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Viewer Guide: “The Misfits” and “The Impossible”

December 15, 2021 | Richard Peña


The Misfits (1961).

This week’s classic is The Misfits, the 1961 drama directed by John Huston. 

With a screenplay by playwright Arthur Miller, written to provide a dramatic showcase role for his then-wife Marilyn Monroe, The Misfits unexpectedly marked the final completed film of both Monroe and her co-star Clark Gable—and further was also one of the final films of Montgomery Clift—an unforeseen, fateful circumstance which further imbued the film with a heightened poignancy upon its release. Monroe stars as Roslyn Tabor, a former showgirl temporarily living in Reno, Nevada, to finalize her divorce. Single again, Roslyn goes out to “celebrate”—or maybe just cheer up—with her boarding house landlady Isabelle Steers, played by the great character actress Thelma Ritter. The pair encounter Gay Langland, an aging cowboy played by Gable, along with Gay’s friend Guido, played Eli Wallach, a mechanic and former Air Force pilot. While both men are instantly smitten with her, Roslyn gravitates toward Gay, with the couple enjoying a romantic interlude at Guido’s unfinished ranch house. Impulsively deciding to embark on an expedition to roundup wild mustang horses known as “misfits,” the trio picks up another cowboy friend of Gay’s named Perce Howland, played by Montgomery Clift. But when Roslyn discovers who the horses are sold to and why, she begs the men to stop, forcing this band of human “misfits” to confront their actions—and their lives—as never before. 

The behind-the-scenes drama of the making of The Misfits frequently overshadowed the on-screen story. Arthur Miller based his screenplay on a short story he had published in Esquire magazine, inspired by his own stay in Nevada awaiting a divorce from his first wife. However, despite three years of work, the script was still not completed by the time filming began, with rewrites continuing throughout production. The role of Gay was initially offered to Robert Mitchum, who passed due to prior bad experiences working with director John Huston. Clark Gable received a hefty payday for signing, but also wanted to do an important artistic film before retiring. Gable’s casting also held special personal significance for Monroe, who as a girl had idolized him as a surrogate father figure. By the time shooting began, the Miller-Monroe marriage was largely over, with Monroe often upset by the personal references Miller incorporated into the script. The production soldiered on in daytime temperatures exceeding 100 degrees, with Monroe chronically late to the set—despite call times no earlier than noon. And with Gable’s contractual quitting time of 5 p.m., scheduling was complicated. Gable did many of his own stunts, which some suspected was a contributing factor to his heart attack two days after filming wrapped; he died ten days later. A box office flop, the film’s initially mixed critical reception has steadily strengthened over the years.  


The Impossible (2012).

This week’s indie is the 2012 disaster drama The Impossible, a Spanish co-production directed by Juan Antonio Bayona.  

Inspired by actual events, The Impossible offers a riveting account of one family’s harrowing experience during the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, which claimed the lives of nearly 228,000 people in 14 countries. Naomi Watts and Ewan McGregor star as Maria and Henry Bennett, an upwardly mobile couple living in Japan who travel to Thailand for a Christmas holiday with their three young sons. The family’s luxurious vacation at a four-star beachside resort proves to be short lived when a massive undersea earthquake strikes on December 26th, triggering enormous 100-foot-high waves that obliterate everything in their path. Emerging from the roiling water, amazingly Maria is able to locate her oldest son Lucas, portrayed in a compelling performance by a 14-year-old Tom Holland in his movie debut. Clinging together as they struggle to make their way to higher ground, Maria discovers her leg has been badly injured; as a doctor herself, she is able to improvise emergency treatment, but also realizes she must receive real medical attention as soon as possible. With no idea if Henry or her other two sons have survived, Maria and Lucas attempt to do the impossible in a surreal new world of utter destruction. 

The Impossible was inspired by the story of Spanish doctor María Belón, who was vacationing with her husband and three sons when the tsunami hit. The film was shot on locations in Spain and Thailand, with director Juan Antonio Bayona opting not to use digital effects for the amazing tsunami sequences, which were created with elaborate large-scale miniatures in an outdoor water tank. For closer shots, giant dumpers filled with over a thousand gallons of water were used to create the effect. The scenes of devastation in the tsunami’s aftermath were also filmed in a giant outdoor tank, with the actors positioned inside underwater wagons on rails for their safety, as well as to control their speed. A global box office success, The Impossible was also honored with a long list of international awards, and Naomi Watts received her second Best Actress Oscar nomination for her riveting performance. The Impossible also marked the movie debut of Tom Holland, who was just 14 at the time of production. Holland began his acting career as a replacement Billy Elliott in the West End production of the musical. In 2017, Holland’s career was transformed once again when he entered the Marvel comics universe as an authentically youthful Peter Parker in Spider-Man: Homecoming. 

Richard Peña is a Professor of Film Studies at Columbia University, where he specializes in film theory and international cinema. 

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