The Exploding Boy

The chameleonic career—and the sad, stormy life—of Montgomery Clift
by Brynn White  posted March 12, 2010
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Montgomery Clift was renowned for his subtlety and calculation, but his volatility is what continues to fascinate. Of the rebellious Method-madness '50s trinity Brando-Dean-Clift, his name has seeped the least strongly into the public consciousness. His face is not an instantly recognizable icon of Hollywood. With a legacy so fluid, there is still the illusion of cultish discovery with Clift (1920-'66), whose entirely warm-blooded characters destroyed the wall between the otherworldly theatricality of movies and the everyday humanity of those who consume them. As an actor and a man, he embodied conviction and fragility. Richard Burton said, “Monty, like Garbo and Brando, had the extraordinary facility of giving you a sense of danger. You were never quite sure whether he would blow his lines or explode.”

Biographical details heighten this instability. Neither Dean nor Brando could hold a flame to the sad, stormy dénouement of Clift’s life, cut short at 45, but also in half by the 1956 automobile accident that left the right side of his face paralyzed. Watching his films today, one either anticipates the carnage to come, or confronts it head on. The glamour and the grotesque of that Hollywood Babylon is distilled in the images of Elizabeth Taylor, in blood-stained silk, removing the dislodged teeth from Clift’s sputtering throat, and the lineup of industry insiders, including Rock Hudson, barricading the press from the actor’s mauled body. Thus commenced Clift’s second act—what has been famously called “the slowest suicide in show business.”

At the time of the accident Clift was already a one-man pharmacy of pills, an incessant bottle-tipper, plagued by the recurring colitis and dysentery that had kept him out of the draft. He feasted daily on raw steak and caviar and fancied himself an industry subversive, reciting fellow Hollywood burnout F. Scott Fitzgerald’s indictments and cultivating a sloppy, devil-may-care appearance for Hedda Hopper interviews. Young Jimmy Dean frequently called up Clift’s apartment just to hear that resonant voice. Clift flippantly dismissed his admirer, although he later claimed to have instantly vomited upon hearing the news of Dean’s death. He and Brando were reported to ignore each other at parties, but Brando paid him a poolside visit after the accident, pleading for him not to abandon his career: it takes two, in constant competition, to raise the bar on modern acting. Clift’s most affectionate industry alliances were, however, with the Rat Packers Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin, both of whom he mentored through more nuanced variations on their personae. Martin nicknamed Clift “Spider” for his feverish gesticulations and impassioned conversational style.

Once upon a time, Kevin McCarthy said, Clift “seemed the personification of the Young Prince.” He had the undeniable beauty of a Fitzgerald collegiate. Its assured perfection was grounded by those vast unblinking eyes, used most powerfully to convey vulnerability, faith, and desperation: conflicts that would later externalize themselves on his damaged countenance and that extended to his sexuality. Anguished over his homosexual impulses, Clift conducted vague, ongoing relationships with such maternal figures as the torch singer/indicted murderess Libby Holman (and later, “perfect wife” Myrna Loy); or almost infantile playmates, most significantly Liz Taylor, whom he nicknamed “Bessie Mae” and who, in A Place in the Sun, coos to him, “Tell Mama everything.” He compartmentalized his male lovers, although he got sloppier about it over the years. Joe Strummer gives a gleefully debauched account of Clift’s shoeless cruising along 42nd Street in The Clash’s “The Right Profile.” Clift’s audience just wanted to take care of the sexually ambiguous boy with the searching eyes and tortured soul on his tweed sleeve. Only close friends of Brando called him “Bud,” but everyone felt that they shared a meaningful glance with “Monty.”

Andrew Sarris astutely described Clift as a chameleon who “seemed to be looking for himself” in every movie. The details of Clift’s childhood were largely unknown until the publication of Patricia Bosworth’s Montgomery Clift: A Biography (1978). Clift’s mother dedicated her life to conditioning her children for acknowledgment by her aristocratic relations. Illegitimate and raised by adoptive parents, Sunny Clift never revealed her lineage but always insisted her children achieve their “thoroughbred” potential. Monty's was a childhood spent in unexplained isolation. He and his twin sister and older brother were educated on sojourns abroad; they could speak three languages, but couldn’t play with other kids.

As an adult, Clift maintained his mother’s high standards. He was very particular about his choices, notoriously opting out of Sunset Blvd., which Billy Wilder specifically penned for him. Demanding unprecedented script and director approval, he created some of the early fissures in the doomed star system. While he worked repeatedly with Hollywood heavies like Fred Zinnemann and George Stevens, his resume boasts few superstar auteurs (with the exception of Hitchcock, whom he quarreled with terribly). Clift was too much a perfectionist live wire to collaborate with the similarly strong-minded. (“He approached the script like a scientist,” said Burt Lancaster.) Notoriously, he insisted that his petite, reticent "acting coach" Mira Rostova be with him at all times during filming. Karl Malden looked forward to practicing scenes from Hitchcock's I Confess with Clift, but he and Rostova would confer through exclusive hand signals following each read-through. “It seemed wise,” a resigned Zinneman said, “to let a man of such enormous talent find solutions his own way.”

