Monday, May 21

Dear Monty

He was like a wounded bird to me... and when I first became aware of him, I was a nine-year old kid.  But I always did see things through an emotional lens and I focused on people that I seemed to relate to or certainly wanted to relate to on an emotional plane.  As a fan to an actor, I took some sort of higher ground with Montgomery Clift.  I knew he hurt.  I saw it in his eyes, in the way he kind of hid his body in plain view.  He never had good posture, he slunk, he didn't want to be noticed... though he certainly got involved in an odd occupation for someone who slunk and didn't want to be a public figure.  I always felt I understood him.  

He had a face that made me twitch when I saw it.  I thought it had been chiseled by a great artist and brought to life.  His eyes were piercing.  Everything that was going on with him could be seen in those eyes.  He was reticent in how he presented himself. 

It didn't matter if he were dressed in an army outfit, a Hawaiian shirt or priest's frock (????), he couldn't hide the truths that were Monty Clift.  His handsome face was a road map to his deepest joys and loves and fears.  All he could do was tell the truth in the best way he knew how.  Since he was shy in his private life, that would shine through in his screen roles.  Monty, I think, was forever in pain.  The content shifted from time to time in his short life, but he seemed to always be hurting.  We know some things, thanks mainly to two wonderful biographies on him.  I found his acting to show a lot of truth.

He was my first crush on a man, an actor.  It was for all the reasons already discussed, always that face and that sensitivity.  I was wildly attracted to it beyond what I was capable of fully understanding.  I just knew I had to see every movie he would make.

The first one I saw was 1953's From Here to Eternity.  I would, of course, catch up on the seven I had missed before it.  I went with my friend Bobby and his mother.  She had been a nurse in Hawaii during the war and had a special interest in seeing a film based on life at an army base at the outbreak of Pearl Harbor.  My mama did not know I was going and Bobby's mother wanted it to stay that way.  She didn't like my mama because my mama didn't like her.  Even back then I knew it was not a movie for a kid my age.  Too racy.  Too many sexual situations.  Two of the reasons I wanted to see it.  All the way home Bobby's mother talked about was how hot Burt Lancaster was.  Looking out the window, I thought, oh was he in the film?

Clift's portrayal of the life of Robert E. Lee Prewitt was as soulful as the trumpet he played.  As an ex-boxer who won't lift a glove because of a death he feels he caused, he is, nonetheless, harrassed and intimidated by his fellow soldiers and also some officers.  What develops for and becomes of Pruitt is the very heart of the Eternity story and I was incredibly drawn to his masterful performance.  I will always say that although both Clift and Deborah Kerr (who have no scenes together) were nominated for Oscars, it was a sorry day when they didn't win.

He was born, a twin, in October of 1920 to a well-to-do Nebraska banker and his gregarious wife.  They also lived outside Chicago, New York and the mother and children in Europe for long spells.  It was said his twin sister was not pretty while strangers would stop Mrs. Clift and remark how beautiful Monty was.

As the shy twin, he was typical of a lot of actors for whom acting was his chance to be more outgoing, something he could only accomplish if pretending to be someone else.  He started in regional theater and soon appeared on Broadway as a young teen.  He was in numerous productions appearing along with some of the top names of the day.

He learned well but he also learned he wanted to do things his way.  He would live his life as a loner, an iconoclast.  He wasn't as out there or as noisy as two of his contemporaries, Marlon Brando and James Dean, with whom he was always compared, but he embraced their moody countenance.  All became choosy about the types of roles they played and Clift and Brando didn't kiss many asses to get where they wanted to be.  Brando, also born in Omaha but four years after Clift, was a true rival.  Clift considered him to be so, too.  And while not intending to diminish the acting prowess of Brando or Dean, Clift was the best actor.

It was during one of his Broadway performances that movie director Howard Hawks saw him and wanted him to costar alongside John Wayne in Red River (1948), the story of a long cattle drive involving a tough maverick and the sensitive young man he has raised since he was a teen.  John Wayne and Montgomery Clift...!  OMG, what an offbeat teaming but damn if it didn't work.  And they actually got along as well.  Wayne knew that Monty was gay and was big enough to not make it an issue.  Clift would not have cared for Wayne's conservative politics either and that, too, never became an issue.  The result up there on the big screen was electric.  Wayne turned in more of a nuanced performance than he was accustomed to giving and with Clift a star was born.

Soon he was into another fine film, The Search (1948), to be directed by Fred Zinnemann, his Eternity director.  He was a sensitive soldier stationed in post-war Germany who comes across an equally-senstitive youngster separated from his mother.  Young Czech actor Ivan Jandl and Clift had some truly magical scenes together.  The producers knew they had something special and rushed it into release ahead of Red River.  If you haven't seen it, find it and treat yourself to a delicious piece of celluloid.

Fine as those films were, the one that knocked everyone out was as the poor but ambitious George Eastman in 1951's A Place in the Sun, under the craftmanship of the renowned George Stevens.  His closeups alone told audiences that this was a man of great facial beauty, a worthy rival to Robert Taylor and Tyrone Power of the previous decade or two.  I already had a thing for him when I finally saw this film but my God did it cement things for me.

