The second in a series of posts inspired by the 50th anniversary of Marilyn Monroe’s untimely death.
‘You’re the saddest girl I ever met’
The Misfits was Marilyn Monroe’s last completed film, and it’s fitting that production was marred by controversy, like so much of her life. Filming was initially delayed due to a strike by the Screen Actor’s Guild, and director John Huston was forced to shoot under the blazing hot sun of the Nevada desert. Playwright Arthur Miller (Monroe’s then-husband, their relationship broke down during production) wrote the film as a vehicle to support Monroe’s ambition to be a ‘serious’ actress, but he frequently initiated last-minute re-writes, allegedly panicking Monroe, who was already struggling with alcohol and prescription drug abuse; her chronic tardiness ensured delays and extended shoot times. Montgomery Clift also battled substance abuse (leading to Monroe to claim he was “The only person I know who is in even worse shape than I am”), and Monroe’s idolized co-star Clark Gable was seriously ill; he suffered from a heart attack two days after filming, and died 10 days later.
Evidence suggests that the costume design was not without controversy. In 2005 businessman Millington Conroy, revealed himself to be the owner of two metal filing cabinets, which contained over 10,000 documents relating to Monroe, including an extraordinary letter from costume designer Dorothy Jeakins (who had previously worked with the actress in Niagara and Let’s Make Love). In the letter, dated May 3, 1960, Jeakins pleads for Monroe’s forgiveness, “I am sorry I have displeased you. I feel quite defeated – like a misfit in fact. But I must, above everything, continue to work (and live) in terms of my own honesty, pride and good taste.” Whilst the underlying issues are not discussed, the document provides an insight into the challenging production issues that dogged filming. Jeakins was replaced by Jean Louis (who also designed the rhinestone-studded dress Marilyn wore to sing “Happy Birthday Mr. President” ) and it’s difficult to ascertain which designer was responsible for which costume – a fact that by no means diminishes their success and effectiveness.
As part of the film’s commercial marketing strategy, nine photographers from the renowned agency Magnum Photos, including Henri Cartier-Bresson, Inge Morath and Eve Arnold, documented the making of The Misfits. The resultant imagery forms an intimate and honest portrait of three famous film stars, a fitting eulogy to a film that became a swansong for Gable and Monroe. The most enduring images depict Marilyn in her role as Roslyn Taber wearing a white cherry-sprigged sundress – a design that captures her girlish innocence and vulnerability, whilst hinting at her inherent sensuality. A knee-length wrap-over skirt was complemented by a plunging v-neckline and shoulder ties and accessorised with simple white courts; flattering Monroe’s assets to perfection and setting a new standard for easy, breezy summer dressing. The Misfits was filmed in black and white, Monroe’s signature ‘look’ had been designed with that in mind, maximum impact created through the juxtaposition of light and shade.
Another key costume included a double-denim combo that, in retrospect, celebrated Hollywood’s (and Marilyn’s) love affair with denim. Pairing a simple white shirt with high-waisted stonewashed Levi jeans, battered brown cowboy boots and a vintage tan leather belt, Monroe was disarmingly fresh and innocent, the embodiment of the girl next door. Unafraid to break a fashion rule, Monroe also explored the potential of double denim, her oversize Lee Storm Rider jacket (complete with a contrast corduroy collar) was borrowed from Montgomery Clift’s wardrobe, and accessorised simply with tousled blonde hair or pigtails and lashing of black eyeliner – set against the vast desert expanse, the timeless and effortless costume allowed Monroe’s beauty and radiance to shine through.