Sensitive, vulnerable, brooding, and suspiciously single. These are just among the many words which have been used to describe Montgomery Clift, the enigmatic Hollywood heartthrob of the 1950s who was born a hundred years ago today. A four-time Oscar nominee, Clift was a ferocious bright young talent with depth and soul to burn… and a posthumous gay icon who drunk himself to an early death at 45. Even now, biographers struggle to wrap their heads around the actor’s puzzling personal life; from his lonely, suppressed romances to delusions of ancestry and tragic decline. Can we ever really know a star?
Known to his loved ones as “Monty,” the man who would be Montgomery Clift was born Edward Montgomery Clift on 17 October 1920, in Omaha, the largest city in Nebraska that also spawned celebrated Hollywood nobility such as Fred Astaire and Marlon Brando.
Clift had English and Scottish ancestry. On both sides of his family, Clift descended from immense social privilege…or so his mum believed. His father William Brooks Clift was a vice-president of the Omaha National Trust Company. His mother, Ethel, was adopted and told that her biological family were Yankee elites who were forced to give up their daughter after the “tyrannical will” of her mother tore the aristocratic family apart.
Ethel Fogg Anderson would devote the rest of her life to gain the recognition of her alleged Southern relations. Luckily, she had a charming trio of offspring to help: Clift a twin sister, Ethel, who survived him by 48 years, and an older brother, William Brooks Clift, Jr. (1919–1986), marking Clift out as the only sibling not named after a parent.
Clift was only 13 years old when he joined the local theatre. Impressed by his talent and commitment to the fine arts, his mother encouraged him to pursue the art of acting. After making his Broadway debut at the age of 15 as Prince Peter in the Cole Porter musical, Jubilee, he joined what would become a primordial production: an adaption of Noël Coward’s Hay Fever, one of the very first American television broadcasts which was aired on 28 July 1939 at the New York World’s Fair just prior to the outbreak of World War II.
Monty was one of the first actors to be invited to study at the Actors Studio, a membership for professional actors founded in 1947 to refine the art of acting, and most famous for pushing “method acting” as a mainstream pedagogy for thespians.
At the ripe age of 25, Clift made the big move to Hollywood, joining millions of starry-eyed hopefuls who did the same thing. Of course, most of these wannabes didn’t have their first ever movie role opposite John Wayne, who Clift appeared with in 1948’s Red River.
Although The Search (also 1948) was only his second film, Monty reworked the script himself after being unhappy with its quality. It might have paid off. The film gave him his first Best Actor nomination at the Oscars for his role as an American soldier, who looks after a child concentration camp survivor. The film itself was nominated for Best Adapted Screenplay.
How good were his notes?
A leading man of near-mythical status, Clift’s film career went from strength to strength despite him being notoriously choosy with his roles. He invariably played the desperate, the drunken, and the deceived, and the trajectory of his life was as tragic as that in any of his films.
His characters were outsiders in conflict with their surroundings, often victim-heroes like the starry-eyed social climber in George Stevens’s A Place in the Sun (1951); the anguished Catholic priest trapped into hearing a murderer’s confession in Alfred Hitchcock’s hugely undervalued I Confess (1953); the Jewish GI bullied by antisemites in Dmytryk’s The Young Lions, in which he starred with Brando in 1958.
Part of Clift’s persona was his immaculate good looks. He had a sculpted, rangy handsomeness; a set jaw and the sort of quiffy side parting that’s only recently started a comeback. With a profile too neat for approach and too delicate for machismo, he was often filmed in soft focus, something studio-era filmmakers tended to reserve for their leading ladies. And one of them, in William Wyler’s The Heiress, a lovelorn Olivia de Havilland even sighs: “Father, don’t you think he’s the most beautiful man you’ve ever seen?”
This uncommon physical beauty would be inexorably feed into the myth-making around Clift, part of which revolved around what was assumed to be a natural moodiness and vanity. However, his seismographically delicate face and big, pleading eyes conveyed his inner struggles and torment. Like his homie, the occasionally homo Brando, Clift was an intense, deeply in-tuned perfectionist who would struggle to best his fifties peak.
Despite their professional rivalry, Monty and Marlon deeply respected each other’s talents, and when both men were up for Best Actor at the 1951 Academy Awards, they actually voted for each other’s performances over their own. They really did, seriously. Clift voted for Brando in A Streetcar Named Desire, while Brando voted for Clift in A Place in the Sun and was certain Clift would beat him.
