Matinée-idol good looks, four Oscar nominations, the respect of legendary peers – not the typical life of someone so often described as committing the “longest suicide in Hollywood history”. Montgomery Clift brought to the screen a new form of sensitive, tortured masculinity. Starring in a variety of roles across three decades, his career lasted longer than James Dean’s and was certainly more consistent than Marlon Brando’s, yet he is often side-lined in favour of his contemporaries. Perhaps it was his car accident that shattered that portrait of Hollywood glamour the public adored. Robbed of his youthfulness and slowly withdrawing from a vicious industry, Clift serves as a reminder of how quickly people are discarded. This essay won’t attempt to unravel the ‘real’ Monty, nor shall it linger on his tragic accident. Enough has been said elsewhere about his facial surgery and various personal difficulties. Instead, what follows is a celebration of his talent, the meaning that can be gleaned from the characters he played, and how his work pre and post accident offers insight into what he strove to achieve.
Known for portraying moody, contemplative characters, Clift was never one to gift himself an easy role. Rising to fame after appearing as a young cowboy in Red River and a soldier caring for a lost boy in the aftermath of WWII in The Search, he always instilled a great amount of ambiguity in his characters. The western could have provided a rather straightforward, heroic role for his film debut, but Clift’s portrayal is rich in uncertainty and inner conflict. His more modern sensibilities clashed with those of ultra-masculine John Wayne, enhancing Red River’s story of a tyrannical rancher and his adopted son. Clift’s quiet, suggestive performance has become the subject of LGBTQ+ theory, based on a memorable moment where he and John Ireland’s character swap guns, admiring each other’s weapon during a test of skill. Although lesser-known than his later work, The Search offers a showcase for the warmth and humour Clift possessed. Despite Clift generally being characterised as a tortured soul, the film almost acts as a therapeutic exercise for the new generation overcoming the outdated, stoic masculinity displayed by Wayne in Red River. From adopted son to loving carer of a frightened German boy, the attitude displayed in Clift’s early work speaks for itself. He was going to do his own thing and not give a damn about convention.
By his own admission, Clift supposedly had no interest in becoming a symbol for any movement or ideology; he simply wanted to tell stories. Perhaps it was a subconscious move that the early roles he took all had something in common – they were characters in search of themselves. They were people looking for a purpose while running from one thing or another. In The Heiress, he plays fortune hunter, Morris Townsend, feigning love for Catherine Sloper (Olivia De Havilland) to inherit her family’s wealth. In A Place in the Sun, George Stevens (Clift) is a working-class man determined to achieve the American Dream, succumbing to a dark place after leading a double life of dating two women at once. In both films, he hides his true nature and is driven to extremes. Each character seeks wealth through his relationships with women, albeit in different circumstances, and are their own worst enemy. Clift imbues these troublesome figures with subtlety and introspection. His pained expressions and soft-spoken manner create sympathy where, arguably, there should be none. As Morris Townsend, he has villainous intent, but the character is played with such believability that it’s difficult to completely deny his feelings for Catherine. Even in the moment where she declares she will choose him and forsake her fortune, where the audience can see the flicker of despair as his handsome mask slips, there is something enchanting about this man who claims he would offer her the world. He has revealed himself for the briefest moment, and yet there remains the possibility that he does still care for her. It is due to the strength of the lead performances that Morris’ charade is so convincing. Surely such a charming, gentle person cannot be deceitful to a woman as innocent as Catherine. Sincerity is also conveyed through his work as George Stevens. While a more tragic figure, he is nonetheless guilty of a terrible act of self-preservation. Clift needs no extended monologue or grand gesture to perfectly capture what the character is feeling. His mournful eyes and delicate movements usher in a new form of acting. More authentic than his predecessors, he made his characters truly feel real, and this is why viewers can relate to someone so tremendously flawed. It helps that Clift seemingly had no objections to playing the love interest, heavily romanticised by his female co-stars. This softer, decidedly un-macho Clift was a leading man with whom audiences could identify, irrespective of gender.
