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1,001 great films (part 6): Marilyn Monroe, my grandmother Doris, and the haunting, depressive beauty of The Misfits

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Photo courtesy of United Artists
Photo courtesy of United Artists

My grandmother Doris loved Marilyn Monroe. While she was the one who introduced me to classic Universal monster movies like Dracula and Frankenstein, it was the former Norma Jeane Mortenson who owned her heart. Grandma knew everything there was to know about the iconic actress, and sitting down with her to watch Gentlemen Prefer Blondes or The Seven Year Itch was a titanic joy.

I can't tell you how many of Monroe's films I watched with my grandmother, but there were a lot of them, including some of her lesser-known classics, like Monkey Business (where she memorably gets to play second-fiddle to Cary Grant and Ginger Rogers) and Niagara (where she gets to go full-blown murderous film noir seductress on an initially clueless Joseph Cotten). But I do know the one that she couldn't watch, that she actually switched off roughly halfway through with tears in her eyes: 1961's The Misfits.

The Misfits is famous for several reasons, most of them having nothing to do with the film being a superlative drama, masterfully directed by the great John Huston and starring the mind-blowing superstar trifecta of Monroe, Clark Gable, and Montgomery Clift. This would be the last on-screen appearance for both Monroe and Gable; Clift would be gone five short years later. That, sadly, is what this film is most known for even now, six decades after its initial release.

Written by Monroe's husband, playwright Arthur Miller, the plot follows Roslyn Taber (Monroe) meeting up with aging cowboy Gay Langland (Gable), grizzled pilot Guido (Eli Wallach), and down-on-his-luck rodeo star Perce Howland (Clift), while she's staying with friend Isabelle Steers (Thelma Ritter) in Reno, while she waits for her divorce to be finalized. These are sad, lonely people, all longing for something new and aching to make a personal bond that will last longer than — at best — a couple of months.

They're all searching for a reason to go on. While hope isn't lost, whether they want to admit it or not, each can see the end of an unfinished road not too far out in the distance. It visibly wears them down, and there isn't a single moment where the scars from this constant battle for human connectivity aren't plainly visible, no matter what lengths they go to to conceal them.

The whole thing is a shocking emotional tornado sweeping through the Nevada desert with unrelenting ferocity. Little things set each character off: Gay wanting to kill rabbits in a garden he and Roslyn have triumphantly brought back to life, much to her tearful dismay; Perce shocked to receive a modicum of kindness after he awakens from a serious concussion; Guido working hard to finish a patio while holding back angry, drunken tears.

It all builds to a roundup of wild horses. Roslyn is beside herself in angry, emotional devastation when she learns these glorious creatures are going to be sold, only to be slaughtered and canned for dog food. It puts all three men at odds, each inching closer to one another's throats as they decide what to do. It all builds to a climactic confrontation between Gay, Perce, and Roslyn that's heartbreaking in its brutal honesty, each character learning more about themselves in this single moment than they have at any other point of the story.

That there's a hint of hopefulness at the very end doesn't dilute the stinging, intimate majesty of Miller's script or the heartlessly visceral urgency that fuels Huston's handling of the material. Gable's final performance is so stripped down, so nakedly raw that the moments where the actor's trademark charismatic spunk bursts forth hit with a zesty winsomeness that's crushing. Clift is equally superb, while both Wallach and Ritter give two of the best performances of their long and luminous careers.

But it is Monroe who rips your heart to shreds. While many claim 1956's Bus Stop is the actress's finest hour, as terrific as she is in that film, her work here as Roslyn knocks my socks clean off. She taps into the material with such bracing sincerity that it's hard to know where Monroe begins and her character ends. She is stunning, and while this film was criminally overlooked during its original release, that it's grown into something of a minor classic all these years later is exactly as it should be.

That my grandmother was so affected by The Misfits doesn't surprise me. If you see pictures of Doris as a young woman, she was preternaturally gorgeous — and I'm not just saying that because I'm related to her. She had a laugh that could fill a room. A smile from her made you feel like you could do anything your heart desired. My grandmother made the world a better place just by being in it, and it still wrecks me that she was gone far too soon from cancer, when I was just a sophomore at the University of Washington.

I can see why she felt so intimately connected to both Monroe and to this particular film. Things were going on behind the scenes between her and my grandfather that I was never privy to and only vaguely suspected as a youngster. There were unrealized dreams that I think haunted her, hopes and desires that never fully materialized. At times, there was a tender sadness hidden behind her eyes that I knew was there but never fully understood. She was a strong, independent woman who never got to flex those aspects of herself like I wish she could have, and the unfairness of this travesty is infuriating.

But, much like Roslyn, my grandmother never lost that incandescent spark that allowed her to see the best in everyone she encountered, especially those she loved. She taught me how to be my best self, giving me an inner resilience to carry on even during my darkest hours. As bleak as things can get, as hard as life can be, and as awful as it can feel when certain aspirations go unrealized, there is always hope for a better tomorrow — if we have the strength and resilience to fight for it.

The list continues
The oldest film on the list this month is Fritz Lang's innovative science fiction masterwork Metropolis from 1927. A case could be made this is the most influential motion picture ever made — and that's not hyperbole: the continued reverberations of this one are still being felt almost a full century after its debut.

The newest film is Isabel Sandoval's Lingua Franca from 2019. This was an adjustment to the list. Over the past year, her seductively searing drama has seeped deeper into my soul. Its truthfully byzantine layers bewitch me, and the way Sandoval deftly explores the unfathomable depths of modern interpersonal interactions in a polarized, muddily obtuse world is truly extraordinary.