For the record, they both lost to ole croaky Humphrey Bogart in The African Queen.
Unlike most of his Hollywood peers, who based themselves around Los Angeles, Clift lived in New York. It was a decision that, compared to his peers, largely left his sometimes dangerous liaisons out of the scandal and gossip tabloids, to the point where some people even debated whether a love life existed at all. But as the years passed, it became more and more clear that Clift wasn’t just picky. He was, at least in the press portrayal, something approaching asexual—the title of a Motion Picture article, “authored” by Clift, said it all, declaring simply, “I Like It Lonely!”
Monty certainly had close female friendships, including with a woman named Myra Letts, whom the tabloids tried arduously to frame as a love interest. Intriguingly, instead of playing the game and manufacturing beards for publicity purposes, Clift’s rebuttal was firm and surprisingly candid: he would insist to the platonic nature of these friendships, emphasising that they were neither in love nor engaged—they’d known each other for 10 years, she helped him with his work, and “those romantic rumours are embarrassing to both of us.”
There was also much speculation of an entanglement with stage actress Libby Holman. Holman was 16 years his senior, and had become a notorious feature in the gossip columns following the suspicious death of her wealthy husband, rumours of lesbianism, and her general practice of dating younger men. Clift was so protective of Holman that when offered the plum role of the male lead in Sunset Boulevard, he turned it down—reportedly to avoid any suggestion that Libby Holman was his own delusional Norma Desmond, using a handsome young man to pursue her lost stardom.
Elizabeth Taylor was also an enduring, significant figure in his short life. The duo appeared together in three films: A Place in the Sun, Raintree County, and Suddenly, Last Summer, and remained great buddies until his death.
At GLAAD Media Awards in 2000, Taylor was honoured for her tireless work for the LGBT community and AIDS fundraising, and in her moving speech that night she made the first public declaration by anyone of the fact that Clift was gay, calling him, James Dean and Rock Hudson “my colleagues, co-workers, confidants… my closest friends. But I never thought of who they slept with. They were just the people I loved.”
With most of the alleged gay, bi, or persuadable actors on this manifest, it appears Clift’s struggles with his sexual orientation wasn’t entirely a secret within Hollywood’s inner circles. In Truman Capote’s unpublished novel Answered Prayers, for example, the author imagines a dinner party between Monty, Dorothy Parker, and flamboyant stage actress Tallulah Bankhead:
At that time, being in a same-sex relationship was a career-killer, so there was great pressure on stars to appear completely heterosexual. Plus, there were even more dire consequences for being gay, such as blackmail or arrest. Clift was a victim of his era, though he was markedly less guarded about his sexuality than many Hollywood historians would have you believe. Perhaps they were more confused than he was. His family certainly seemed to be.
While his elder brother Brooks came to the conclusion that Clift was “probably bisexual,” during a taped phone call with their mother, Ethel Fogg “Sunny” Clift breezily notes that: “Monty was a homosexual very early. Oh, I think it was about 12 or 13.”
However well swung he was, it appears he took in his first regular male lover in 1940, a fellow actor. And in 1949, Clift was arrested on New York’s 42nd Street for soliciting, though film studio Paramount intervened to ensure that the charge was dropped without publicity. With typical ambiguity, Monty once told a close friend, “I love men in bed, but I really love women!” Nevertheless, he had affairs with choreographer Jerome Robbins and fellow actor Roddy McDowall, who attempted suicide after their breakup.
In 1992, my old Mojo colleague Barney Hoskyns authored an illuminating biography entitled Montgomery Clift: Beautiful Loser, because, the narrative goes that in the history of beautiful losers none was more beautiful, more talented, or more lost than Monty.
The book doesn’t mince words. At one point in his unflinching rendering of the tormented star, Hoskyns writes, “In the summer of 1954…Monty rented a house up in Ogunquit, Maine, and gave himself up to bouts of sadomasochistic sex with boys he picked up on the beach.”
Monty would often make discreet trips to Ogunquit — a New England equivalent of Long Island’s gay enclave Fire Island, and scene of this writer’s heart attack in 2019 — because gay men could have trysts without being noticed. The better known meat rack that is Fire Island would be on the agenda too.
Little was published about his affairs, and he was fiercely determined to keep that troubling aspect of himself under wraps, knowing full well that LGBT actors had to stay in the closet if they wanted to work, but more that he struggled with the very concept of sexual identity. Just as his androgynous beauty attracted both men and women, he could not quite come to terms with his sexuality and would not define himself as homosexual, even his male lovers.
