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Sunday, September 2, 2012

STAR OF THE MONTH: Montgomery Clift

Montgomery Clift

There are certain actors and filmmakers I turn to when I want reassurance that cinema is indeed an art. Unfortunately, most of the gems I treasure most seem to belong to the films of yesteryear. One such muse is Montgomery Clift. Yet, the reason that his talent holds up is not because he stood out so well in his own time, nor that in comparison with the modern product of Hollywood that he has a nostalgic pull. Monty stands out because he is timeless. He stands out because he gave a damn and gave his all to his performances, which is an astounding fact that propels him up and above the majority of his past, present, and future peers into the level of genius. What Monty had that so many lack is integrity. His work mattered.

The 'integrity' of his work came first, over everything. He could easily have been tucked into the confining corner of "pretty boy," or starred as a romantic heart-throb in two-dimensional roles to inherit a hefty paycheck, but he refused. He could have acquiesced and played the Hollywood game for recognition and career security, but he would not. This is not an easy battle to fight, nor one that is often won. With Monty's poetic defiance there too was the heavy burden of his personal demons comingled with his personal sexual confusion, which handicapped but still could not fully sabotage his artistic intentions. Feeling an outsider in a world that demanded easy answers when he could offer only an honest mess of human complexity, Monty suffered under the weight of what he had to offer. Van Gogh cut off his ear to quiet the violent voices that conflicted public consensus. Monty's self-destruction was a similar, albeit slower, process of disintegration. His blade: drugs and alcohol. When comparing Monty in The Search to Monty in The Defector, one has to wonder, "Where did Monty go?" The easy answer is that, like James Dean, he died in a fatal car crash-- yet his corpse bravely carried on from the wreckage. The more difficult truth is that Monty was dying almost as soon as he was brought into the world. As with all of us, it was living that killed him.

Monty cuts his teeth with the famous Lunts in "There Shall Be No Night."

Montgomery Clift suffered from a raging case of the Smother Mothers. To her credit, Ethel "Sunny" Clift loved her children. Brooks was the first born, followed by twins "Sister" and Monty, and she adored them all. Due to the fact that Sunny was abandoned by her own parents, whom she later learned were Northern aristocrats torn asunder by conflicting families, she developed a bit of a superiority complex. Being adopted, she always felt displaced and was treated like an underdog. Her salvation was her determination, a quality she passed onto her younger son. She excelled in school, was passionate, and after she learned of her secret parentage, she became a bit of an elitist. She was determine to claim her rightful lineage and be acknowledged by her true family. As such, after she wed Bill Clift-- banker and later insurance man-- and bore his children, she lived in the mindset that she and her offspring were special. Even when the Nebraska-born brood experienced moments of poverty, she never let the illusion drop. Her token word of identification was "thoroughbred." She insisting on educating her children, home-schooling them so that they became fluent in German and French, and taking them abroad on lavish trips that instructed them on art and culture. Unarguably, Monty was her favorite. Her precocious, sensitive child, equally blessed with a handsome face, was treated like a prince... to a fault. He was isolated from children his own age, doted upon, and never allowed to seek out his independence or do anything for himself. His impulses were ignored, yet his actions were faultless. He was taught not to serve, but to be served. He never learned to stand on his own two feet. He was a prisoner in the ivory tower of his mother's own imagining.