I wonder, who are the actors you feel a kinship to and why, and which films of theirs do you adore but have trouble watching because they hit much too close to the bone? For my grandmother Doris, that actor was Marilyn Monroe and that motion picture was The Misfits. It's a phenomenal motion picture, a haunting depressive beauty that's unquestionably stood the test of time. Give it a look.

Les Cousins (Claude Chabrol) (1959)
Letter from an Unknown Woman (Max Ophüls) (1948)
Letters from Iwo Jima (Clint Eastwood) (2006)
Leviathan (Andrey Zvyagintsev) (2014)
The Life of Oharu (Kenji Mizoguchi) (1952)
Lilies of the Field (Ralph Nelson) (1963)
Lingua Franca (Isabel Sandoval) (2019)
The Lion in Winter (Anthony Harvey) (1968)
Little Caesar (Mervyn LeRoy) (1931)
A Little Princess (Alfonso Cuarón) (1995)
Little Women (Gillian Armstrong) (1994)
The Lives of Others (Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck) (2006)
Local Hero (Bill Forsyth) (1983)
Lone Star (John Sayles) (1996)
Lone Wolf and Cub: Baby Cart to Hades (Kenji Misumi) (1972)
The Long Day Closes (Terrence Davies) (1992)
The Long Good Friday (John Mackenzie) (1980)
The Long Goodbye (Robert Altman) (1973)
The Longest Yard (Robert Aldrich) (1974)
The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner (Tony Richardson) (1962)
The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (Peter Jackson) (2002)
Lorenzo's Oil (George Miller) (1992)
Lost in America (Albert Brooks) (1985)
The Lost Weekend (Billy Wilder) (1945)
Love & Basketball (Gina Prince-Bythewood) (2000)
Lovely & Amazing (Nicole Holofcener) (2001)
M (Fritz Lang) (1931)
M*A*S*H (Robert Altman) (1970)
Mad Max: Fury Road (George Miller) (2015)
Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior (George Miller) (1981)
The Magnificent Ambersons (Orson Welles) (1942)
Magnolia (Paul Thomas Anderson) (1999)
Malcolm X (Spike Lee) (1992)
The Maltese Falcon (John Huston) (1941)
A Man for All Seasons (Fred Zinnemann) (1966)
The Man from Laramie (Anthony Mann) (1955)
Man of Iron (Andrzej Wajda) (1981)
The Man Who Came to Dinner (William Keighley) (1942)
The Man Who Fell to Earth (Nicolas Roeg) (1976)
The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (John Ford) (1962)
The Man Who Would Be King (John Huston) (1975)
Man with a Movie Camera (Dziga Vertov) (1929)
The Manchurian Candidate (John Frankenheimer) (1962)
Manhunter (Michael Mann) (1986)
The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh (John Lounsbery, Wolfgang Reitherman) (1977)
Margaret (Kenneth Lonergan) (2011)
Maria Full of Grace (Joshua Marston) (2004)
Marianne and Juliane (Margarethe von Trotta) (1981)
Marty (Delbert Mann) (1955)
Marwencol (Jeff Malmberg) (2010)
Mary Poppins (Robert Stevenson) (1964)
The Mask of Zorro (Martin Campbell) (1998)
The Master (Paul Thomas Anderson) (2012)
Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World (Peter Weir) (2003)
Matewan (John Sayles) (1987)
Matinee (Joe Dante) (1993)
The Matrix (Lana Wachowski, Lilly Wachowski) (1999)
A Matter of Life and Death (Michael Powell,�Emeric Pressburger) (1946)
Maurice (James Ivory) (1987)
McCabe & Mrs. Miller (Robert Altman) (1971)
Mean Girls (Mark Waters) (2004)
Meet Me in St. Louis (Vincente Minnelli) (1944)
Memento (Christopher Nolan) (2000)
Mephisto (István Szabó) (1981)
Merrily We Go to Hell (Dorothy Arzner) (1932)
Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence (Nagisa Ôshima) (1983)
Metropolis (Fritz Lang) (1927)
Middle of Nowhere (Ava DuVernay) (2012)
Midnight Cowboy (John Schlesinger) (1969)
Midnight Run (Martin Brest) (1988)
Mildred Pierce (Michael Curtiz) (1945)
Miller's Crossing (Joel Coen,�Ethan Coen) (1990)
Miracle on 34th Street (George Seaton) (1947)
The Misfits (John Huston) (1961)
Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters (Paul Schrader) (1985)
Missing (Costa-Gavras) (1982)
Mister Roberts (John Ford,�Mervyn LeRoy) (1955)
Modern Times (Charles Chaplin) (1936)
Mona Lisa (Neil Jordan) (1986)
Monsieur Hulot's Holiday (Jacques Tati) (1953)
Monsoon Wedding (Mira Nair) (2001)
Moonlight (Barry Jenkins) (2016)
Moonrise Kingdom (Wes Anderson) (2012)
The Mortal Storm (Frank Borzage) (1940)
Moulin Rouge! (Baz Luhrmann) (2001)
Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (Frank Capra) (1939)
Mrs. Miniver (William Wyler) (1942)
Mulholland Drive (David Lynch) (2001)
The Mummy (Karl Freund) (1932)
The Muppet Movie (James Frawley) (1979)
The Music Lovers (Ken Russell) (1971)
Mustang (Deniz Gamze Ergüven) (2015)
Mutiny on the Bounty (Frank Lloyd) (1935)
My Brilliant Career (Gillian Armstrong) (1979)
My Darling Clementine (John Ford) (1946)
My Life as a Dog (Lasse Hallström) (1985)
My Man Godfrey (Gregory La Cava) (1936)
My Neighbor Totoro (Hayao Miyazaki) (1988)
My Night at Maud's (Éric Rohmer) (1969)
My Own Private Idaho (Gus Van Sant) (1991)