According to the Hollywood pimp of the Golden Age, Scotty Bowers, who would fix up tricks for Clift while he was in Los Angeles filming Judgment At Nuremberg with Marlene Dietrich and Judy Garland, claims that Monty would always want someone new, someone different, someone he hadn’t had sex with before. He was also excessively fussy and hard to please. Bowers states that after he had gone out of his way to find the perfect physical playmate for him, Clift dismissed the fella bluntly, moaning that “his prick is an inch too long.”
On other occasions, Bowers claims, “If it wasn’t too long then it was an inch too short, or the guy’s hair was not parted properly, or his feet were too small, or his toes too bony. There was always something wrong. Monty was never satisfied.”
Bowers continued to provide tricks for Monty until he was finished filming on the 1961 film after which Clift left LA to settle back in New York. The pimp remarked, cuttingly, “I cannot say I regretted seeing him leave town.”
To mix things up, Singin’ In The Rain starlet (and Carrie Fisher’s mom, of course), Debbie Reynolds claimed in her memoir Unsinkable that despite Elizabeth Taylor being married at the time to British actor Michael Wilding, it was obvious she and Clift had more than onscreen romance. She recounts a fateful dinner party at the home of Taylor and Wilding, on top of one of those winding canyons that sit above Beverly Hills.
“[They] laughed and giggled while making out in the water in front of us all…even though Monty had boyfriends as well as girlfriends, it was obvious that he and Elizabeth had been intimate. Elizabeth could seduce any man, gay or straight.”
Clift, whose many demons included a more public affair with the bottle, had consumed too much alcohol that night, and after leaving the bash fell asleep and wrapped his car around a telephone pole, eight months after his pal James Dean died in a similar accident nearby. When Monty was cleared from the wreckage his body was found to be mostly unharmed but he had a severe concussion and his impossibly handsome, chiseled face was disfigured, swollen to twice its size.
It’s become Hollywood lore that after being alerted by a friend who had witnessed the collision, Taylor rushed to assist her beloved friend. Reynolds states of her fellow icon and love rival:
“Elizabeth stuck her hand in his mouth, felt the back of his throat where some of his teeth had become lodged after being knocked out, and pulled them to prevent him from choking. He might have died if she hadn’t come to his aid.”
After the crash, Clift’s career began to decline and he fell victim to even greater alcohol abuse, also consuming large quantities of amphetamines and downers to dull the pain. Marilyn Monroe, his co-star in The Misfits along with Clark Gable, once called him “the only person I know who’s in worse shape than I am.”
Monty’s roles during this final period of his career sometimes seemed to show a painful self-awareness of the discomforting changes to his appearance. In the 1961 film — both Monroe and Gable’s last — his busted-up rodeo star speaks on a payphone to his mother, mumbling, “Nah, my face has healed up fine.”
The pictures from the set are as poignant as they are heartbreaking: it’s as if all three were meditating on their respective declines, and there’s a sad, peaceful resignation at the difference between what their bodies could do and how people wanted to remember them.
During his devastating cameo in Judgement At Nuremberg as a mentally handicapped man sterilised by the Nazis, Clift stutters and slurs and jabbers to the point that people assumed he was drunkenly ad-libbing about his own personal free-fall. But something of the old talent remained—or at least enough to earn him a nomination for best-supporting actor, playing, in the words of film critic David Thomson, “a victim irretrievably damaged by suffering.”
Before the crash, Monty had been able to contemplate his reflection in the mirror as if it were an objet d’art; afterward, he could hardly bear to look at it. His face had been cruelly impaired and partially paralysed, suffering a fractured sinus, his nose broken in two places, his jaw broken in four, his cheekbones cracked, and several facial lacerations that required plastic surgery.
According his friend, the actor Jack Larson:
“Of course, he looked completely different. His mouth was twisted. nerve had been severed in his left cheek so that the left side of his face was practically immobile — frozen. His nose, that perfect nose! was bent — crooked — out of shape. He looked stuffed, that’s the only way I can put it.”
Worse than stuffed is that he now looked, for lack of a better word, weird. It is hard to put your finger on. Initially, he didn’t look that different from his pre-accident appearance. But there was something uncanny and “off” about the new visage. There was a quality of stillness to it, like a mask or a mannequin.
Perhaps Liz Taylor describes it best: “What it did was take away the delicacy of his features: not the beauty, but the delicacy”.
