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Public fascination with Monroe endures

TONI Westbrook-VanCleave was only 6 years old at the time, but she still remembers Marilyn Monroe strapping on a toy gun belt and playing cowboys and Indians with her young brother during a break in filming of "The Misfits."

Like other residents of the small northern Nevada town of Dayton, the US, she had no clue of the demons that drove Monroe to be consistently late on the set, causing frustrating delays for director John Huston and co-stars Clark Gable and Montgomery Clift.

"She was gorgeous, very sweet, naive," recalled VanCleave, who was a US$10-a-day extra during a rodeo scene. "She wasn't snobby. She seemed real down to earth and friendly."

In testimony to the public's enduring fascination with Monroe, VanCleave and other locals will gather tomorrow and Sunday in Dayton, about 64 kilometers southeast of Reno, to mark the 50th anniversary of filming for the last complete movie for both Monroe and Gable.

The celebration will include a Monroe and Gable look-alike contest, a display of photographs of the stars taken in Dayton, a session of old-timers' reminiscences about the filming, and tours of the old bar where a lighthearted scene was shot of a bouncing Monroe playing paddle ball to the delight of male patrons.

Residents of Dayton, then an agricultural community of about 250, turned out en masse in 1960 to serve as extras or watch the filming, and those who are still around rave about the cast's friendliness and accessibility. The town has since mushroomed into a Reno bedroom community of more than 10,000.

"It was a big deal to have these Hollywood legends in town for a month or so. It's a source of pride for us," said Laura Tennant of the Historical Society of Dayton Valley, the celebration's sponsor.

Filmed almost exclusively around Dayton and Reno in July-October 1960, the movie was plagued by almost daily delays caused by Monroe's pill-popping to fall asleep and wake up, said Curtice Taylor, a New York photographer and son of "Misfits" producer Frank Taylor.

The producer occasionally would send his 12-year-old son to her trailer to check on her readiness, thinking a child would be less threatening than an adult, said Taylor, who witnessed most of the filming with his family.

"Nobody said anything to her about the delays," Taylor said. "It could have made things worse. She was the star and she was incredibly vulnerable."

Eli Wallach, 94, the only surviving cast member, said Huston told the actors not to complain about Monroe's tardiness because it would cause her to cease functioning.

"Huston got us together and said he couldn't make the movie without Marilyn," Wallach said. "Marilyn had a lot of problems with time, but I never said anything that would make her unhappy. What could I do? She tried her best."

Unlike Monroe, the focused Gable memorized his lines the night before and showed up on time each morning, Taylor said.

"Clark Gable was bored. He was going crazy with the delays," he said.

Filming also was delayed by Monroe's growing drug use that prompted her to seek treatment in Los Angeles. At the time, Huston realized the drugs were giving her a vacant look and taking away her ability to "seduce the camera," Taylor said.

"In one scene while walking down the street on Clift's arm in Dayton, she had the smile of a stoned person," he said. "It's not the 1,000-watt smile she usually had. The wattage wasn't there."

The delays helped make "The Misfits," written by her then-husband, Arthur Miller, one of the most expensive black-and-white films ever made. She and Miller took separate rooms during the filming and divorced a short time later.

Monroe also was troubled by an unhappy childhood, a miscarriage, the stress of doing three movies in a row without rest and the pressure of tackling such serious material, Taylor said.

"There was a lot of pressure on a woman who was not very strong to begin with," he said. "A lot of stuff was converging on her. It's remarkable they finished the movie."

Despite an all-star cast and acclaimed director, "The Misfits" did not live up to Frank Taylor's hopes for the "ultimate motion picture," said former Nevada state archivist Guy Rocha.

The dark, deep movie about the inner struggles of a group of fictional Nevada misfits was considered odd by the public and many critics, he said.

"It ended up a disappointment," Rocha said. "It didn't capture the public's imagination. So much more was expected from the movie as far as financial return and critical acclaim."

Still, the film has developed a cult following since the deaths of its stars, who played characters much like themselves, Rocha said. The movie centers on an insecure, lonely divorcee, played by Monroe; an aging but sensitive cowboy (Gable); and a troubled but kind rodeo rider (Clift).

"What happens over time is this movie begins to get a following because of what happened after the filming," Rocha said. "The movie freezes Marilyn Monroe and Clark Gable in time, and has a haunting quality."

Just 12 days after filming ended, Gable died of a heart attack at age 59. Less than 21 months later, Monroe died of a drug overdose at age 36 in what was ruled a suicide. Clift appeared in several other films before he died at age 45 in 1966.

Wallach hailed the trio's performances, called the movie "extraordinary" and said it was one of the most fascinating experiences of his long Hollywood career.

"I was working with marvelous actors like Marilyn Monroe and Clark Gable, great, great people," he said. "I was captivated by the role Marilyn played in the movie. Clark Gable was an extraordinary man, gentle and sweet. I feel lucky to have been in the film with them."

VanCleave said she and other Dayton residents also cherish their brush with the actors.

"We thought the whole cast was wonderful, larger than life," she said. "But to be honest, I never thought it was a very good movie."


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