Monty earned an Oscar nomination for his first released film, Zinnemann’s The Search (1948), although it was Howard Hawks’s venerable Red River (which opened later that year) that lured him away from his stage career. He proved a formidable adversary to John Wayne, his ruminative, cocksure mercy-bearer anchoring the frame against the Duke’s specter of retribution. He announced he was getting drunk after the first screening, because he knew it’d be the last time he could enjoy the privilege in private. For The Search, a tale of the relationship between an American GI and a young Auschwitz survivor, Clift and Rostova audaciously re-worked the script to strip down the cloying sentimentality. The screenwriters walked away with an Academy Award. Meanwhile, people asked Zinnemann how he found an untrained soldier who could act so well.

Clift played the not-so-dashing suitor in Wyler’s The Heiress (1949), but despised the studio-bound suffocation and prestige picture gloss. It was George Stevens’s A Place in the Sun (1951) that introduced Clift the matinee idol. Monty developed his character’s disdainful shrug by wandering San Quentin’s death row. His George is quite the intuitive creation, a rather banal creature of convenience, with little on the brain but immediate pleasure and long-term social success, too aloof to realize the former will ultimately preclude the latter.

It is Clift’s magnetism—the slim frame in white T-shirt, the dangling cigarette, the mastery of the pool cue, his breathless delivery of clichéd sweet nothings—that elevates George to a great romantic hero. Sarris proclaimed Clift and Taylor’s swooning embraces “unnerving—sybaritic—like gorging on chocolate sundaes.” One barely notices that the meeting of lips is obscured by Clift’s shoulders, or thinks to question George’s murderous actions. The film’s American Tragedy was not George’s crime, but the impossibility of his relationship with nubile Liz.

In an almost belligerent betrayal of his teenybopper fanbase, Clift donned a priest’s cassock for I Confess (1951). Manny Farber bestowed him “the year’s acting award for his ability to project states of mind and feeling with a kind of repressed toughness.” Clift relied on his hands and his powerful gait. Only a Hollywood outsider like Vittorio De Sica could have coaxed him into the love-stricken, death-defying leap he takes in Terminal Station (1953). Paired with another intensely physical performer, Jennifer Jones, Clift achieved an affecting sensuality singular in his filmography.

“If a man don’t go his own way, he’s nothing” is the gut principle of Clift’s stubborn private Prewitt in Zinnemann’s From Here to Eternity (1953), which solidified Clift as the new American archetype of the doomed antihero, in contrast to the more assertive, classic machismo of Burt Lancaster. Eternity introduced the recurring image of Clift being beaten to a pulp. Even his victories entail a greater defeat: the abandonment of his ethical code. Clift struggled with the monologue in which Prewitt reveals his reasons for quitting boxing, rehearsing for 24 hours straight. Unconvinced by the scripted declaration that his friend had “gone blind” after a casual sparring, Clift found the only way his character could sincerely articulate the tragedy: “And then, he couldn’t see.”

Clift’s own sense of life’s precariousness must have intensified when he ploughed into that Hollywood Hills telephone pole. His before-and-after mien in Edward Dmytryk’s Raintree County (1957)—the idealistic youth scenes crudely shot in his swollen outpatient state—was an unsettling phantasmagoria straight out of a Nathanael West novel. The Southern epic, which Clift described as "a soap opera with elephantitis," was an embarassing, unintentional elegy for the days of Selznick; but Clift wouldn’t let it be his. He self-prescribed work as the best medicine and bravely offered audiences ringside seats for his recovery. Clift reunited with Dmytryk in The Young Lions (1958) as a Jewish, Ulysses-toting draftee terrorized by Lee Van Cleef’s sneering gang of good ole boy GIs. He embraced an unflattering buzz cut that awkwardly accentuated his wounds and his ears, the only part of his head a friend claimed had maintained its normalcy. The performance he considered a personal favorite was dismissed as a watered-down retread by discomfited critics.

“God, what I’ve missed out on. I’m catching up on the pain,” Clift said of the loss of his looks. When preparing for the 1958 film adaptation of Nathanael West’s Miss Lonelyhearts, Clift pored through West’s work and isolated this Dream Life of Balso Snell excerpt: “When you think of me think of two men – myself and the chauffeur within me… from within he governs the sensations I receive through my fingers, eyes, tongue, and ears… imagine having this man inside you fumbling and fingering your tender organs with stumbling soiled feet…” He adorned his home with hideous orange awnings that bathed the interior in magnificent waves of amber. His body was drugged and his face marred, but Clift’s eyes proved the key to his performances. That inner chauffeur would continue to peer out from the off-kilter simulacrum of Clift’s former beauty. John Huston picked him to star in the ambitious biopic Freud (1961), confident that the pioneering psychoanalyst’s revelations could be seen formulating in Clift’s eyes (no small feat, considering they were clouded by cataracts during filming).

