Clift, Montgomery (1920-1966)

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Clift, Montgomery (1920-1966)

Four years older than Brando, eleven years senior to James Dean, but finding stardom only just ahead of both, Montgomery Clift is invariably bracketed with them—the leader of the great trio of the beautiful and doomed who emerged from the Actors Studio in New York City to transform the postwar face of screen acting with their individual and collective intensity. He died too soon to recover from his failures and too late to become a mythic icon like Dean or Marilyn Monroe, but to examine his all-too-short filmography is to be reminded of his achievements that have been all too often buried beneath the rubble of his ruined life.

Only cast in serious dramas, the fragile and gifted Clift, frequently quivering with painful introspection, was the screen's great outsider, misfit, or victim during the 1950s—the ultimately rejected fortune hunter of The Heiress (1949); driven by despair to murder and by murder to guilt in A Place in the Sun (1951), his first film with Elizabeth Taylor; beaten and humiliated for his refusal to fight in the boxing ring as Prewitt in From Here to Eternity (1953); a priest tormented by the secrets of the confessional in Hitchcock's I Confess (1953); the columnist unable to cope with the pain of the lovelorn in Lonelyhearts (1959); a victim of the Nazi concentration camps in Judgment at Nuremberg (1961); and last, but far from least, one of John Huston's Misfits (1961), corralling wild horses with Clark Gable and Marilyn Monroe.

Born Edward Montgomery Clift in Omaha, Nebraska, the twin brother of a sister and the son of a neurotic, social-climbing and dangerously possessive mother, Clift was taken traveling in Europe from an early age. He acquired polish, manners, and the right acquaintance with art and literature. Precocious and sophisticated, he began acting at age fourteen and was on Broadway a year later. His rise was rapid, his connections influential, and by the time he appeared in two Thornton Wilder plays, The Skin of Our Teeth and Our Town, he was destined for theater stardom. Encouraged by Elia Kazan, he became a founding student of the Actors Studio in 1947 but soon succumbed to Hollywood, which had been courting him for some time.

Clift's first film was Howard Hawks's Red River (1948), which cast him as a cowboy, pitting his almost girlish persona against John Wayne, whose adopted son he played. The film was, however, not released until after Clift's next, The Search (1948) for Fred Zinnemann, which gained him the first of his four Oscar nominations for his sensitive performance as a soldier helping a stateless orphan in war-torn Germany find his missing mother. When Red River came out Clift became a star, the darling of the fan magazines and the adoring young girls of America.

But Clift, anguished by his homosexuality and increasingly addicted to drugs and alcohol, was an unhappy man with a disastrous private life that he strove to keep secret. In 1956, after a party given by his most devoted friend, Elizabeth Taylor, the actor was involved in a car crash. His severe injuries included the severing of nerves that rendered the left side of his face immobile, effectively destroying the perfection of his fine beauty. He was filming Raintree County (1957) with Taylor at the time and, despite director Edward Dmytryk's efforts to photograph him in such a way as to avoid exposing the extent of the damage, both Clift and the film remained inert.

Driven ever further into self-destruction and loss of control, the actor did well to emerge with credit from Judgment at Nuremberg and The Misfits, but he was disastrously cast as Freud (1962), John Huston's altogether misguided biopic about the analyst, during the making of which Clift, whose staring eyes had become a too-prominent feature of his on-screen face, underwent a double cataract operation. After Freud, Clift's mainstream career was over. He had been overshadowed by his nemesis, Brando, in The Young Lions (1958) and was of little account in the overwrought Suddenly Last Summer (1959) with Taylor and Katharine Hepburn. He dragged himself out of the murky private world into which he had descended to play one last loner in a French film, L'Espion (The Defector) in 1966, before dying of a heart attack at the age of forty-five.

—Robyn Karney

Further Reading:

Bosworth, Patricia. Montgomery Clift: A Biography. New York, Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1978.

Hoskyns, Barney. Montgomery Clift, Beautiful Loser. London, Bloomsbury Publishing, 1991.

Kalfatovic, Mary C. Montgomery Clift: A Bio-Bibliography. Connecticut, Greenwood Publishing, 1994.

Thomson, David. A Biographical Dictionary of Film. New York, Alfred A. Knopf, 1994.