The Misfits: Story of a Shoot
Arthur Miller and Inge Morath's recollections of an infamous cinematic production
John Huston’s 1961 movie, ‘The Misfits’, was to be the last completed production for two of its stars: Marilyn Monroe and Clark Gable. Gable died shortly after the film wrapped, while Monroe died in August 1962 having worked on the uncompleted movie ‘Something’s Got to Give’.
Scripted by Arthur Miller, a raft of Magnum photographers were hired to photograph the making of the film – among them Inge Morath and Henri Cartier-Bresson, who were the first photographers to arrive on set.
As many of the images, and indeed Morath’s remembrances, attest – the photographers and the actors enjoyed a degree of camaraderie in spite of the film’s widely reported troubled production – one aspect of which was the deteriorating marriage between Miller and Monroe that came to an end that summer.
In James Goode’s 1963 book, The Story of ‘The Misfits’ – a day-by-day account of the shoot – he hints at the friendly atmosphere the photographers and the actors shared in:
August 1 – Monday. Still no shooting call. To pass the time, Eli Wallach has gotten himself into character clothes and makeup as Sigmund Freud, to be photographed by Inge Morath. The object is to paste the resulting photograph on an album cover as a birthday present for John Huston, whose next picture will be ‘Freud’. Eli, Inge and Dick Rowan, a Magnum representative here on location, drove out to a nearby ranch and Eli posed next to a couch in the middle of a corral, with some interested horses looking on. Eli looked frighteningly authentic.
Here, ahead of the 60th anniversary of last day of the film’s shooting on location in Nevada (October 18th), we share both Miller and Morath’s personal reflections upon the film’s production and its at times troubled, yet charming stars alongside little-seen images from the production, and archival materials.
You can see more work by Magnum photographers during movie productions here, in the series, On Set .
There is a ‘The Misfits’ collection on the Magnum Shop, which can be viewed here.
Frank Taylor, who was an old friend of mine, and who I inveigled into being the producer [of ‘The Misfits’], thought it would be a great idea to get Magnum to send over as many people as they could to photograph it. I didn’t know any photographers and I had no opinion about it; it was the last thing in the world I was worried about. Henri [Cartier-Bresson] and Inge [Morath] decided to do a motor trip across the country [on their way to the set in Reno]. Both of them were Europeans, of course, and they thought that, diving across the country, they would run into all kinds of wonderful, different cooking experiences as they would in Europe. When confronted with the inevitable hamburger everywhere, they were driven back to eating carrots and apples and tea.
"Inge wrote a diary of this trip. It’s a brilliant description of 60s America. It’s a European’s wise and, at the same time, wide-eyed view of this crazy country. She caught all the insane contradictions that were here because they were very fresh to her..."
- Arthur Miller
The 60s in America, of course, was the despair and the secret hope of a lot of European intellectuals. The freedom, the local inventiveness, the friendliness, charmed them. And Inge, I know, was pleasantly surprised by how dear the people were. Of course, most people were to her; she was very affectionate toward people, and they reacted in a similar way. However, it was a difficult trip because she couldn’t eat meat and Henri liked more delicate cooking. So they were driven half mad by the carrots and the apples and the tea. And they arrived in Reno half starved and ready to work.
Inge wrote a diary of this trip. It’s a brilliant description of 60s America. It’s a European’s wise and, at the same time, wide-eyed view of this crazy country. She caught all the insane contradictions that were here because they were very fresh to her; she was unprepared for them. You’ve got to remember that World War Two was still engraved on their minds. They had witnessed, and in Inge’s case she had suffered a great deal in Nazi Germany from the effects of the war. So this fresh country was overwhelming. At the same time, she had some odd experiences here. When she arrived she had to apply for a visa and one of the questions was “Your Color.” So she put down “pink.” It never dawned on her that any government would ask what color you were, and it was quite a shock. She didn’t know what to make of it.
"Inge took comparatively few pictures. When she pointed the camera she felt a certain responsibility for what it was looking at. Her pictures of Marilyn are particularly empathetic and touch as she caught Marilyn’s anguish beneath her celebrity..."
- Arthur Miller
Inge, as an Austrian, had found herself in a defensive position in London and Paris, where she had been working and living [after the war]. Americans, in contrast, were far less ready to condemn her. Ironically, she felt uneasy here because we didn’t condemn fascism enough, nor did we see the signs of it in American culture. She was quick to notice whenever that smell came up of repression and racism.
Reno, initially, and ‘The Misfits’ in particular, was a circus for Inge; a rich mine of subjects. My first glimpse of her was in the Mapes Hotel coffee shop, where she was sitting at a table laughing with Hohn Huston. She had worked on Huston’s film ‘Moulin Rouge’ some time earlier, and had earned his respect as an artist. Huston’s admiration and respect came in part from the work, of course, but it was also because of her bravery. As far as he was concerned, that was the major virtue of anyone.
Inge took comparatively few pictures. When she pointed the camera she felt a certain responsibility for what it was looking at. Her pictures of Marilyn are particularly empathetic and touch as she caught Marilyn’s anguish beneath her celebrity, the pain as well as her joy in life. Many of the pictures of the magnum group have become part of the mythology of ‘The Misfits’. Inge’s I think, are especially tender and beautiful.
"[Inge] was unobtrusive and she simply took [her subjects’] side of the lens. People quickly caught on that she was a different kind of a person than they were expecting in a photographer. She had a great talent for drawing people in, even without the camera."
- Arthur Miller
Inge believes that to photograph a place you had to know the language. So she studied Chinese for about seven years before she went to China, and she did, similarly, with Russian before she went to Russia. Travel with her was a privilege because I would never have been able to penetrate that way. She was unobtrusive and she simply took [her subjects’] side of the lens. People quickly caught on that she was a different kind of a person than they were expecting in a photographer. She had a great talent for drawing people in, even without the camera.