The key to his escape was acting. A trip to Paris and a visit to the "Comedie Francais" lit his curiosity, and his eager and avaricious mind became ravenous for the ability to try on different lives, to live them out honestly and intensely, and to finally suck out all the marrow from this human experience that he had so been missing. This over-eager appetite would later cause him much trouble. Sunny was skeptical. Nice, refined boys didn't twiddle around in show-business. (She had hoped Monty would be a diplomat). Yet, after she saw him on stage, she acquiesced. He had something special. Brother Brooks too was never jealous of his younger brother's talent but was in awe of it. Many would remark on Monty's regal manner juxtaposed with his earthy realism. After a stint doing modeling, which he found achingly boring, Monty started making the rounds at casting offices as a young teen. He landed gigs in "Fly Away Home" and "Jubilee," always making a great impression on his audiences. His on stage presence was electric, and the attention to detail he put into his performances excited his peers as much as his viewers. Acting with such famed talents as Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne, he further cultivated his skill, determined to give his characters a natural and honest quality that made him a "Method" cultivator before the Method was even established. After his success in "There Shall Be No Night," Hollywood was frothing for the handsome, gifted actor, but Monty always demurred. The roles he was offered didn't compel him to make the move from the New York City stage, and the occasional trips he made to Hollywood always left him... un-enthused: "I don't want to be a slave."

The bookends of an era: Duke and Monty in Red River.

In time, however, he was wooed by none other than Howard Hawks, who was looking for a young, vital force to go mono e mone with John "Duke" Wayne in Red River. The opportunity to work with such a legendary director, as well as the challenge of working with such a well-established star, definitely peaked Monty's interest. He remained a difficult sell, but after he was able to swindle a sole, one-picture deal contract, he agreed to make the film. Duke was skeptical too, especially concerning their big fight sequence, until he saw Monty at work: "He can hold his own." The two were polar opposites on the definition of acting, and never got along off camera, but the tension and distinction between their two styles created just the juxtaposition between young and old that Hawks had been looking for. Thus, Monty Clift the "star" was born in a Western! Yet, he would actually debut in The Search, which was filmed second but released first. In this film, he brought great humor and heart to the role of a young American soldier who suddenly finds a 9-year-old Auschwitz refugee in his charge. He lived in an army engineer's unit outside Zurich to prepare for the role, and worked steadily at perfecting his soldier's gait. His efforts earned him an Academy Award nomination. With his smash successes in both films, the offers were pouring in. Stacks of scripts arrived to him, both for the stage and screen, but Monty remained particular. He dreamed of doing Chekhov and Shakespeare, of performing roles of real meat and substance,  none of that la-di-dah empty-headed stuff people were throwing at him. His resume slowly grew with The Heiress and The Big Lift , but it was A Place in the Sun-- a film Charlie Chaplin referred to as the "greatest film ever made about America"-- that sky-rocketed him into the stratosphere. It also introduced him to a little actress named Elizabeth Taylor.

Monty and Elizabeth "Bessie Mae" Taylor-- as he called her-- fool around on the back lot.

The relationship between Monty and Liz remains a fascination that warms the heart. As a real twin himself, Monty found an identical showbiz twin in Elizabeth. The two not only looked alike, but they shared the same brand of the childhood experience-- one bereft of independence. Liz had been the family breadwinner from a young age and had issues with her own parents that Monty fully understood. Expecting Liz to be an uptight, empty-headed movie diva, Monty was not enthused about working with her, but that all changed the first time they met. On a studio mandated publicity date, Monty escorted Liz to the premiere of The Heiress. She hopped in his limo, let out a string of obscenities, and melted Monty's heart. Here, clearly, was a beautiful woman trapped within the same game as he. Working together on A Place in the Sun, Elizabeth became grateful for Monty's encouragement, and labeled him as the first person to treat her like an actual human being capable of depth and thought. As her first mature role, the film changed her life. It was little secret that she fell desperately in love with Monty, and he in turn with she... in a way. The unity and loyalty they had for each other lasted the length of Monty's short life. But, it could never be consummated in the romantic sense. Monty, who yearned for a family and children, also knew that he was incapable of obtaining such things due to his confusing sexual preferences. He couldn't curse Liz to the kind of life he would provide her with, nor any other woman for that matter.

Monty was known for tearing his scripts apart with notes and analyses. 
He often cut much of his own dialogue in order to make his characters' 
words and responses more authentic.