After a period of intense rehabilitation, Clift continued to do good work alongside the greatest screen artists of his time, but it was no longer a period of promise and knocking it out of the park. He became difficult to be around, his greatest fear that he would be unable to recapture his artistry, the talent for expressive nuance for which he was noted.
But then he found a way. His eyes hadn’t lost their famous expressiveness, and he learned to use his hands and his body to interpret character through gesture. Nevertheless, he was now labouring under hardship, and went from swimming upstream to going downhill. The pain the actor suffered led him to rely ever more on alcohol and pills for relief, and as his addictions continued to take their toll, additional ravages were taking hold.
When he finally played opposite Brando in The Young Lions, Clift always had his handy flask containing a mixture of whiskey, crushed Demerol and fruit juice. Even his one-time rival was concerned and told him:
“In a way I hate you. I always hated you because I want to be better than you, but you’re better than me. You’re my touchstone, my challenge, and I want you and me to go on challenging each other… and I thought you would until you started this foolishness.”
Acting teacher Robert Lewis called Clift’s late career “the longest suicide in Hollywood history.” But as film professor Amy Lawrence argues in The Passion of Montgomery Clift, it’s tricky disentangling Clift’s dependency on the painkillers and alcohol from general post-war drinking habits and the treatment required for his injuries.
Montgomery Clift died in the bathtub of his Manhattan townhouse of a heart attack brought on by occlusive coronary artery disease on 23 July 1966. He was a mere seedling of 45. A simple Episcopal funeral service was held at St. James’s Church on Madison Avenue, attended by Lauren Bacall and Frank Sinatra, who just happened to be sitting atop the Billboard charts with Strangers in the Night.
In the past, Clift counted Sinatra as a friend. He had coached the singer for his Oscar-winning role of Maggio in Zinnemann’s 1953 military epic From Here To Eternity, and had talked him out of committing suicide when Sinatra was despondent after having been rejected by Ava Gardner.
Monty was enamoured by the singer, and would proudly show off the gold cigarette lighter Ol’ Blue Eyes had given him for Christmas 1953 that was engraved “Merry merry, buddy boy. I’m with you all the way. Maggio.”
The two were close for a while until the night Clift got shitfaced drunk and came on sexually to a man at a premiere party in Bel Air; Sinatra witnessed the incident and had his bodyguards throw him out. So much for that for others, when the strain of coping with the other side of Clift’s personality — the alcoholism, drug abuse, bizarre behaviour finally proved too great.
Thirteen years after his untimely death, The Clash’s iconic London Calling album featured a song sardonically dedicated to Clift. The Right Profile was inspired by a recent book the band’s producer Guy Stevens had picked up. The title is a reference to the way the actor had to be shot by the camera in order to preserve his appearance post-accident.
Indeed, in frontman Joe Strummer’s personal archive there exists a copy of Patricia Bosworth’s biography of Monty, signed and dated 28 July 1979, forty years to the day that saw Clift make his screen debut. Clash tour manager Johnny Green:
“At Wessex, Guy fished this book out of his bag, it was Patricia Bosworth’s Montgomery Clift biography. He was telling Joe ‘If you’re going to write a song about somebody, write one about Montgomery Clift!’”
So he did. The Right Profile recounts all kinds of episodes in the life of Montgomery Clift, from his hustling, his films, to the car accident and subsequent addiction.
It’s curious that Clift’s body of work, which privileges convincing performance over the psychological excavation championed by many of his peers, hasn’t dated in the way that some of the mannerisms favoured by Marlon Brando or James Dean have. And yet, he is seldom listed in more canonical film writing; Monty’s iconography positively miniscule compared to many of his co-stars. Might his poignant performances have commanded more respect if he weren’t so ravishingly good looking?
And if you didn’t know who he was then now you do because, as Joe Strummer bellows…
That’s Montgomery Clift, honey!
BONUS BEATS: *Patricia Bosworth’s Montgomery Clift: A Life is a greatly recommended read. Bosworth, though 87 and in her twilight years, died in April 2020, another victim of the Covid-19 pandemic. She is just as fascinating a character as anyone she ever wrote about; I mean, how could you not be a biographer if your name is Bosworth?
At any rate, themes in Monty’s life announce themselves as a result of her eminently perceptive writing: physical perfection vs. physical frailty; fame vs. the need for recognition; masculinity vs. femininity; permanence vs. transience; tradition vs. experiment, heartland origins vs. worldly sophistication etc.
As Supermarket Sweep legend Dale Winton would have said, check it out.