It was, of course, the film on which he would meet Elizabeth Taylor and together, their dark, alluring, smoky beauty set the screen on fire.  Now this is why I went to the movies.  To see how the beautiful people acted and moved and loved and kissed and suffered.  Taylor and Clift would go on to make three films together, all noteworthy in one way or another, and would be friends for as long as he lived.  Truth be told, she loved Monty and he could have been her first gay husband.  He may have considered it, too, but we know they didn't take the plunge.  Still, she looked after him from near and afar.

He would also have long and interesting friendships with troubled torch singer Libby Holman and actors Kevin McCarthy, Jack Larson (Jimmy of the original Superman TV series) and Myrna Loy.  Most of his relationships were more fleeting but Taylor and these four were certainly among his small inner circle.

He was in the under-rated Hitchcock film I Confess (1953).  As the priest he hears a man's confession to murder.  Bound by the sanctity of the church confessional he must keep the truth to himself and, in doing so, is accused of the murder.  All the while he is juggling a relationship with a woman he loved before joining the church who still loves him.  Clift's gift for peeling back the layers of a character to reach the purest truth is in evidence here as Father Logan.

In 1956 he and Taylor began their second pairing in the ambitious if not a bit bloated civil war drama, Raintree County.  During a break in studio shooting in Hollywood, Taylor had a small party attended by, among others, her husband Michael Wilding, Rock Hudson, his wife Phyllis Gates, and Kevin McCarthy.  Clift, who by this time had a terrible problem with alcohol, left by himself, rather sloshed, driving down the steep winding road and had a serious accident.  He had serious damage done to that beautiful face.  While he would recover enough to live another 10 years, his face was never really the same and he would never really recover in other ways.

He now had a great deal of pain to add to his plate.  He was an alcoholic, on a number of prescription drugs which he often misused and was constantly in a state of termoil over something.  Serious conflict.  One of those issues was certainly being gay.  Dear Monty was born too early, that's for sure.  Maybe he's back today as a young gay man sans conflict.  He had issues about how to live a gay life, about love, about being used, about having a small endowment.  He enjoyed sex with men, but he never really accepted being a gay man.

He looked older and not well in 1958's Lonelyhearts, a moody, largely unseen little film I quite liked because of the fabulous acting of Clift and Robert Ryan and Loy.  It was about a newspaper reporter writing a column he didn't enjoy and thought he was ill-equipped to handle and his unscrupulous editor and the man's alcoholic wife. 

I didn't particularly care for 1958's The Young Lions, but it did also featured Marlon Brando, which made it interesting to watch the two in the same film.  In 1959 he was paired for the final time with Taylor and joining them was the mighty Katharine Hepburn.  Oddly, Clift played a psychiatrist while the ladies were either under his care or should have been and yet in real life Clift was the one being looked after by both actresses.  It was evident that he was slipping although I still found his acting riveting.

There were only five more films to be made but two of them were glowing performances and interestingly, neither was a lead role.  The first was 1961's The Misfits.  It might be forgotten by some that he was even in the film as so much attention is rightly focused on Marilyn Monroe and Clark Gable.  The latter would die shortly after the film was completed and both Monroe and Clift were ill... either emotionally, physically, mentally or combinations thereof.  Their scene together where she cradles his head in her lap absolutely mesmerizes me to this day, knowing what I do about both of them.

His very brief appearance in the same year's Judgment at Nuremberg, would earn him an Oscar nomination as a feeble-minded Jew who has been sterilized by the Nazis.  It was an effecting, gut-wrenching performance... the last really great one of his career.  His behavior from now on would be especially erratic and of concern to everyone who knew him. 

In 1978 Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich published the wonderful and insightful Montgomery Clift by Patricia Bosworth.  A year earlier Robert LaGuardia wrote Monty (Arbor House).  Both are recommended for the serious Clift fan.

His cause of death at age 45 was ruled as occlusive coronary artery disease but most would say he died of a broken body.  It was apparently difficult for him to be Montgomery Clift.  He needed acting for him to act out at all.  He was a shy man who became alive when he acted.  But acting brought fame and for a private man who really was quite a secretive man, this was all too much.  The drinking dulled it all for him and finally his weakened body just quit.

He gave us, however, an impressive but small body of work.  He  desperately cared about the truth of his characters.  He did so while never playing the Hollywood game.  He never lived there.  He was never under contract to a studio (when it was the thing to do).  He turned down as many roles as he accepted.  For a short while, he dazzled us with a beautiful face and a search for the truth in story-telling and a way about him, like Monroe, that made one want to hold him and tell him it was all going to be okay.

Answers to May 16 quiz.

  1. Sissy Spacek played Loretta Lynn
      Marion Cotillard played Edith Piaf
      Reese Witherspoon played June Carter
      Barbra Streisand played Fannie Brice

  2. Cyd Charisse (B)
      Judy Garland (B)
      Vera-Ellen (B)
      Joan Crawford (F)
      Joan Leslie (F)
      Joan Fontaine (F)
      Jeanne Crain (N)
      Mitzi Gaynor (G)
      Jane Powell (F)
      Leslie Caron (B)
      Rita Hayworth (B)
      Betty Hutton (F)

 3. Jessica Lange

 4. Renee Zellweger

 5. Robert Redford

 6. Jamie Lee Curtis

 7. Van Heflin (had to leave his wife first)

 8. The Women

 9. The Sun Comes Up

10. Peter Gallagher

11. Shelley Winters

NEXT POSTING:  June 1... taking a short holiday

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