This post is part of the Montgomery Clift Blogathon, organized by Nathaniel R who writes the fine film blog The Film Experience. On this, what would have been Clift's 87th birthday, please follow the link to Nathaniel's place and read the other entries inspired by this great actor.
The true originator of the rebellious twentieth-century antihero was Montgomery Clift...not Marlon Brando or James Dean...the restrained performer with the inner tension and those ancient, melancholy eyes...his presence so unobtrusively strong that it lingered even when he was off-camera.
--Marcello Mastroianni, quoted in Movie Talk
Mastroianni perfectly summarizes the Siren's feelings about Montgomery Clift. He was a supremely talented and dedicated actor. Like many others in the American film pantheon, the sad, sordid facts of his alcoholism and unhappy life tend to dominate discussions of him, but in Clift's case there is another twist: He was gay, primarily attracted to men despite strong and lasting attachments to women such as Elizabeth Taylor and Libby Holman. Even in our more enlightened times, that colors discussion of Clift in ways that usually work to his detriment. The Siren would like to see that change.
Even before Clift's personal life was widely publicized or discussed there was a certain tone to colleagues' talk of him. He was fragile, "the most sensitive man I ever knew. If somebody kicked a dog a mile away he'd feel it," said Edward Dmytryk, director of the ill-fated Raintree County. "My arm still aches from trying to teach Montgomery Clift to throw a punch," said Howard Hawks, thirty years after making Red River. "He's a little queer, isn't he?" said John Wayne to his secretary after meeting Clift. Wayne's macho clique on the set of Red River included Web Overlander, who showed why he was the makeup man and not in casting when he snorted, "Clift couldn't take a piss by himself. Hawks must be an idiot if he thinks that s.o.b. can act." You still can go into corners of the Internet and find people describing Clift as effete or androgynous, such as this introduction to From Here to Eternity that quotes a biographer to the effect that Clift "punched like a girl." This sort of thing never fails to draw a double take from the Siren. From the second she first saw Clift in Red River, he was all man to her.
It comes down, of course, to how you define masculinity. If you see it as behavioral, rooted in camaraderie with other men and cemented with activities like poker playing, hunting, fighting or, at its most extreme, war, then the refined Clift, with his upper-class background and intellectual bent, doesn't rate. If it's being able to hold one's liquor, well, Clift was a famously sloppy drunk. If machismo depends on chasing legions of women, Clift wouldn't have qualified even had his inclinations been in that direction. All his life, sexual partners came to him, not the other way around--at first because of his beauty, later because of his stardom, still later because of that ineffable air of psychic trauma that made people yearn to soothe the wounds.
If the ideal of masculinity is defined instead as strength that radiates from the inside out, then you get closer to the Siren's take on that elusive quality, and you see why Clift had it, and how.
What? inner strength? from Clift, the man whom Marilyn Monroe supposedly called "the only person I know who's in worse shape than I am"?
You bet. In his art, both physically and mentally, there were none stronger than Montgomery Clift. Perhaps that was why Monty had so little left over to see him through his personal life.
Begin with Red River, Clift's first film (although not the first to be released). Hawks biographer Todd McCarthy says that Clift tried at first to play poker and back-slap with Wayne's set, even going on a bear hunt at one point, but eventually decided he didn't want to join in any reindeer games. "The machismo thing repelled me because it seemed so forced and unnecessary," he said later. Instead Clift worked to put what he had learned on screen. He'd spent three weeks absorbing the ways of a cowboy--how to saddle up, how to walk, shoot, rope and how to measure his words like a man who uses action far more than talk. In the finished movie Clift sits on his horse with easy grace, more than equalling Wayne, who notoriously hated horses anyway.
