“That’s Montgomery Clift, Honey”

My previous apartment was about a ten minute walk from the Quaker Cemetery in Prospect Park which contains the last remains of Montgomery Clift (1920-1966). Double damn the exile that prevents me from strolling over today and paying my respects! (Though the Friends’ Cemetery is manifestly off limits to the public. But you can see the markers from outside the fence).

I’ve just been re-reading Patricia Bosworth’s Montgomery Clift: A Life, which was a great resource for me for my Libby Holman post a few months ago. Bosworth, though 87 and near the end of her life anyway, died in April of this year, another victim of Covid-19. She is just as fascinating a character as anyone she ever wrote about; I imagine she’ll get her own post here ere long. How could you not be a biographer if your name is Bosworth? At any rate, themes in Clift’s life announce themselves as a result of Bosworth’s perceptive writing: physical perfection vs. physical frailty; fame vs. the need for recognition; masculinity vs. femininity; permanence vs. transience; tradition vs. experiment, heartland origins vs. worldly sophistication etc etc. Once one starts not to dwell on him, it’s hard not to obsess. His small cinematic footprint and early incapacity and death lead one to obsess even more.

Clift is from an old American family dating back to colonial Maryland. His father was the Vice President of an Omaha bank; later in his childhood, the family moved to the Chicago suburb of Highland Park, and, after the stock market crash, to New York City. His mother was raised by foster parents of modest means, but believed (with good reasons) that she was the unrecognized child of a granddaughter of General Robert Anderson, the hero of Fort Sumter. Her biological family, if anything, was posher than Clift’s, but her birth parents had married in secret against the wishes of a crazy-sounding grandmother, who imprisoned his mother and prevented the truth being acknowledged. As a result, Clift’s mother became obsessed with being legitimate, proper and “well bred”. Montgomery and his two siblings were taken by their mother on two lengthy European junkets. They were taught by private tutors, learned French and German, and became highly cultured. During the Depression, there was a period of a few years where the family was plunged into poverty, but the mother maintained appearances throughout.

The first of Clift’s health woes date from his childhood. On the first ocean voyage to Europe, a bully held him underwater in the ship’s swimming pool. A gland burst in his neck and became infected. His temperature rose to 104 and he nearly died. He was finally operated on, recuperating over a period of many weeks. Starting in his teenage years Clift would suffer from dysentery and chronic cholitis that would torture him for the rest of his life. Thus he was sickly and used to pain. Yet (the elephant in the room) he was universally thought to be one of the most handsome men to ever walk the earth. He looked “fine”, in the sense of delicate, like rare silk or porcelain. I’ve often thought he had the perfect face and bearing to star in an adaptation of The Picture of Dorian Gray.

Thus, an option became available to the Clifts that they mightn’t have considered if they hadn’t lost their fortune after the stock market crash. Starting at around age 15, Montgomery was able to work as a model and an actor. (On a parallel track, his father eventually worked his way back to financial respectability by his own exertions in the insurance business and on Wall Street). Montgomery’s siblings were sent to Harvard and Bryn Mawr, but he himself went to work. It was not a hardship, though; he loved it. And his looks, finished manners, intelligence, talent, and seriousness made him instantly successful from his very first amateur production. He took acting seriously as an artist, was conscientious in his study of it, and in his playing of roles. So that’s one thing that’s interesting to me about him. He had old-fashioned stage origins that allowed him to study of the feet of mentors like Lunt and Fontanne, Alla Nazimova, Cornelia Otis Skinner, Tallulah Bankkead, Dame May Whitty, Thomas Mitchell, Fredric March and Florence Eldridge, Patricia Collinge, and others. During this decade (1935-45), he was in the original productions of Robert E. Sherwood’s Pultizer-winning There Shall Be No Night (1940), and Thornton Wilder’s The Skin of Our Teeth (1942), as well as the Cole PorterMoss Hart musical Jubilee (1935), Lillian Hellman’s The Searching Wind (1944), and Tennessee Williams’ You Touched Me. He was in a 1944 revival of Our Town with Marc Connelly, as well as an early television production of Noel Coward’s Hay Fever that was presented at the 1939 World’s Fair, as well as a 1944 radio productions of Eugene O’Neill’s Ah, Wilderness!

A turning point occurred in 1942 when Clift participated in an experimental production called Mexican Mural. This is where he first met the legendary troublemaker Libby Holman, who became his sugar mama for a time, Kevin McCarthy (best remembered now for Invasion of the Body Snatchers and for being the one witness to his famous car accident), and director Robert Lewis of the Group Theatre. The Lewis connection is significant, because when he cofounded the Actors Studio in 1947, Clift was one of its first students, along with Marlon Brando, Julie Harris, and others. These studies imbued him with the high seriousness with which he took every acting assignment thereafter. Fortuitously, he embarked on this journey just as he was beginning his film career.

