Wednesday, October 17, 2007

On the Manliness of Montgomery Clift

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.


Raymond De Felitta said...

A very good summary of this misunderstood and, by now, unfortunately forgotten actor--the reputation that still clings to Dean, Brando etc. has dissipated (to use an unfortunate term) for Clift. Eddie Dmytryk was my advisor at AFI and I used to ask him about Clift, who he of course called "Monty." He was still fascinated and perplexed by him thirty-plus years after their two movies together--and Dmytryk was a straight ahead old Hollywood Macho guy (he called homosexuals "exquisites"--a funny old camp term that I've never encountered elsewhere). He seemed to connect to Clift in a strange way--Dmytryk was not truly an actors director--yet the two shared a bond and Dmytryk was deeply impressed by him--not at all typical of his reactions to most other "sensitive" actors.

NicksFlickPicks said...

I don't have anything more constructive to say than to repeat how much I love your writing. This piece is so beautiful and generously phrased, and I can't believe how encyclopedic you can be in drawing on so many films and anecdotes without ever bogging down the pace or clarity of your writing. Thanks, as always, for sharing this!

Hedwig said...

Wow. I am ashamed to say I haven't seen a single one of his films, but this piece, more even than the others in this great marathon, have convinced me of how big a gap in my cinematic education this is, and I'm definitely going to track Red River and some of the others down now. Thank you!


i am in love with this post. it's the birthday gift I wish i had given instead of obsessing on PLACE IN THE SUN again. thank you thank you

it so pains me that Dean and Brando (whom I like) get all the credit for changing acting

The Siren said...

Ray, very glad to see you here. Advised by Dmytryk -- what an experience that must have been. Clift had a great mind and an incredible ability to draw people to him so it isn't surprising to me that Dmytryk admired him despite his being "an exquisite" (what a hoot!). I am more surprised when I encounter tales of people like Wayne who called Clift "an arrogant little bastard."

thanks very much, Nick. Such is my love for Clift that this was some of the easiest writing I have done for this blog.

Hedwig, I alway tell people to start with Red River, even if they don't ordinarily dig Westerns. In addition to Clift, looking as beautiful as any man who ever went in front of a movie camera, you have John Wayne's best performance. Fortunately actors don't have to like each other to work well on screen.

The Siren said...

Nathaniel, I agree with you though I also admire Dean and Brando. That was why I was so thrilled to see that Marcello agreed with us both!

Dan Leo said...

Thanks, Siren.

Even with his too-short filmography, Montgomery Clift is probably my all-time favorite film actor. I have never gotten tired of watching him in what is for me his greatest role, Pvt. Robert E. Lee Prewitt in "From Here to Eternity". His line readings, his physical choices, his facial expressions in that movie feel at the same time completely unforced and yet so true as to be etched in marble.

And you know what, speaking as someone who knows a little about pugilism, his boxing in "Eternity" is not bad (for an actor).

Hedwig, two others you have to check out are "A Place in the Sun" and Hitchcock's "I Confess". You won't regret it.

I'm so happy that Mastroianni was also a fan, as on another day I might well have listed him as my favorite fim actor.

The Siren said...

Dan, thanks, and I agree about the punching although I can't claim any specialized boxing knowledge. Another Clift film I love, and which unfortunately hasn't been discussed in this blogathon, is The Search. It's marred by some script decisions that had nothing to do with Clift (or Zinneman for that matter) but Clift is such a warmly believable soldier. Clift insisted that the guy be played as an ordinary Joe with flaws and a temper, not some saintly spreader of American goodwill.

Apure said...

Dear Siren, what a post ! I seem to have a vague, nailed-in memory of The Defector, which I've seen some20 years ago on TV, and of Freud, which I treasure in spite of the fact that it is probably not so good. To hell with the macho clique ! Montgomery Clift's big, big eyes and those brows of him — and the sheer acting talent. Now after your clever take on Le Corbeau, this is really honey dripping on the net.

The Siren said...

