Françoise Truffaut was hypnotized by his eyes. The Clash and R.E.M. both penned songs about him. Elizabeth Taylor was in love and James Dean just wanted to hear his voice. But who was the real Montgomery Clift? In the latest edition of Primer, Nick Triani gives a personal perspective on the troubled actor.
My father was a fan of Burt Lancaster and especially the film From Here To Eternity. When I was 10 years old, he let me watch the movie with him when it was rerun one Sunday afternoon by the BBC. It was the first time I became aware of the American actor Montgomery Clift. His performance as Pvt. Robert E. Lee ‘Prew’ Prewitt struck a chord with me. He was a character whose own convictions ran against those of the establishment and whose will and self-determination wouldn’t bend. “A man don’t go his own way, he’s nothing” mumbled Clift and I was smitten from then on. My Clift obsession was cemented when Dexys Midnight Runners put a shot of Clift in From Here To Eternity on the cover of their “there, there, my dear” single. It remains for me one of the great single sleeves, and I had to find out more about this actor. Patricia Bosworth‘s gossipy biography helped me fall even more under Monty’s spell. There are a number of top-draw acting performances where Clift epitomises the outsider, the rebel whose defiance yet vulnerable presence make him the most unlikely hero in my eyes. A Place In The Sun‘s white T-shirt and leather jacket combo proves to me that not only was Monty ahead of the method curve, but he was stylish with it. For those of us in the know, Clift remains our secret passion, his relative obscurity a badge of honor amongst his admirers. Less remembered and revered than James Dean and Marlon Brando, Montgomery Clift was the original method ideal. I started collecting photographs of Clift by the age of 20. Even in my middle age and countless viewings of all his movies, Clift remains a pleasure for me. If he were still alive and I knew him, I’d forgive him a lot. It seems those that did know him, felt the same.
For those of us in the know, Clift remains our secret passion, his relative obscurity a badge of honor amongst his admirers.
I’m not sure who coined the phrase that Montgomery Clift’s post-car-crash career was ‘the longest suicide in Hollywood history’. I’d hazard a guess it was Truman Capote, but that’s mere speculation on my part. On closer reflection, that phrase seems more than a little sensationalist, as much of Clift’s post-crash career is littered with great work. The looks may have been battered (apparently Clift had all the mirrors removed from his homes), but a handful of performances still gave as good as it gets. Of course, the phrase refers even more to Clift’s off-screen behaviour, where drugs and alcohol reduced the actor to a mere ghost of his former self. The self-destructive streak that had always been there was exasperated in later life. It’s easier to surmise that Clift merely disappeared from view, a recluse who was occasionally wheeled out as an atrocity at celebrity parties.
Is he all right?
And everybody say, “What’s he like?”
And everybody say, “He sure look funny”
That’s Montgomery Clift, honey!
The Clash, The Right Profile.
In 1956 Clift was at the height of his fame when his car hit a telephone pole off a winding road in Beverly Hills. Elizabeth Taylor, a nearby host that evening, arrived at the crash site and singularly saved his life by stopping Clift choking to death on his own blood. But Clift had been seriously damaged by the accident, with injuries mostly round his head which left half his face paralyzed. Clift never fully recovered from the crash – his body a living ache – so the rest of his career he sustained any functionality through alcohol dependency and painkillers. In reality, Clift barely functioned through the last ten years of his life. He aged prematurely and became physically weak. Filming close-ups were possible only from one side of his face, and he became increasingly unreliable on set (eventually becoming uninsurable). Yet things were so much brighter at the start. When Clift burst onto the cinematic scene in Howard Hawks’ 1948 western Red River, the audience were faced with a different kind of male hero. Clift was the precursor to the profiles Marlon Brando and James Dean would come to represent. There is a legendary tale which suggests a budding Dean got hold of Clift’s phone number and dialed it just to hear Clift’s voice on the other end. His influence among the method hopefuls was imperious.
After Red River Clift became quite the star and heartthrob. A succession of movies spelt box-office gold. His deceitful, charming money chaser in the period piece The Heiress melted hearts. Clift was memorable as the working class social climber who murders his pregnant out-of-wedlock girlfriend to woo the socialite girl of his dreams in A Place In The Sun (the first of four movies with Elizabeth Taylor). In Alfred Hitchcock‘s I Confess, Clift bears confessional witness to a murder, but due to the rules of his faith and confidentiality, he can’t reveal the perpetrator, and then becomes the accused. Privately, things were already unravelling: Clift’s alcohol and sleeping pill consumption (he suffered from chronic insomnia), combined with guilt over his secret homosexuality, all contributed to his post-stardom decline. Clift lived in an era where one couldn’t be so open about their sexuality. On the one hand, Clift dated both men and women, but one wonders how much of the female companionship was down to studio pressure and maintaining the ‘leading man’ image. A similar scenario to Rock Hudson, who in the 1950s had arranged marriages from film studios to hide his homosexuality, so the public would still find him believable as a very masculine leading actor. Clift, amongst his closest friends was fairly open about his gayness, but his screen persona, and therefore his public profile were very much in the ‘male domain’. Some have suggested that Clift used his gayness as a way of humiliating his controlling mother Sunny, whom Clift had a very fractious relationship with. Either way, Clift’s sexuality caused him much consternation and guilt, the ‘double life’ he seemed to be leading was something he would never come to terms with.
