Photo by Alex Avalos / Unsplash

Death of a Marriage In the Desert

Editorials Oct 20, 2023

by Vic Neptune

The playwright Arthur Miller encountered a writer’s block in his theater work while he was married to the actress and major movie star, Marilyn Monroe. In 1960 he wrote a screenplay, The Misfits (released in 1961), a film depicting some real character traits of his wife’s personality, such as her love for animals, an important theme in the movie. Earlier in 1960, Monroe had a brief affair with Yves Montand, her costar in George Cukor’s Let’s Make Love (1960), for which Miller wrote a little dialogue. During the filming of The Misfits in and around Reno, Nevada, the “divorce capital of America,” Miller’s marriage devolved to indifference on Monroe’s part. It’s as if Miller, with his screenplay and its setting, steered his doomed relationship to that same inevitability by writing an early scene with Monroe’s character, Roslyn, going to court to finalize her parting from her screen husband, played in a cameo by Kevin McCarthy.

Through a mutual acquaintance, Roslyn meets Gaylord Langland, played by adolescent Marilyn’s movie idol, Clark Gable. Though Gable was just Marilyn’s acting colleague, he represented to her a strong older male figure, like Yves Montand. Arthur Miller had befriended Montand when the actor played the protagonist John Proctor in the French production of Miller’s play, The Crucible. The Misfits was the last completed film of both Marilyn Monroe and Clark Gable. He died of a heart attack soon after its completion. Monroe died of a barbiturate overdose in 1962.

Miller then wrote an autobiographical play, After the Fall (1964), depicting his life fictionally, including his time with his late superstar wife, described by him in an interview decades later as “a crazy genius.”

Crazy? I don’t know, but a genius? Yes. Marilyn Monroe understood intuitively the relationship connecting a role’s human truth as it’s projected at and received by the camera lens; or, in theater, the live audience. There are few cinematic performers as brilliant as Marilyn Monroe at capturing the spectator’s attention.

While I admire Miller’s great early play, Death of a Salesman (1949), I don’t appreciate his mining of his failed marriage in After the Fall to seemingly break the grip that Marilyn Monroe still had on his mind, sharing the idiomatic dirty laundry with the world, a sharp contrast with his loving depiction of Marilyn in his Misfits screenplay.

In his autobiography, Timebends (1987), Miller tells of his return to Reno to establish the residence required to obtain a “quickie” divorce. Close to the area of the production of The Misfits, Miller lived for a while near Saul Bellow, himself seeking a divorce. Two famous American writers, playwright and novelist, killed time together, artists successful at their trades but failures with their respective wives. We all screw up, I don’t judge them for this.

Miller’s journey in relation to the famous actress took him from a successful theater career to a writer’s block, during which he became, to some, “Marilyn Monroe’s husband.” After their break-up he wrote an extremely personal play. Following Monroe’s death by a year and a half, I find Miller’s exploitation of a deceased loved one difficult to appreciate, not just because I like Marilyn Monroe, but because After the Fall revealed Miller’s undisguised frustration and agony with a marriage gone down the drain.

A few months after their wedding in 1956, Miller wrote a few sentences in his journal, revealing how he was disappointed in his new wife, that she caused embarrassment to him when they were around his friends. Instead of keeping these words to himself, he left the journal open on his desk. Marilyn, seeing the open book, read the exposed pages. She became demoralized and found sleep difficult. This happened during the production in London of The Prince and the Showgirl (1957), which features one of her best performances, hinting at her professionalism despite the chaos going through her mind at times. I don’t know if it represents simple carelessness on Miller’s part, or if he wanted her to know his cutting feelings and chose a passive/aggressive way to go about it. The fact remains, he wounded his wife with those words in his journal.

I suspect that her affair with the debonair Frenchman, Yves Montand, may have provided Marilyn with an easy-going sojourn–an interesting man and great actor in his own right, Montand, who appreciated her for who she was. Miller, meanwhile, sought to reach her with his Misfits screenplay, creating in Roslyn a Marilyn copy, even down to some of her real life utterances and viewpoints. Though The Misfits wasn’t received well in 1961, the passage of time has treated it quite well. Marilyn and Clark Gable are great in it, the stark western Nevada location shooting has an otherworldly look.

When Miller returned to Reno in 1961 to deal with his divorce, the place was no longer a movie set, the famous actress had only a year to live, Clark Gable was dead. Alone in desert country, memories of a marriage to a movie star cooling slowly to be processed into a play unseemly and unwelcome to those who appreciated and loved his ex-wife, Arthur Miller thus broke through his writer’s block.