A major instigator in Monty's doom was the fact that he never fully accepted his homosexuality. His conflict wasn't that he was forced to hide his true identity from the masses, but that he seemed to be secretly hiding it from himself. He nonchalantly engaged in affairs with both sexes, admitting that he preferred the company of women-- who always flocked around him as mother figures, friends, and hopeful lovers-- but that he was sexually attracted to men. But then, he had been raised an upstanding "thoroughbred," hadn't he? "Queers" were detestable, sub-human, or mentally unstable. He could never admit that he had this thing "wrong" with him. So, he led a double life. He put on the handsome, leading man persona for the general public, and then discreetly "cruised" for male companionship for more carnal pleasures. Many of his friends maintained after his death that they had no idea that he was gay, though they did recollect that he did seem to have random male companions in his company from time to time... In truth, Monty was a bit of a little-boy-lost. The friendships he made were very integral to his being for he feared the isolation of his youth. In the same vein, he too had to maintain a certain amount of authority and detachment. His friends were at his beck and call, but-- for the most part-- he could not be depended upon to deliver the same duty. He refused to be ensnared. He always seemed to attach himself to wedded couples, creating for himself a strange sort of asexual threesome-- mother-father-son-- including Kevin McCarthy and Augusta Dabney, Fred and Jean Green, the Karl Maldens, and the Lunts. In addition, he sought out women as mothers, to deliver the warmth and compassion that he had always craved from his own mother, yet this time delivered without a stifling, possessive quality. This he found in acting coach Mira Rostova, scandalous lover/mother Libby Holman, and later co-star Myrna Loy. He did have male friends, but he kept his true self at a distance for fear of the effect. He enjoyed palling around with Jack Larson, Thornton Wilder, and Frank Sinatra. Frank adored Monty during their stint in From Here to Eternity, but when he learned of Monty's sexual proclivities, he quickly distanced himself. It was just this brand of hurt that Monty sought to avoid.

In the midst of all the emotional and mental demons twisting around his insides, Monty hurled everything he had into his acting. For example, in From Here to Eternity, he learned to play the trumpet so that his throat and mouth movements matched the "Taps" soundtrack in the film. It was another triumph, and the equal beauty and ugliness he injected into each performance only further cemented his stellar reputation at the box-office. Unfortunately, the quiet moments disturbed him, and he often found himself disappearing in booze and an assortment of pills-- uppers or downers depending on his current need-- to quell his existential dementia. It was a far cry from the young man who used to refuse liquor because he drank "only milk" and wasn't allowed to eat candy, because it was "bad for [him]." The co-dependent relationship he forged with his therapist was also questionable. It seemed to many on the outside that Monty was being strung along by Dr. William Silverberg to feed the physician's own fantasies, a fact made blatantly clear when he urged Monty NOT to enter drug rehabilitation. Ironically, on the night of May 12, 1956, Monty hadn't been drinking when he suffered the greatest catastrophe of his life. After a night with Liz Taylor-- with whom he was shooting Rainree County-- Kevin McCarthy led the way down the steep hill from her home while Monty followed in his own car. Kevin watched in horror as Monty lost control of his vehicle, or perhaps even blacked out, and crashed into a telephone pole. Monty suffered a broken nose and jaw, a concussion, two of his teeth had been knocked out, and he too had severe cuts all over his face. However, he never underwent plastic surgery. His face was repaired as best as possible by the attending surgeon the night of his accident. While the swelling in his face went down,  his nose remained hooked and his mouth twisted.

Monty's brief, unpaid role in Judgment at Nuremberg earned him yet another Academy 
nomination and proved the depths of his talent. Still a perfectionist in characterization, 
he purposely got a bad haircut for the role. It remains one of the most brilliant 
pieces of acting ever caught on film.

