Today, 17 October 2021, marks 101 years since the birth of American actor Montgomery Clift (1920 – 1966). This supremely talented actor was a four-times Academy Award-nominee and is known for such films as The Search (1948), From Here to Eternity (1953) and Judgement at Nuremberg (1961). He often played smooth-talking, melancholy and mysterious men who rebelled against the establishment. Despite the immensity of Clift’s talent and charisma, however, Hollywood never seemed to know what to think of him and he was often portrayed “a black sheep” of the cinema business, a perpetually tortured soul who privately fought many mental and physical battles. Though never openly gay or bisexual, Clift always had his private life under wraps and struggled to fit into the image that Hollywood wanted him to fit into: the image of the Golden Boy who is after money, financial success and women. Though now often overshadowed by, and even compared unfavourably to, such cinematic icons as James Dean and Marlon Brando, Montgomery Clift deserved and still deserves much more, especially since both of these actors looked up to Clift and was inspired by his image to forge theirs. Clift was one of the most talented American actors and, unfortunately, one of the most misunderstood ones, who valued the craft of acting above financial success or even critical/public opinion, who wanted desperately to retain his unassuming, independent and original inner core despite the environment that constantly wanted to mould him into something else, a Hollywood environment that favoured flashy displays of wealth, stereotypes and double-dealings. Clift’s story is as much a tale of one talented and intelligent actor following a tragic path as a story of Hollywood’s callousness and complacency.
Montgomery Clift was born on 17 October 1920 in Omaha Nebraska, the youngest of three children (coming second after his twin sister Ethel). He had a well-to-do upbringing, was privately tutored, and when his family moved to New York City, pursued a stage career, appearing in a number of well-known plays. Then, at the age of 25, he finally got to Hollywood and appeared alongside John Wayne in a film Red River (1948) and in The Search (1948). It was impossible not to be smitten by this new actor who was not only unbelievably handsome but also talented when it came to acting and passionate when it came to his roles. He later appeared in such films as From Here To Eternity (1953), I Confess (1953) and The Misfits (1961). Behind the façade of success, however, all was not too well. Though in love with acting, Clift undoubtedly found it hard to adjust to his new celebrity status because of his sensitive, almost quiet personality and sheltered childhood, and battled a number of health problems besides, including dysentery which he developed in 1942 and had to deal with for the rest of his life. Other things complicated his life. Clift found it hard to deal with all the rumours that surrounded his private life, and being a creative and curious person, as well as a risk-taker, who valued the cinema for the art that it was rather for big names or financial success, he made some bad film choices, and turned down roles in such films as On the Waterfront (1954) and Sunset Boulevard (1950). His statements included: “Failure and its accompanying misery is for the artist his most vital source of creative energy” and “The closer we come to the negative, to death, the more we blossom”. Hence, he became known early to rely on prescription drugs to deal with many of his “issues”, depressions and physical and mental troubles.
Then, in 1956, Clift was involved in a major car accident while returning from a party. One side of his face was paralysed and he never apparently recovered the full confidence that he had in himself before the tragedy. As he had to deal with chronic pain and growing despair about his career, his reliance on drugs and alcohol only intensified. It seems that his health and mental state were so bad during his final years that no company would risk employing him as an actor because he was so unreliable and his friend Elisabeth Taylor even had to pull all her resources and connections to get him a role in Suddenly, Last Summer (1959). In fact, she stated that she would only act in the film if Clift would get the role of Dr. John Cukrowicz, and he did. His scenes had to be filmed over protracted periods of time in order to let him rest. His unforgettable seven-minute appearance in Judgment at Nuremberg (1961) was one of his last performances and he died of heart-attack on 23 July 1966 at his apartment in New York at the age of 45.
A part of the charm of Montgomery Clift was that he never seemed to know how good he really was. Him being always a little uncomfortable, a little unsure was part of his irresistible appeal and, certainly, a very distinctive trait for an actor.
In times, when it is was considered normal to ply actors with alcohol and prescription medication to get them “fit” for work, Clift surely overstayed his visit to Hollywood’s pharmacy department (and not only him at that time), but, no matter how tragic it sounds, Clift’s knowledge of what pain and loneliness are only made his onscreen personalities all the more sympathetic and true-to-life. As it is so evident in such films as Suddenly, Last Summer and A Place in the Sun, his characters were always the ones who truly listened to what others had to say to them (rather than waiting for their turn to speak); these characters were complicated and sympathised with the hardship and suffering of others on screen (or regretted their own bad actions and suffered from their own emotional or mental trauma, as scenarios may dictate). Clift presented alienated characters like few actors could at that time and will always be remembered for his fearless devotion to each and every one of his roles.
Montgomery Clift did not make many films in his career, but if you have seen only one of them, you cannot possibly forget it. Clift’s bewitching screen presence was undeniable. On screen, he was both full of confidence and unassuming, powerful, but also self-deprecating. He truly made his audience believe in his performances and roles. The role of an actor fitted Clift perfectly, the role of a movie star only confined, exhausted and bewildered him. Thus, Clift should be remembered for what he wanted to become and did: a master of his craft, fully committed to his profession and to each of his roles, a person who wanted to try different facets of cinema and push the limits of what he can do, to create original personalities on screen, while remaining true to himself and to his vision of others.