Clift’s movie career was every bit as magical as his theatrical one. He seems to have chosen every role with great care and discrimination, hence the paucity of performances. And sadly he rejected some roles we very much would have liked to have seen him in. But it also means he only worked with the best people on the best projects; there is little to nothing in his body of work that you’d call unworthy. His first movie to be shot (though second to be released) was the Howard Hawks western classic Red River in 1946. Hawks’ later asked him to reunite with co-stars John Wayne and Walter Brennan in Rio Bravo (1959), which would have added to that film’s magic, though sadly Clift passed (the part was played by Dean Martin). For director Fred Zinneman he was in The Search (1948, his first film to be released) and From Here to Eternity (1953). Next came William Wyler’s The Heiress (1949), from the hit Broadway adaptation of Henry James’ Washington Square, opposite Olivia de Havilland. This was followed by George Seaton’s The Big Lift (1950), about the Berlin airlift. Then George Stevens’ A Place in the Sun (1951), an adaptation of Dreiser’s An American Tragedy, which put him opposite lifelong friend Elizabeth Taylor with electrifying results. There was also Alfred Hitchcock’s I Confess and Vittoria de Sica’s Terminal Station with Jennifer Jones, both in 1953.

This ends the first leg of Clift’s movie career. It is neatly bifurcated into two parts, of roughly equal size, by a catastrophe. 1954 was promising enough: he worked very hard on his own off-Broadway production of Chekhov’s The Seagull, with himself in the role of Treplev. But the next several years were a sort of lost weekend of alcohol, painkillers, affairs, and wasted opportunities. He turned down numerous roles. Finally, in 1957 he was working on Edward Dmytryk’s Raintree County with Taylor, when he lost control of his car one night and smashed it up. He broke multiple bones, causing him chronic pain for the rest of his life. Most unfortunate was the serious damage to his face. The delicate perfection was spoiled, and the left side of his face was semi-paralyzed.

Worse than “imperfect” is that he now looked, for lack of a better word, “weird”. It is hard to put your finger on. He initially didn’t look that different from his pre-accident appearance. But there is something uncanny and “off” about the new face. There was a quality of stillness to it, like a mask or a mannikin. Later, as booze and drugs continued to take their toll, additonal ravages were visible. Clift continued to do superlative work alongside the greatest screen artists of his time, but it was no longer a period of promise and knocking it out of the park. He was now laboring under hardship. He went from swimming upstream to going downhill. The title of this post is a quote from the Clash’s incredible song “The Right Profile” which is about the aftermath of Clift’s accident. I never think about Clift or the accident without hearing Joe Strummer sing these words in my head.

After recuperation and the wrapping of Raintrain County, Clift worked with Dmytryk again on The Young Lions (1958), which put him on a marquee with his only peer at the time, Brando. Lonelyhearts, that same year, was an adaptation of the Nathaniel West novella. Tennesee Williams’ Suddenly Last Summer (1959) reunited him with Taylor and also co-starred Katharine Hepburn. Next came Elia Kazan’s (1960) Wild River, which must have resonated with Clift, whose father’s family had Tennessee roots. He was nominated for an Oscar a fourth time for his very brief turn in Stanley Kramer’s Judgment at Nuremberg (1961). For John Huston he appeared in Arthur Miller’s The Misfits (1961) with fellow handful Marilyn Monroe and Clark Gable (his last film), and Freud: The Secret Passion (1962). Clift’s many sick days caused this film to go seriously overbudget. As a consequence he was sued by the studio, and considered to be unhireable for a period of many years. His last film was the Cold War thriller The Defector (1966), a movie not unlike Hitchcock’s Torn Curtain, which came out the same year. Clift died of a heart attack in his townhouse prior to the film’s release. It would be natural to assume, as I’m sure many do, that Clift’s death was either a suicide or an overdose, but either would be true only in a long-term sense. The official cause was heart attack, though one tends not to die from that cause at age 45, without some long term abuse of one’s own body. Clift’s father, it must be noted, had died of a heart attack just two years earlier. (Digression: just a few months later, The Defector’s director Raoul Levy did commit suicide, despondent over debts and a romantic break-up).

Clift’s next film was to have been Reflections in a Golden Eye (1967), again opposite Taylor and directed by Huston. The part was recast (and miscast) with his rival Marlon Brando, which was unfortunate. Clift was bisexual (the character was a repressed homosexual) and Taylor had cooked the project up for them as a pair. The movie doesn’t make any sense without Clift at its center. At any rate, Clift’s early death added him to the morbid pantheon of Hollywood Method martyrs that includes Marilyn Monroe and James Dean. He was survived by his mother and two siblings. His brother Brooks married Eleanor Roeloffs — who is well known to political TV junkies as the pundit Eleanor Clift.

For more, and no doubt, better insight into the life and art of Montgomery Clift, I refer you the Infallible O’Malley.

And here’s one by Audrey Fox, recommended by Isaac Butler.