Monty Got A Raw Deal
When the car-crash arrived in 1956, Clift was in the middle of filming the soapy and Gone With The Wind -lite Raintree County. Clift finished the movie post-accident, but the film remains a melodramatic washout, most notable for spotting Clift’s before or after accident scenes. Clift was 35 years old when he had his near fatal crash. After Raintree County he kept working through the pain and delivered some great performances. Elia Kazan‘s remarkable Wild River captures Clift at his most vulnerable. The cameo as a concentration camp survivor in Judgement at Nuremberg afforded him another nod from the academy (one of Four Oscar nominations). As one of The Misfits in John Huston‘s noir western Clift again reached new heights. His phone booth scene in the movie is one of his most celebrated and noted two minutes of screen time. Huston was so impressed with Clift’s behaviour on set, especially after initially hearing Clift was in a worse state than co-star Marilyn Monroe, that he hired Clift for his next movie, Freud: The Secret Passion. Unfortunately, by the time he got to making the Freud bio-pic in 1962, Clift was in ill-health. He was often late onset and unable to memorise his lines. He was not helped by a vindictive director who harboured ill feeling toward the actor due to rumors about his sexuality. The production overran and Clift was sued by the studio. Although the case was settled, Clift’s reputation was established and he became uninsurable. A reclusive lifestyle took hold.
The elusive beauty
It had been so different for Montgomery Clift in the early days. His good looks had been much commented on and his on-screen sensitivity made him a draw to many a co-star. Whilst filming Vittorio De Sica’s flimsy Terminal Station in Rome, Clift’s co-star Jennifer Jones became smitten with the actor. Clift remained elusive to Jones’ advances, preferring to fraternise with local Italian men instead. Similar stories abide with his The Heiress co-star Olivia De Havilland and I Confess’ Anne Baxter. Probably the most important friendship Clift struck up was with Elizabeth Taylor. Taylor wanted to marry, but Clift was unable to commit. They struck a lifelong friendship instead. When A Place In The Sun was released a rumor mill of are they/aren’t they dating engulfed Hollywood’s gossip columns. Their appearance together in George Stevens drama has the pair eternally termed as “the most beautiful Hollywood movie couple of all time”. After the Freud film many years later, Clift was uninsurable and out of movies for four years. Taylor came to the rescue of her friend again by putting up her considerable salary for the forthcoming Reflections In A Golden Eye as insurance against Clift completing the film. This was to be Clift’s comeback, but sadly Clift died prior to filming. Marlon Brando took the role instead as a tribute to his friend. Taylor would comment much on Clift during her life and how much love she felt for the actor. In his later life Clift suffered from impotence due to his excessive drug dependency and although wild rumors persist of Clift’s sexual appetite – Misfits producer Frank Taylor recalls a wild night at a pool hall – biographer Bosworth suggests Clift lived out his later years in voluntary celibacy.
“Monty could’ve been the biggest star in the world if he did more movies” Elizabeth Taylor once recounted. She was referring to the actor’s notoriously picky ways on deciding which projects he made and which he turned down. The 17 movies he made during his career is a slight return for an in demand actor of the day. East Of Eden and Sunset Boulevard were a couple of projects the actor passed on which would go on to establish other actors. Clift’s filmography is full of some inspired choices (The Search, From Here To Eternity, A Place In the Sun, I Confess, Red River, Wild River, The Misfits) that suit his vulnerable loner status to the max. But there are many middling films which Clift illuminates even though the material can be considered poor. File under worth watching though not essential: Freud: The Secret Passion (Clift is still very watchable in Huston’s overlong biopic), Suddenly Last Summer (Clift plays the doctor to Taylor’s messed up witness in this Tennessee Williams adaptation), The Young Lions (opposite Brando in a fairly unsuccessful war time drama, though Clift is very good). You can live without the mawkish Raintree County, the dull Lonelyhearts and Clift’s final, ragged starring role in the very strange Cold War spy drama The Defector. Despite the highs, there is a sense of what could have been. This eclectic, yet patchy filmography perhaps offers us a glimpse as to why Clift still flies under the radar.
Bright star landing
That such a bright star fell from grace so fast has a lot to do with Clift’s non-conforming personality and his refusal to commit to projects that could have sent him supernova, acquiescing to personal choices over commercial considerations. He was difficult to deal with, his inner demons and drug dependency affected most relationships. Clift simply wouldn’t play the Hollywood game. It’s one of the reasons he remains so endearing to people like me. He was in essence, as Barney Hoskyns described him, ‘a beautiful loser’, his innate vulnerability appealing to the lost-boy in me. Clift was not only too sensitive for those times, the cut and thrust of a post-war Hollywood, he was too sensitive for any times. His frailty which attracted so many was also his undoing. Happily, he left us that vision of a new kind of actor, that lives long in the memory and still touches me to this day.
He was in essence, as Barney Hoskyns described him, ‘a beautiful loser’, his innate vulnerability appealing to the lost-boy in me.
Patricia Bosworth– Montgomery Clift: A Biography (1978)
Robert LaGuardia– Monty: A Biography of Montgomery Clift.(1977)
Barney Hoskyns – Montgomery Clift: Beautiful Loser (1991)
Lawrence, Amy – The Passion of Montgomery Clift (2010)