© Arthur Miller Literary and Dramatic Property Trust. Text excerpted from a discussion of Inge Morath’s photographs at the Howard Greenberg Gallery, New York, May 26, 2004.
"Anyway we arrived in Reno, which is American and so western. It’s just marvelous to look at... I was so intrigued because in the hotel room there was a machine and you could make your own coffee in the morning. I’d never seen such a thing..."
- Inge Morath
The coverage of ‘The Misfits’ was a very special thing. The producer had a unique idea of creating a document of the shooting of this movie, for which he hired Magnum photographers. We were paired up and I was going to photograph with Henri Cartier-Bresson. We planned to go across the country because America was a big adventure. I didn’t know much about America at all, so we rented a car and went a very complicated route; Blue Ridge Mountains and Mississippi and we saw all the literary sights.
Anyway we arrived in Reno, which is American and so western. It’s just marvelous to look at. The Mapes Hotel was where more or less everybody was lodged, and I was so intrigued because in the hotel room there was a machine and you could make your own coffee in the morning. I’d never seen such a thing. This was exotic. And naturally, such an American movie was also exotic to us. So we approached it from our very European point of view, which was fun. We started early, often waited for very long times, and finished quite late. And it got hotter and hotter.
Henri and I had worked together before, so we were never in each other’s way. Because two photographers on one movie could be really falling over each other. But we had very different territories and interests, at least in the approach to something. I think everybody has a certain distance at which he or she is most comfortable. There is a certain way of seeing the same thing in a different composition, or from a very different angle. That’s the interesting part; everybody has their own was of attacking a subject. I’m one who always wanders around a lot, always looking. And so doe Henri, but boy is he fast. Wow.
"Eli and Marilyn were like buddies, and you can see it. Monty and Marilyn were kindred souls. They were both terribly vulnerable. And Clark Gable was Clark Gable"
- Inge Morath
John Huston I’d worked with before. He was terrific to me. My very first movie job was with him in ‘Moulin Rouge.’ I had never been in a film studio, and I went up to him and I said, “Look, I’ve never been in a film studio so you’d better help me.” He thought that was very funny. So I worked with him several times later. Monty Clift was also a great friend of mine whom I adored. He was supposed to be so difficult and erratic but actually he shot the most difficult scene in one take. Thelma Ritter was marvelous because it was a part which was not very glamourous, but she anchored this very American thing. And Eli Wallach. Eli is a funny guy and a wonderful actor. Eli and Marilyn were like buddies, and you can see it. Monty and Marilyn were kindred souls. They were both terribly vulnerable. And Clark Gable was Clark Gable.
"They were all very interesting to watch. Actually, Marilyn was fascinating to watch. The way she moved, her expressions; she just was extraordinary. There was such strength and energy combined with this fragility"
- Inge Morath
But it was very professional. You see, these were not people who were start stuck of anything. I mean, you were just there and you did a job; you watched as photographers have to do. They were all very interesting to watch. Actually, Marilyn was fascinating to watch. The way she moved, her expressions; she just was extraordinary. There was such strength and energy combined with this fragility. It was vert interesting and quite unique. What I wanted to do was the unposed person. Marilyn knew all the tricks about how to pose, but when I watched her and saw that vulnerability, I figured to get something of her that is not posed, some inner side of her that can be revealed if possible with the camera. You might see in some of the close-ups, behind the smile there is a tragic undertone.
The thing is that she was very unsecure about herself. Marilyn was nervous about many scenes and she would really try to have different takes on things. She went back to the script and sometimes that took up a considerable amount of time. So people were sitting in the heat, and it was very hot. I remember Clark Gable, with whom I got on very well, told me all his adventures in the movies. It was very funny. Clark was wonderful. He said, “I will inscribe your jacket for you,” you know, I never had the idea of asking for an autograph. So he wrote on the back of my collar, “Clark Gable, Reno, Nevada, July 21st, 1960.” And he said, “You’d better have somebody embroider this so it won’t wash out.” So I had it made in Paris, embroidered on the back of the collar.
We wanted to be as invisible as possible as photographers. You have to be pretty much invisible because you are in the way most of the time. so we always were dressed in all drab stuff. And I think there’s something to it, to serving your subject by not putting yourself close too much. The thing was to find your way around. You knew more or less what scenes would come up but you didn’t know what was actually going to happen. The surprise elements were in how the actors created a scene, and John Huston kind of let them find their way. I mean, there was a general direction, but within this they found their own way.
I had read the short story and I get a script. If you’re not used to reading movie scripts its quite something, because you don’t imagine everything. So it’s kind of a dry enterprise. But we knew more or less what the character were, which is really what you want to know; what makes these people tick? I mean, what the author meant making tick. Naturally, I was kind of in awe of Arthur Miller because I’d seen ‘Salesman’ and ‘The Crucible’ and I though, oh God, this man will be very sad all the time. the first time I really met him, it was very hot. John Huston took Henri and me to where they were swimming and playing tennis. We didn’t go in the pool because we were busy photographing.
Arthur was swimming a backstroke, and he told a very funny story, swimming all the time. It was a short story which he wrote about a guy who was making shoulder pads. I never heard of anyone making shoulder pads; that was in itself exotic. But it was a very funny story, and very long. And then he finished the story and got out of the water, and I got a whole new idea about Arthur Miller being a funny fellow.
[© Inge Morath. Text compiled from a conversation with Inge Morath by Gail Levin for the film ‘Making the Misfits’, Great Performances, Thirteen/WNET, 2001.]
Both Arthur Miller’s and Inge Morath’s texts appear in Inge Morath’s The Road to Reno, edited by John P. Jacob. Steidl: Germany, 2006.