October 17, 1920– Montgomery Clift:
“The closer we come to the negative, to death, the more we blossom.”
He made his Broadway debut at 13 years old in something titled Fly Away Home (it was a hit comedy starring Mary Wickes). By the time Clift was 18 he had appeared in a dozen plays on Broadway. He had already worked with Alfred Lunt, Lynn Fontaine and Tallulah Bankhead. He earned excellent reviews and received a lot of offers from Hollywood. While working in the theatre world in the early 1940s, he met 38-year-old jazz singer and heiress to the Reynolds Tobacco fortune, Libby Holman. She developed an obsession with the 21 year old actor, even financing a play for him. His relationship with the bisexual Holman caused him to anguish over his own queerness.
The first of many serious illnesses, dysentery, contracted on a Mexican vacation, prevented Clift from active service during World War II. Instead, he spent the war playing soldiers on Broadway. In 1945, he got his first starring Broadway role as a fighter discharged from an Army hospital for mental problems in Foxhole In The Parlor (and all this time, I thought “Foxhole in the Parlor” was a term for a sex position).
He was friends with and an inspiration to James Dean and Marlon Brando. They formed this trio of brooding, intense young performers that were trying out a new style of naturalistic acting personified by The Actors Studio in New York City.
Clift went to Hollywood, but felt he was under-valued there as an actor. Yet, he was, in fact, extremely accomplished at his craft and very well-regarded by critics and his fellow actors. Don’t forget he received four Academy Award nominations, the first one for his second film, The Search (1948).
Clift was an isolated, tortured, closeted gay man. The characters he played were also often lost, confused souls. Although he was gay, he had his closest relationships with several female actors. The closest of all was with dazzling beauty, Elizabeth Taylor.
Taylor and Clift were both passionate and vulnerable young people who felt a bond the moment they met. Taylor claimed that he took her breath away the first time that she ever laid eyed on him. They worked together on several films, beginning with George Stevens‘ A Place In The Sun (1951), bringing him a second Oscar nomination. From what I have read, Taylor and Clift were basically lovers minus the sex part. Has there ever been anything onscreen as beautiful as Taylor and Clift kissing? They remained best of friends until the end of his life.
“I love men in bed, but I really love women!”
He did have an affair with Taylor’s very good friend, actor Roddy McDowall, who attempted suicide after their breakup.
In an attempt to keep his encounters with guys discreet, Clift would travel to popular gay resorts like Ogunquit, Maine and Fire Island. He seems to have gone in for rough sex, but who among us has not? In 1949, he was arrested on 42nd Street in NYC for soliciting, but his film studio found a way to have charges dropped without the press noticing.
Usually popular on the set, Clift was teased by Frank Sinatra while making From Here To Eternity (1953), which brought him his third Academy Award nomination. Clift made a pass at a guy at the premier party for the film and Sinatra had his bodyguards throw him out on the street and he never spoke to him again.
On May 12, 1956, after leaving a party at Taylor’s place on top of one of those winding Los Angeles canyons, Clift drove his car into a telephone pole (eight months after his pal James Dean died in a similar accident). When he was cleared from the wreckage his body was found to be mostly unharmed but his beautiful face was swollen twice its size, he had a severe concussion, his jaw was broken in four places, his nose in two, his cheekbones were cracked and his front teeth were missing. Doctors wired his jaws together. He took amphetamines, downers, and alcohol to dull the pain.
The next year he played opposite Brando in The Young Lions. During the shoot Brando lived on amphetamines. Clift always had his handy flask containing a mixture of whiskey, crushed Demerol and fruit juice. Even Brando 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.”
Yet, Clift continued to act and he gave some of his most memorable performances after the accident: so good in Stanley Kramer‘s Judgment At Nuremberg (1961), with his fourth Oscar nomination (this one for a seven minute role) and John Huston‘s The Misfits (1961). His costar in The Misfits, Marilyn Monroe, found Clift to be a kindred spirit. By this time, Monroe was so addicted to pills she could hardly function, but she could still say of Clift:
“He’s the only person I know who’s in worse shape than I am.”
In 1962, Huston persuaded Clift to star in Freud, a disastrous and destructive film with Clift playing the famous founder of psychoanalysis. It destroyed Clift. The original screenplay was by Jean Paul Sartre, but Huston cut out most of the sexual references, ignoring that this formed the very basis of Freudian Psychology. Clift and Huston were at war during shooting. The director pushed and taxed Clift physically. While filming, Clift was hit accidentally in the eyes. In constant pain, suffering from severe fatigue and disturbing depression, he finished the film only to find himself embroiled in a lawsuit with Universal Studios, who blamed him for the picture going over-budget.
After this shattering experience, he couldn’t find a job. He was uninsurable, sick and desperate. Clift, one of the greatest screen actors of all time, was reduced to eating nothing but canned baby food and painkillers.
His expressive acting, beautiful face and his personal life were never the same after that car crash. Clift made 16 films before the crash and 16 films after.
In the early 1960s, in pain from his injuries, and in physical and emotional despair, Clift plunged deeply into drugs and alcohol, along with alarming behavior, including a particularly volatile affair with Jerome Robbins, the famous choreographer/director. He began causing scenes in public and was in constant need of attention. In restaurants he would throw food and mock the waiters. His friends Arthur Miller, Norman Mailer and even Truman Capote stood by him with sadness.
By the time his last lover, Lorenzo James, found him naked and dead of a heart attack at their apartment in Greenwich Village, on July 23, 1966, Clift was unemployable, broken and broke. When he took his final curtain call, Clift was just 45 years old.
His 15 minute funeral was at attended by 150 mourners, including Lauren Bacall and Sinatra. Clift is buried in the Quaker Cemetery in Prospect Park, Brooklyn. I have visited him there.
If he had lived, Clift would have celebrated his 99th birthday today. I like to think that he would have continued to work in film, maybe even enjoying a triumphant return to Broadway. In the 21st century he might have found a new audience on television, starring with Betty White in a series adaptation of On Golden Pond for Netflix.
Out actor Matt Bomer had signed to play Clift in an upcoming biopic for HBO. That project seems to be in endless turnaround. Bomer, who shares a striking resemblance to Clift, has stated that he immediately felt as though his connection to the great Gay Icon was more than skin-deep. Bomer:
“He was one of those really early screen icons for me to start with. Then once I learned the circumstances of his life, I realized how he was someone who did not want to be relegated to the times he lived in and was so progressive in so many ways.”
Hedda Hopper, that powerful Hollywood columnist, once asked Clift: “In one sentence, what is the story of your life?”
“I’ve been knifed.”