Hawks may have been unable to resist a joke at Clift's expense, but he was still so impressed with the actor's dedication that he gave Clift a treasured keepsake, a cowboy hat the director got from Gary Cooper. Clift wears it in the film. "He worked--he really worked hard," said Hawks. The physical disparity between the two leads (Wayne was a strapping six-foot-four, Clift a slender five-foot-ten) is what could have undone the final fight, but Hawks has Matthew match Dunson the way he has throughout the picture, through patience, fortitude and a bit of guile.
McCarthy says Wayne eventually gained some respect for Clift, but as far as the Siren can tell, not all that much. "They wanted to give that poor kid an Academy Award so bad that they simply forgot about me," he pouted, after Clift was nominated for his beautifully nuanced portrait of a soldier in The Search. Other costars were less grudging.
Burt Lancaster, a macho actor if ever there was one, had a good idea of Clift's talent, and Lancaster was consequently a bundle of nerves when filming a scene in From Here to Eternity:
The only time I was ever really afraid as an actor was that first scene with Clift. It was my scene, understand: I was the sergeant. I gave the orders, he was just a private under me. Well, when we started, I couldn't stop my knees from shaking. I thought they might have to stop because my trembling would show. I was afraid he was going to blow me right off the screen. [from Movie Talk]
In the end Lancaster held his own in the scene, rising to the occasion, and Lancaster's simmering sex appeal and strength are vital to the movie. But for the Siren, the enduring image is of Clift blowing "Taps," not a hint of swagger about him, but unbowed all the same.
William Goldman has written that the choices of many stars are heavily dependent on how they want to be perceived by the audience. Certain bits of business may be rejected if they make the character, and by extension the actor, seem like a wuss. Clift didn't care. He did what was right for the character. If that meant playing his brief scene in Judgment at Nuremberg like an abused child, so be it. At that point in his career Clift was having trouble memorizing lines, but when director Stanley Kramer permitted him to improvise his dialogue Monty was able to show the man's simple mind and pathetic defensiveness in harrowing detail. It is hard to conceive of many other 1961 matinee idols, even a faded one like Clift, who would have been willing to enact that character in all his heartbreaking victimhood, a man who will never be able to recover the manhood stolen from him by the Nazis.
Clift was not a wordy actor. For him, dialogue was one piece of the puzzle, and depending on the character it might not be a very important piece. His performances begin with body and movement, which is why it is so hard to watch Clift in Raintree County. In that film the pain from his car accident was fresh and so intense Clift couldn't seem to work around it. He's like a pianist playing a sonata with one hand. Drugs and alcohol, always far too prominent for Clift, became the focus of his daily existence as he fought against physical agony for the rest of his life.
But after Raintree County you can see Clift taking what he had left with his body and still using it, as stiffness in The Misfits suggests the old injuries of a longtime cowboy. Clift biographer Patricia Bosworth describes how in preparing for that role Clift got cut on the nose by the horn of a brahma bull. During the actual filming Clift's hands were badly cut during a scene of roping a mare, and a rearing horse squashed him against a fence so hard his shirt was ripped apart--which take director John Huston kept in the movie. Little more than a year later, on the disastrous shoot of Freud, Clift hurt his hands again during a scene where Freud dreams of holding onto a rope that is pulling him toward his mother. Clift kept his mouth shut through take after take. Huston saw the injuries on Clift's hands and reacted with typical sang-froid: "Did I do that to you? Son of a bitch."
It's often observed that the post-war Method actors redefined masculinity. It is more precise to say that Montgomery Clift (who was not entirely a Method actor anyway) expanded the definition. Forever afterward, a man on screen would seem half-formed if the actor could not suggest some sort of inner life, no matter how much derring-do was shown. And exposing that inner life takes nerve, nerve that Clift had in abundance. Rosalind Russell said "acting is standing up naked and turning around slowly." Showing yourself naked doesn't sound so bad--but the Siren wouldn't do it. You probably wouldn't. John Wayne wouldn't have either. Montgomery Clift did, in every role he ever played.
And if that isn't manly, the Siren would like to know what is.