Montgomery Clift - the Actor's Actor
Where do I begin? I was mesmerized when I first saw this man on the big screen. What presence he had. Not a big man, quite the opposite, he stood 5 ft. 10 in., but slumped, and along with his slight build looked much smaller than he was. Something about him exploded off the screen. He had that "it" factor that made other actors take notice.
Burt Lancaster once said that when they did their first scene together in From Here to Eternity his legs were trembling because he felt he was watching greatness from this actor that he, Burt could not match. Here was Burt playing the tough army sergeant and Monty was the lowly private, yet Burt was overpowered in the scene by Monty's magnetism and wondered why the director did not stop filming to allow Burt to quit shaking.
At age 27 Monty made his big screen debut with two films, the second of which was Red River with John Wayne. Duke portrayed the rough, overbearing adoptive father of a young, innocent Clift in this well received western about a man trying to get his cattle to the Red River and the private battle that arises between the two very stubborn men.
This is where I was first introduced to Montgomery Clift. He was a gentle man with a certain style all his own of facial expressions and mannerisms that were crafted in the Actor's Studio in New York. The method actor, such as James Dean, Marlon Brando and Al Pacino was a product of the teachings of Lee Strasberg. Monty learned well and in my opinion served his teacher better than any other before, or after him.
Monty's very first silver screen appearance brought him an Academy Award nomination for Best Actor in a Leading Role with his portrayal of a soldier in post war German helping a mother find her child in The Search. I would not see this film for many years and although I enjoyed it, The Search was not his best. But, receiving an Oscar nomination right from his first film shows where this film icon was heading.
When Monty teamed up with Elizabeth Taylor in 1951's A Place in the Sun (one of my wife's very favorite films), audiences realized they were watching a true leading man and sex symbol. He just captivated your imagination as drifter George Eastman vying for the affections of a rich socialite, Liz Taylor, still very young, but almost at her most beautiful at just nineteen.
Monty's complexity in his personality went from quiet, humble and love-sick to manipulating and calculative in his desire to have the one thing in this world that he wanted most. He killed the very unpretentious Shelley Winters doing what she did best as the girlfriend who felt inadequate and desperate for the love of a man that had constant thoughts of another. Monty's final scene on death row with Liz is one that stays with you forever. You actually feel sorry for this man who has taken another's life in order to have what he wants.
In 1953's From Here to Eternity, everyone in the film is great! Frank Sinatra and Donna Reed won Oscars for supporting roles. Burt Lancaster, Deborah Kerr and Monty were nominated for Best Actor and Best Actress. Even Ernest Borgnine was terrific as Fatso. But, for me it was Montgomery Clift as Private Robert E. Lee Pruitt. Every scene he was in he captivated. When he blew taps it was a work of art. When he ran mile after mile with full backpack out of punishment for not wanting to box for the company commander, he brought you into the celluloid and you couldn't get out. And his fight with Fatso was a thing of beauty for the all the little guys everywhere.
Only in the drunk scene in the middle of the road which found Lancaster and Monty blocking traffic did another take the spotlight. Sinatra was brilliant stumbling out of the dark, having been beaten by Fatso at the guard house and now falling at his friends feet and dying. And, of course we can not leave out the most talked about love scene in movie history. Monty did not take part in that scene; it was all Burt and Deborah. There they lay on the Hawaiian beach kissing feverishly as the tide rolled over them time and time again. In today's standards, this was a cartoon of a sex scene, but in 1953 it was magic.
Monty had battles with pills and depression over his guilt of being homosexual. Odd that he was so convincing upon the screen with Liz Taylor, or Jenifer Jones in his arms. He was Liz's best friend and they spent many hours together both on and off the set. While filming Raintree County in 1956, Monty had an accident after leaving a party at Liz's residence. Liz pulled two of his teeth from his throat and saved his life, but the damage was done to his famous profile. He would have plastic surgery, but would never really look the same. You could tell in some of the final scenes he shot for Raintree County that it just was not that youthful, extraordinarily handsome face that we had become accustomed to.
Monty would continue to make films and very good ones including 1961's Judgment at Nuremberg for which he would earn a 4th Oscar nomination. That same year, Monty did a movie with Clark Gable and Marilyn Monroe which would be their last. Gable died after filming was completed and Marilyn would take her life a year later. However, Monty's popularity was declining; possibly from losing his most valuable property, his looks. He still had that gift for acting, but it just wasn't enough to carry him in high esteem any longer with the public.
Montgomery Clift was found dead by his partner in 1966 having died from a coronary artery disease. He was only 45. Other films of notice were The Heiress with Olivia De Havilland, The Young Lions with Marlon Brando and Dean Martin, a film that I loved, and Freud. His final film after a four year hiatus was The Defector in 1966. Clift was born on October 17, 1920 in Omaha, Nebraska and died on July 23, 1966 in New York, New York.