Kumo, I would like to see Freud as it seems to have acquired a stealthy cult following over the years, despite being absurdly hard to find. One of the participants in the blogathon, at Moon in the Gutter, wrote a good piece about Freud and Wild River (which is also inexplicably unavailable, though it's Kazan and many will tell you it's Clift's best post-accident performance).

goatdog said...

What I'm trying to figure out is why in the world no one is paying you large amounts of money for your essays. This was just gorgeous.

NicksFlickPicks said...

SSS, I just published my review of The Search, so I'm glad to hear that you also like it, and for what sound like very similar reasons. I hope you'll have a look.

Exiled in NJ said...

Besides Red River and Eternity, get thee to see Wyler's The Heiress. To me Clift gives the watcher such ambivalent feelings about his Morris. You think you can see through him, but you are not sure.

The Siren said...

Goatdog, I ask myself every day why I am not being paid large of amounts of money, period. Don't we all? :D

Nick, I loved your Search piece; such a good analysis of what Clift does with the character. It is amazingly difficult to play the decency of ordinary humans and make it interesting. I think Red River's Matthew is a similarly uncomplicated man--his angst comes from having to react to Tom Dunson, who is nothing if not complex.

Exiled, that's an excellent point. Clift's Morris is more complicated than Henry James' character; as I remember James writes Morris as a thorough scoundrel. How many actors can say they took a Henry James character--and made him DEEPER? Quite the accomplishment.

Kimberly Lindbergs said...

I really enjoyed this post and couldn't agree more.

I don't understand why people always mention how Clift threw bad punches. Have any of these critics actually seen a real fight? I'm not talking about professional fights; I'm talking about spontaneous street fights or bar brawls. Real fights don't look like something out of a John Wayne movie; they tend to be clumsy and awkward things. I never believed Wayne when he threw a punch. At least Clift's punches had some sense of realness to them instead of looking like they were completely staged by a director.

*end rant*

The Siren said...

K., that is true. A real fight tends to be insult-shove-punch-drop-intervention-by-bouncer. Wayne was beautiful to look at throwing punches (as he often was anyway) but you are right, it is always very staged and Wayne's movements are extremely studied. There's always a rather catty insinuation to the remarks about Clift's pugilism, but I reckon he punched the way a lot of men would in real life.

Larry Aydlette said...

OK, I guess The Shamus has to step in and make a point: Once again, some of you are reveling in the easy parlor game of denigrating John Wayne. Why do we need to slap down John Wayne to build up Montgomery Clift? Some sense that the macho men need to be taken down a notch or two? We don't like his politics? Neither do I, although his idea of a conservative is probably almost a liberal today. But let's call that what it is. To argue that John Wayne didn't stand "naked" on screen or couldn't throw a "realistic" punch (as though Clift was ever "realistic") or, sweet Jesus, liked to go fishing and play poker — heaven forbid! — is saying a lot more about y'all than it is about Wayne, or more to the point, his often sensitive portrayals of hard men on screen. His films speak for themselves. Montgomery Clift was a fine actor, as the Siren has once again elegantly detailed (I'm surprised you didn't mention "Suddenly, Last Summer," though), but so was John Wayne. Why don't we leave it at that and forgo the stereotypes? OK, end of rant. The Shamus has to leave now. Papa wants to get tight this afternoon, before we meet Brett at the bullfights.

The Siren said...

Shamus, it wasn't "some of you," it was me. And I wasn't denigrating Wayne as an actor--I was describing how he behaved on set and after Red River, and if the stories don't redound to his credit they are still accurately reported, so far as I know from the sources I consulted. I find Wayne somewhat distateful as a person, it is true, but that is more about his bullying streak than his politics. James Stewart was equally as conservative, if not more so, and I seldom read a bad word about him. (Incidentally, I don't think Wayne has much in common with present-day liberals. Hard to picture a modern liberal who would make the sort of remarks about blacks and Native Americans that Wayne did in that notorious Playboy interview, or brag about running Carl Foreman out of the country purely because he didn't like the man's politics.)

