorite photographs ever taken of Monroe, deep in thought in the desert, by Eve Arnold, is from The Misfits).

I’ve spoken about Eve Arnold before and her gift with photographing Monroe (although Monroe was one of the most photogenic women ever to walk the planet). But she and Arnold had an interesting and good collaboration.

The Misfits, a grueling difficult shoot, was documented by people who were asked to be there. These are not blurry paparazzi shots, these are works of art.

Bruce Davidson, photographer

Eve Arnold, photographer – that’s Frank Taylor, the producer, Arthur Miller, and Gable

Ernst Haas, photographer

Eve Arnold, photographer

Henri Cartier Bresson, photographer

Bruce Davidson, photographer

Bruce Davidson, photographer

Inge Morath, photographer

Eve Arnold, photographer

Eve Arnold, photographer

Inge Morath, photographer

Magnum also wanted to do a picture book on the shooting of the movie (this is all from before they even started shooting, there was a buzz around the movie, for many reasons) and so there were also reporters and writers who came along on the shoot, to do interviews, articles, etc. James Goode was one of those people.

The book is a running diary of James Goode’s experience on the film. You really get a sense of being there.

Monroe was in every shot of the film practically, she got no rest, and, in general, her acting demons kept coming up and grabbing her by the throat. Monroe always wanted to be taken seriously as an actress. The Misfits was, by far, the most serious and grueling part she had ever been asked to do, with the exception of, perhaps, 1952’s Don’t Bother to Knock, which came earlier in her career. Arthur Miller had written the script, using aspects of her personality in the role of Roslyn. Monroe was required to dig deep to find the part of Roslyn.

James Goode, observing all of this, doesn’t have much to say about it since he’s on the ground with them, everything is going down right in front of him. He doesn’t have perspective (the best part of the book): all he knows is that Marilyn moved out of the hotel room she had been sharing with Miller. That’s it.

Monroe refused to work early in the morning, which drove Huston, and everyone crazy. Getting an early start is often crucial to finishing a movie ontime. So that was one of the issues. There had been fears that Clift would be a problem, a known drug-taker and drinker, he had a terrible reputation at this point. The accident that had nearly killed him, and smashed in his face, had left him weakened, addicted to pain pills, and morose. But this part came along, he had cleaned up his act, and he threw himself into it with a devotion that surprised and moved everyone. It was like he had chosen to save his own life. He is phenomenal in the picture, neurotic, open, unaware, kind. Everyone had assumed that Clift would be the nightmare on the shoot, but surprise surprise, he was a joy. Again: character assassination happens subtly sometimes, it’s “in the air”, people’s lives are ruined by the implications that they are not reliable, a nightmare, whatever.) Marilyn Monroe’s life was actually falling apart during the shoot, but she did her best to keep going, to put personal problems aside and finish this damn movie.

The cast and crew are out in the desert, working with wild horses, real cowboys, raging bulls, dust storms, blistering heat, airplanes, rodeos … and Goode’s book captures the hunker-down almost military mentality. They were all in it together. Yes, we’ve got Clark Gable. He is very important. But so is the sound guy. So is the stunt double for Montgomery Clift, the rodeo cowboy Clift had been following around for months before shooting began in preparation for his role. The proprietor of the hotel in Dayton, Nevada is also important, he who opened up his entire hotel for the cast and crew of the film and treated them with kindness, welcoming them to his town. The guy who figures out how to get the lights into Roslyn’s tiny bedroom, and the makeup person who makes sure that Marilyn’s pancake makeup didn’t melt off of her in the heat … You really get a sense of the hard work of the whole team and the book is so evocative of that crazy under-the-gun creative and yet practical atmosphere. The book is, at times, very very funny.

An example:

August 22 – For once, everyone was glad to go to work, just to escape the hell of Reno. The power lines had not yet been repeaired and the Mapes coffee shop was down to cold cuts and coffee. Shooting today was a sequence of Dick Pascoe, as Clift’s stunt double, riding a black and white Brahma bull out of a chute and across the ring until he was thrown, then rescued from the bull’s horns in the nick of time by Jim Palen, made up as a rodeo clown. Four times the bull crashed through Steve Grimes’ fencing with Jones’ horsemen in frantic pursuit. On the last breakout, the bull scattered the crowd of extras in the street, taking refuge in Gold Canyon Creek. Each time the bull got loose, Pete Logan, who used to announce the rodeos in Madison Square Garden, called over the public address system, “Carpenter, please.”