Clift seemed determined not to let his good looks constrain his work. His dark, morally conflicted characters weren’t the most typical roles for a young leading man. As a priest questioning his past and his own livelihood in I Confess and a soldier continually harassed for refusing to join his squad’s boxing team in From Here to Eternity, he continued to redefine masculinity through inward performances with implications of pacifism. His characters were lonely souls re-examining their identity, just as Clift was finding his own place in Hollywood. Maybe he didn’t care about being a rebellious icon, but his choices certainly illustrated the non-conformity popular at the time. He rose to fame shortly after WWII as the US was re-establishing itself in a post-war world. Playing characters who were striving to survive but tired of fighting clearly spoke to people’s new sensibilities. Which is partly why it is so unfortunate that the narrative surrounding him turned on its head. On the night of May 12th, 1956, a fateful car crash stole his looks, his youth, and people’s empathy.
The remainder of his career and legacy has been beset with stories of his altered appearance, abuse of painkillers and alcohol, and a misconception of self-loathing due to his alleged homosexuality. Frequent media speculation about his behaviour clearly did not help matters, as he himself contested the legitimacy of their articles and was frustrated with his treatment by the press and the industry. Clift’s focus was on the work and he was proud of his later films, delivering some of his greatest performances amid reports that painted the picture of a severely dysfunctional, miserable artist – one who struggled to remember lines or make it to the end of a scene in one take. However, he always retained that magnetic, deeply natural quality that first made him a star back in the 1940s.
If his earlier films focused on finding oneself, his later features seemed to embrace his vulnerability and mine his personal problems for maximum emotional effect. His performance in Suddenly, Last Summer suggests the beginning of this shift in career trajectory. It is a shaky, somewhat self-conscious effort at reclaiming his own narrative but displays his refusal to be defined by the media’s distorted image. Close friend and co-star Elizabeth Taylor allegedly used her influence to secure his casting at a time when he was uninsurable due to his ill-health, according to Robert LaGuardia’s 1977 biography. The film stands as a fascinating comparison to A Place in the Sun, his previous collaboration with Taylor. In their earlier endeavour, Clift was at the height of his fame and fully in command of the screen. In this work, Taylor takes centre stage, bolstering Clift’s confidence. His eyes and the slight quiver in his voice suggest his great trust in her. Their dynamic in Hollywood may have changed but their friendship is evident, with an ironic display of Taylor helping Clift, while his role is to care for Taylor’s vulnerable psychiatric patient.
Clift’s perseverance in Hollywood is conveyed through his incredibly sombre performances in The Misfits and Judgment at Nuremberg. With the former, about a group of lonesome outsiders struggling to find their place in a changing world, Clift’s aging rodeo cowboy cleverly references his accident, while gradually accepting he needs to let go of the past and face adversity head-on. In the latter film, depicting a trial for war crimes in the aftermath of WWII, Clift gives the most heart-breaking performance of his career. Playing the victim of forced sterilisation on the grounds of ‘mental incompetence’, he pleads his case in an attempt to salvage his dignity. He only appears in one long scene, but it is a gut-wrenching display of brutal honesty. When his late mother’s intelligence is called into question he holds a picture of her to the court, begging for compassion: “Was she feebleminded?” From the shy, childlike smile, to the jittery mannerisms, the lump in his throat, and a flash of fury, it is a towering display of openness that is both captivating and difficult to watch. Perhaps it was hard for people to look past the media stories because he chose roles about broken, tragic figures, but Clift used this to his advantage. He cleverly adapted, perhaps striving for a semblance of compassion. If people are only going to see the actor, then he can release any anger and frustration through artistic expression. If he never fully disappears into the character and sheds his own persona, he comes incredibly close.
If fate were different, Clift may have died in that accident and forever remained a young, beautiful star in the eyes of the world. Maybe then he would be idolised in the same manner as Dean, but audiences would be deprived of some truly wonderful performances he was yet to deliver. He also never lived as long as Brando, with little opportunity to correct any misconceptions and explain himself, assuming he ever felt that desire. Passing away from a heart attack at 45, the same night The Misfits was airing on television, it’s at once incredibly unfortunate but rather fitting that one of his most genuine works saw him off. Many latched onto the narrative of the self-destructive star or self-loathing homosexual, but it’s more accurate to say Clift was comfortable with who he was and wanted to quietly prove it through his work.