Steve Hayes regales us each week with his dishy, funny, and informative classic movie recommendations as the Tired Old Queen at the Movies!
No hunk in the history of Hollywood had more promise or more problems than Montgomery Clift. Blessed from an early age with an amazing beauty, he proved he was also a natural actor and his mother had him on the stage almost immediately. By the time he was in his late teens, he'd acted on Broadway with Alfred Lunt, Lynn Fontaine and Tallulah Bankhead. He was a Broadway star and had a legion of fans, both men and women. His homosexuality started relatively early and it was something he always felt guilty about and yet angry that he had to keep it hidden.
He was called to Hollywood in 1947 to make his first picture, The Search, Fred Zinneman's story of a displaced refugee child and the American GI who befriends him. Monty became a star overnight and was nominated for an Oscar. Then came Howard Hawk's Red River (1948) with John Wayne, The Heiress (1949) directed by William Wyler with Olivia deHavilland in her Oscar winning role and the movie that set the standard for romantic films of the period, George Steven's A Place In the Sun (1951) with Elizabeth Taylor and Shelly Winters. Based on Theodore Dreiser's "An American Tragedy", Monty fully embodied the character of the drifter who can't help yearning for something better, something just out of reach. Teenagers around the country identified with his restlessness and along with Marlon Brando and James Dean, it placed Clift as one of the preeminent actors of his generation.
Every actor who worked with Monty, noted how he inevitably brought out the best in their performances; particularly Frank Sinatra and Donna Reed, who both won supporting Oscars as Monty's friend and fiancee in From Here To Eternity (1953).
Despite his success, Monty was deeply troubled and innately self-destructive. He drank too much. He formed unhealthy relationships with the older women friends he acquired and with the abusive men he attracted.
One of his female friends and mentors was Libby Holman, a former jazz singer and the heiress to the Reynolds Tobacco fortune. She was a woman who had known plenty of misfortune and tragedy in her own life, her husband's death and the murder trial that followed, her acquittal of the crime because of insufficient evidence, her son's death, her second husband's suicide, she even had her story fictionalized in Written On the Wind by Robert Wilder. Libby over indulged Monty and together they became embroiled in a life of drink and drug use, from which he found it virtually impossible to free himself. He would wear out his friends, abuse them and then beg their forgiveness when he'd hit one of his inevitable bottoms.
He became close to Elizabeth Taylor, whom he often claimed he would have married if the circumstances had been different. "I like men in bed," he once said, "But I love women!" Liz became his protector and life long champion, having literally saved his life by reaching in the back of his throat and removing his teeth which were lodged in his windpipe and chocking him to death, following a car crash he had after one of her parties. This accident ended Monty's beauty and catapulted him into the life of an addict who was hooked on painkillers. He constantly carried a doctor's bag filled with drugs of every kind and his speech became slurred as his concentration and ability to remember lines gradually deteriorated. With each new film, he would find a woman to take care of him and nurse him through the shooting; Hope Lange on The Young Lions (1958), Lee Remick on Wild River (1960) and Myrna Loy on Lonelyhearts (1958) to name a few. And there was always Liz stepping in to get him work and nurse him back to health whenever he needed her, despite her own tragedies.
He found allies on two of his final films from three of the unlikeliest sources. Spencer Tracy and Judy Garland, two brilliant actors with their own troubled histories concerning drugs and alcohol, attempted to help him through Stanley Kramer's all star Judgment at Nuremberg (1961) and Marilyn Monroe did the same on The Misfits (1961). She confided to a friend that Monty was crazier than she was.
By his last films, he'd become desperate to try and recapture what he'd lost, but instead, he became weaker, more vulnerable, and deeper into his addiction. He was reckless and increasingly difficult to work with, insisting on doing his own stunts and nearly drowning in an icy river on location in Germany for his final film The Defector (1966). In 1966, his body simply gave out. He died of a massive heart attack in his apartment in New York at the age of forty-three.
Today, the beauty and subtlety of his performances remain remarkable. Weather holding his own in fisticuffs with an enormous John Wayne in Red River, banging on the door in fear and frustration at the conclusion of The Heiress, playing the trumpet with tears in his eyes in From Here To Eternity or holding and worshipping the beauty of the young Elizabeth Taylor in A Place In the Sun, Monty Clift filled the screen with indelible moments that will remain with his audiences and admirers always.