One more example from a joint birthday party thrown for Arthur Miller and Montgomery Clift when everyone obviously is feeling the need to loosen up after the strenuous nature of every day of shooting:

That evening, John gave a birthday party for both Arthur Miller and Montgomery Clift at the Christmas Tree Inn on the Mount Rose highway outside Reno, high in the mountains. It was attended by Mrs. Walter Huston, John’s mother, Marilyn and Arthur (in one of their rare public appearances), Monty Clift, Eli Wallach, Angela Allen, Eve Arnold, Gladys Hill, Ernst Haas, Tom and Ruth Shaw, Russell Metty, Doc and Connie Erickson, and Ernie Anderson; Rudy Kautzsky, Marilyn’s driver, Charles Edwards, Eli’s driver; Charles Coffman, Clark Gable;’s driver; Ralph Thelander, Clift’s driver; and Al Edgecomb, driver for Huston.

The occasion was raucous. Most of the people there had held themselves in for three months, but the next day was the last day of location shooting, and a few remarks seemed to be in order. Marilyn’s unfamiliar social presence only added to the compulsion. A few of the verbal exchanges:

Eli: “I’m abandoning my career.” Russell Metty: “How can you lose what you never had?”

John was talking to Marilyn. Monty leaned over to listen. John to Monty: “Are you about to make an observation?” Clift: “No …” John: “Well, you look like you’re about to make an observation.” Clift: “No …” John: “Today’s your birthday, so shut up.”

John to Mrs. Guy Michaels, the wife of the owner of the Christmas Tree: “I want my steak well done, very well done, burn it.” Marilyn: “How cruel!”

Arthur Miller looked over his presents, one of them being twelve pencils from Ernst Haas: “Nothing loosens my tongue like an unsharpened pencil.”

Huston: “How old are you, Arthur? Spit it out clearly; you’re not in a pool hall now.”

Here’s an excerpt.

Excerpt from The Making of The Misfits, by James Goode

August 26 — The rodeo again, today for retakes of Monroe in the stands. Her reaction to Perce’s danger on the bucking horse, was considered overdone.

After the retake, Gable and Monroe played an important scene in the station wagon, waiting for Guido and Perce. Clark Gable delivered the first of the prophetic speeches in the Miller script, “Honey, we all got to go sometime, reason or not reason. Dyin’s as natural as livin’; man who’s afraid to die is too afraid to live, far as I’ve ever seen. So there’s nothin’ to do but forget it, that’s all. Seems to me.”

The sound problem was acute again, despite the tiny microphones in the car, and Huston asked Monroe to bring her voice up.

Monroe: “I forget his name, Perce’s name. I know all these lines, John. I promise you I do.”

“What, honey?”

“I promise you I do.”

“Yes, honey, I know.”

Cook, on the recorder: “We must have 86,000 feet of sound film by now.”

Mitchell, on mixer: “236. Take 7.” (Referring to the shot number, and number of takes on this shot.)

Crew member: “Don’t form any opinion of movie making from this. This is not how to make a movie.”

Another crew member: “Did you ever see anything so pitiful?”

Huston to Monroe: “Tears.”

Marilyn to Allan Snyder, her makeup man: “Whitey, tears.” Snyder therupon got a small glass tube out of his kit, and gently blew some glycerin onto Marilyn’s face, duplicating actual tears.

Huston: “We get so little done. It’s not that there are so many setups. We don’t have that many. It’s just that we get so little done. It’s unthinkable for an actor not to start at nine in the morning.”

Arthur Miller was looking at this week’s issue of Limelight, a weekly Hollywood newspaper devoted largely to discussion of personalities in the motion picture business. Miller pointed and asked, “Why do they do this?” “This” was the lead article, written by Florabel Muir, who had been in Reno the previous weekend for the Let’s Make Love premiere. The story said that Miller’s worried look came not from the stories circulating about Marilyn and Yves Montand, but rather from difficulties with the script. Florabel Muir authoritatively said that the script was “off-balance” because it was written for Monroe, and neglected Gable, Clift, and Wallach. Muir also wrote that Miller had sent for Clifford Odets to correct the troubles in the screenplay and that the two were at work on location. All of this was untrue, but the amazing thing was that Miller paid any attention to Limelight.

Someone asked Paula Strasberg if she was a psychiatrist. She said that she was not but that she had complicated friends, and “Anyone who has complicated friends is a psychiatrist.”

August 27 — No shooting. Marilyn is ill and has flown to Los Angeles for medical treatment. No one has said why.

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15 Responses to The Books: The Making of The Misfits, by James Goode

  1. Man, I didn’t watch this movie for years precisely because I bought that Narrative you speak of. Everyone–and I mean everyone–made it seem like it was more of a historical document of a bunch of trainwrecks than an actual movie. When I finally saw it a couple of years ago I was amazed at how good it was. I know I really shouldn’t have been so naive, but it goes to show how easy it is to absorb this stuff without really thinking. They All Died After Having Miserable Time, yaddah, yaddah, yaddah. When I finally saw the movie, I thought: “Well of course it was great–My second favorite director, black and white, that cast!” I know these things can still go wrong but I was nonethless disgusted with myself for believing the hype. So glad to hear that there’s an account of how it all really went down before hindsight and mythology set in. I’ll definitely add it to my want list.