Appropriately, Clift enters Suddenly, Last Summer (1959) in a surgical mask; his function in the film is both audience and interpreter, a largely inexpressive blank slate onto which the female characters project their fantasies and repressed memories of the deviously departed Sebastian. Katharine Hepburn even slinkily comments on his “beautiful, blue and frightened eyes” in which she sees both her son and a potential object of his affection. Tennessee Williams felt that the adaptation of his play treated the vicious cannibalism theme too literally, and that Hepburn understood “what the drama truly concerned was all human confusion and its consequences: violence.”

But Clift had displayed a similarly profound comprehension in films like Lonelyhearts (1958). He was ideally suited to embody West’s protagonist, a tormented, Christ-like journalist who carries the weight of all society’s suffering. As Daniel Day-Lewis later remarked, “Clift contained within him an absolutely riveting vision of some kind. It separates him from his contemporaries. While they were superb in their moods, their changes, their violence of sensuality, Clift had a spiritual quality of some kind.” What truly resounded in Lonelyhearts was Clift’s premonition of doom : “All I want to do is heal a wound I gave to myself… before it festers.”

Clift began to subtly recede into the corner of the frame, literally and figuratively, more character actor than leading man. There is a total absence of star quality to his appearance in Huston's The Misfits (1961), which serves its purpose as a paean to the life force of Marilyn Monroe. His character is the first to accept the decay permeating the cowboy milieu. Childishly regressing under the weight of his anachronism, he is, once again, a man who doesn’t seem to belong anywhere, who has to assure his mother she’d recognize him were he ever to actually return home. “Did you see the color of him?” Clark Gable asked Huston following a scene. “Gray.”

Clift’s shedding of movie star posturing reached its apex in his 15-minute walk-on in Judgment at Nuremburg (1962). His character takes the stand to reveal the shameful castration procedure performed on him by the Nazis. The courtroom door opens and interrupts his nervous corridor pacing, so intense one wonders how long Clift waited off-screen for his cue, staring into the abyss of lost virility. The feeble proclamation, “Since that day, I’ve been half I’ve ever been,” is likely a Clift concoction; Stanley Kramer suggested he ad-lib after he failed to remember his lines. The naked purity of this gasp eclipses the film’s somewhat shameless capitalization on his personal demons.

Elia Kazan’s Wild River (1961) features the most refined performance of Clift’s post-crash career. “We’re new, we have no customs,” his TVA representative informs the Depression-rattled smalltowners he wishes to usher into modernity. “Like the stars of Bonnie and Clyde, Clift seems an emissary from the future, or at least from the set of Mad Men,” wrote J. Hoberman last year. In a respectful pledge to Kazan, Clift remained sober throughout filming and resurrected the electricity of his early leading man days. His character’s infectious goofiness—he falls out of chairs and giggles as his own jokes—counterbalances his naïve liberal do-gooderness.

Clift meets his match in Lee Remick’s restless local widow, intent on bringing out the human in his New Deal crusader, but loving him for the man he is—and isn’t. Her wisdom and brazen earnestness leaves him speechless. “I don’t care if you ever win a fight,” she tells him as they lie in the mud, pummeled by a rowdy mob. Clift can finally stop battling. For once he emerges victor, surviving the closing credits with a golden girl who has his number, and his back.

John Cassavetes ached to bring his verité touch to Clift in Too Late Blues, but it wasn’t meant to be. The studio had used Clift as a lawsuit scapegoat for the soaring production costs of Freud. His resulting reputation, coupled with his deteriorating balance, vision, and hearing, rendered him uninsurable. Elizabeth Taylor offered her own financial backing to reunite with Clift in Huston’s adaptation of Carson McCuller’s Southern Gothic novel Reflections in a Golden Eye. The character’s ominous self-loathing and repressed homosexuality would have provided ample raw material for the man who, as Hitchcock put it, “looked as though he had the angel of death walking beside him.” But Clift died in the summer of 1966, and the part went to Brando.

Montgomery Clift’s ravaged body surrendered one night in the 61st Street New York brownstone he refused to abandon for Hollywood, and he was laid to rest in a private Quaker cemetery in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park. The plaque marking his home has disappeared, presumably stolen. On Quaker Hill, an incongruous barbed wire perimeter enshrines simple headstones dating back to the 17th century, and one of the screen’s great innovators. A 1998 New York Times article reports that the proprietors withhold Clift’s whereabouts from inquiring “people with purple hair and black T-shirts,” insisting they seek Clift in his life’s work. The borough that shrouds his legend unearths his career this month so that audiences can do just that. Montgomery Clift remains beguiling, untenable, and an open book. 


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MGM/UA Home Entertainment
Montgomery Clift in The Misfits, directed by John Huston
Photo Gallery: The Exploding Boy


March 11–25, 2010 That’s Montgomery Clift, Honey!


Brynn White is the programming assistant at Film Forum Repertory. She also contributes to Film Comment, Stop Smiling, and Not Coming to a Theater Near You.

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