Despite the devastating physical and emotional effects of the crash, Monty vowed to fight through the intense pain to finish his role in Raintree. He wasn't ready, and the stress he put on himself was painful for anyone to watch. Still, he made it through, but the film was not the sensation anyone had hoped it would be. Monty feared it would be his last piece as an actor-- who would want him anymore with this face? People were more intrigued by the picture to see how that face had changed and to see how their idol had fallen than to witness his usual talents. As he grew healthier, Monty saw that he was still wanted. He performed at Liz's bequest in Suddenly Last Summer and at Marlon Brando's in The Young Lions. He interpreted the depths of human heart break in Lonelyhearts. It became clear to everyone that his talent was still there, still palpable, and only improved since his personal tragedy. But the tragedy of his life finally started to claim him. His unresolved issues with his mother-- whom he loved and hated with seeming equal fervor-- his destroyed vanity, and his sexual confusion, all propelled his drug use. In fact, he was known as a bit of a pharmacist, who carried his own personal collection of pills in a secret bag. Everyone was in awe-- and shock-- at his medicinal knowledge: how he could name every pill under the sun, its uses, and its side effects like a walking encyclopedia. By the time he was called in to make The Misfits, the adoring Marilyn Monroe was forced to admit: "He's the only person I know who's in worse shape than I am."

Monty's health took a steep decline in the last ten years of his life. Severe pain in his back and jaw was soon joined by cataracts, hypothyroidism, and increasing paranoia. He had the body of a man twice his age. He seemed to stop caring-- his behavior becoming increasingly erratic and even despicable. He stopped hiding his sexuality, making it increasingly difficult for the publicity department to keep his actions from the press. Friends with whom he had once been so close now started pulling away from him, chased away by his antics and disruptive behavior. Mostly, they were tired of watching him kill himself. When Lorenzo James was hired as his secretary, he became determined to whip the disturbed actor into shape. He made progress, slowly cleaning him up, getting out of his hermetic cocoon, and weaning him off drugs, but it turned out to be too little too late. Monty was found dead in his bed on July 23, 1966 having died of occlusive coronary artery disease. The Prince was dead.

Clearly displaying the Jekyll and Hyde to his nature. Monty's beauty acted as a shield
from his internal issues. Once it was gone, his soul was quick to follow.

Where did Monty go? Friends must have asked themselves this question multiple times and must have blamed themselves for not doing more to help him. But Monty was so darn stubborn! He was as passionate in his personal convictions as his was in his professional. He built up high walls and refused to let anyone in. Yet, it was the conundrum in Montgomery Clift that made him so fascinating. He was incredibly evasive about himself, yet deeply invested and curious about others. He was secretive, yet probing; still, yet violent. He was a magnetic presence who kept the world at arm's length. He was a forceful and seductive personality, often ruffling the feathers of his directors with his own ideas and determinations, yet he was an incredibly sensitive soul, deeply mortified when reprimanded, like a child caught with his hand in the cookie jar. The dissenting voice in Monty's ear that questioned his sense of self always wore the face of his mother, whose protection indirectly deprived him of the sense of security and strength that could have made him not only a master of his craft but a master of his own life. The inner turmoil, the palpitations of his aching human heart, are felt in every performance he delivered, where he shamelessly martyred himself for whatever cause that he found worth fighting for. Each script released from him another chapter in the hefty tome that seemed to be weighing him down. He had so many stories left to tell when his book was abruptly closed. Yet, he managed to kick open a door to acting that had been slowly creaked ajar by his predecessors, and he changed the public expectation of film acting as art. Because he gave a damn, so did we, and so do we still, every time we seem him at work in the legacy he left behind.


  1. Exceptionally well written and very engrossing.
    I don't think there's ever been a more beautiful man in cinema, or walking the planet. My heart aches, that he suffered so much, yet it clearly played an integral role in his magnificent acting performances. He left an incredible legacy. I'm mesmerized by his performance and photos, and I still saw beauty in his face, after the crash. Thank you so much for writing and sharing this.

  2. I hope people understand why he became an actor.

  3. Great writing about a complicated, beautiful man.