    And you’re right. MM had an unmatched genius for still photography. A lot of people suddenly got very interesting when they were photographing her. But there was something special about a lot of the photos taken on this set–especially Arnold’s. A kind of haunting quality that was rarely caught elsewhere.

  2. Sheila says:

    NJ – yeah, this is a really interesting book, written in a kind of blunt taking-notes fashion, which really gives you a sense of being there. Certainly you can feel Huston’s exasperation that MM won’t work before 9!!

  3. Kent says:

    Sheila, really enjoyed your comments about the book hunt back in the pre-wired days. I used to love the search for books and vinyl records and the joyous thrill of finding a long sought piece. However, in truth, I do prefer the access of the digital age.

    • sheila says:

      There was such a deep deep pleasure in that pre-Internet search, wasn’t there? I had a running list of hard-to-find books that I kept in my mind any time I came across a flea market, yard sale, secondhand book store. When I actually found one of the long-sought books – by accident – my God, what a triumph.

      And yes, while there was pleasure in that delayed gratification – I am far more happy with the way things are now, when I can buy second-hand books on Amazon for one cent, and get on with my life!

      • Kent says:

        The internet, eBay and Amazon all brought about a complete paradigm shift and redefinition of “rarity” and pricing. My kneecaps are grateful. By the ’90s they just didn’t want to kneel on asphalt any longer while I flipped through boxes and boxes of precious loot!

        • sheila says:

          Totally. While the search was fun – and often lasted for years – I had books in my head in a running list for YEARS that I would always keep my eyes peeled for – this since I was a teenager – it sure is nice to actually be able to acquire these books, cheaply and immediately. I LOVE the “used” part of Amazon. I only buy from there.

  4. george says:

    John (Huston)… : “I want my steak well done, very well done, burn it.” Marilyn: “How cruel!”

    That’s funny – I laughed

    John Huston, every night at the casino; and on the African Queen shoot, elephant hunting, wasn’t it? Huston seems to be one mellow dude-director. I could understand it on African Queen with Bogie, Hepburn, et al – consummate pros, but in Misfits? Everyone, with the exception of Eli Wallach, seemed a walking portent. If it ever came to a vote and John Huston wasn’t the winner of ‘director I’d most like to make a movie with’ then the vote’s been fixed.

  5. sheila says:

    George – ha!! Yes, he loved the experience of the making of the movie almost more than the finished product. and Hepburn talks about how brilliant he was with the whole directing-of-actor part of it – I know I’ve posted it before. He knew how to help an actor do what he already knew they could do.

  6. Pingback: James Goode and ‘The Misfits’ | ES Updates

  7. Bybee says:

    In 7th grade, I saw a still (Monroe, Gable and Clift’s characters in conversation) from The Misfits in a book called Hollywood: The Golden Years by David Shipman and I remember liking the way it looked and being interested in seeing the movie.

  8. Bybee says:

    No, I was wrong. It wasn’t Clift, it was Eli Wallach.

  9. Heather says:

    Fabulous, Shiela. I watched “The Misfits” because of all the crazy stories that were circulating about it, and then I found myself sucked in by the performances, which were phenomenal. The story itself is a bit weak, more of a showcase for the exceptional talent involved than engaging for its own sake.

    I’ve noticed that these grand STORIES seem to be part and parcel of John Huston films. “African Queen”, “The Misfits”, and the notorious “Night of the Iguana” where allegedly Huston gave guns to the principal players (including Elizabeth Taylor, who was tagging along so that Richard Burton wouldn’t have an affair with Ava Gardner) in case they ever felt the need to do each other in. “The Misfits” might be the most notorious simply because it was the last film of two of the greatest stars of the 20th century, Monroe and Gable.

  10. I was on-set in Dayton (Rodeo Grounds and Street) in 1960, I was 7 years old. My family was guest of a Attorney from Reno. We were on Vacation in Lake Tahoe. My dad took pictures with his old Argus 35mm Camera. The pictures are unpublished, the negatives were converted to slides and are in color. My mom also shot Gable and he steadied her arm as she was so nervous. I’m now making a Documentary titled “Return to The Misfits” part of my own life exploration. I remember everything about it. Marilyn was ill, late and everyone was waiting for her. The rodeo scenes lasted forever. They put Monty on a Saw Horse and shook it like he was riding the Bronco. If anyone was actually there in Reno or Dayton or the Desert shoots contact my e-mail please The book left out all the bad stuff..

  11. Owen O'Neill says:

    Hi Shelia

    I am trying to find out who owns the rights to Making The Misfits. The book is out of print and the last publishers Limelight Editions/Rowman &Littlefield have no idea who owns the rights.

    I guess it could be part of the James Goode estate. But I’ve no idea and I’m finding dead-ends everywhere. I would appreciate it if you have any information, or can point me in the right direction.

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