When Wayne was complaining about the Oscar nomination for Clift, he went on to note that he was playing an old man for most of Red River, and he was 40 at the time. It's a legitimate point, and as I have said before I think Red River is Wayne's best performance. But it's still a bit of a whine.

As for the naked comment --no, he wouldn't have. It was not the sort of actor Wayne was. He was highly technical, with carefully studied effects. It was still artistry, in that he built a performance with great care and far more attention to detail than he is given credit for. That's what I was driving at by talking about his beauty throwing a punch--or just standing, for that matter. One of the most effective parts of Garry Wills' book on Wayne was the comparison he made between a Donatello statue and Wayne's favorite stance. I don't find it realistic, but as any reader of this blog knows, I can take or leave realism. All the same, there is no denying that Clift and the generation of actors he spearheaded altered acting away from the style that Wayne represented. If I thought that was altogether a good thing I would write a great more about post-1950s acting than I do. It's just a fact, not a judgment on Wayne, who has provided me with some of the most memorable hours I ever spent in front of a movie screen.

Larry Aydlette said...

OK. Maybe I feel sensitive towards the Duke. I think he gets a bad rap, and my bet, unsubstantiated as it is, is that you could find just as many anecdotes that show Wayne not to be as callous. I wasn't aware of the Playboy interview, or have conveniently forgotten it, but as I said, my point wasn't to support his politics or to suggest he was a modern liberal, just that Nixon-era conservatism, as repugnant as it was, looks a sight better than what parades as conservatism nowadays. That's as far as I want to take that point.

The Siren said...

The funny thing is, I actually like Wayne (as an actor) quite a lot, and would probably have picked the same close-up you did for the House blogathon. I agree, he was a complicated person and there are a lot of stories of his personal loyalty and generosity to people like poor Gail Russell. But if you put the Siren at a party with Wayne and Clift (now there would be a shindig) she'd be far more likely to chitchat with Clift (provided he wasn't too drunk), but that's just her personal taste in socializing.

And yes, your final point on Wayne's politics is well taken, so far as either one of us wants to take it. :D

maurinsky said...

I read this after watching From Here To Eternity for the first time, and I thought, while watching the movie, how influenced James Dean must have been by Clift.

And then I came here, and I see I'm not alone.

GorgeousMonty said...

I am so late with this post, so I apologize in advance. But I had to just tell you -- THANK YOU. Thank you for writing this unbelievable piece. You have written the words that I have been thinking the entire time that I have been a Monty fan. Everything you wrote is so spot on and insightful.

Monty is definitely more 'man' than most the 'men' who are trying to prove themselves in acts of machismo. His art and his ability to bleed on screen for all to see was Monty's gift to the world -- and that is definitely 'manly.'

Thank you again.

The Siren said...

Montgomery Clift is one of my favorite actors, so I am very glad that I wrote something that pleased a real Monty fan. Thanks for stopping by, please come again.

Henry Dreher said...

I just happened to come across this long-ago post on Montgomery Clift. A beautiful entry by the Siren, on an actor and topic that could use even more exploration, he and his films and life are so rich. No question that Dean and Brando were greatly influenced, and you can see it in certain scenes. Meanwhile Clift is such an original, I can't find any traces of Dean or Brando in Clift's performances in films released after those two made their mark in mid 50s. I think his greatest performance--or certainly his most 'naked' to take from that apt metaphor here--is in Kazan's Wild River. He's brilliant and affecting throughout the film, but there's a scene of him and Lee Remick, late in the picture, in which they are alone together in her small house with rain pouring outside. Clift's anguish in the face of Remick's outpouring of love is so moving, and what makes it moving is that it isn't just the avoidance of a man who seems to fear romantic/sexual intimacy w. a woman (clearly he didn't have to use his imagination too much to draw out those emotions), it's the ambivalence of a man who both wants and fears it with equal intensity. Remick matches Clift's nuanced agony with her own courageous vulnerability. One of the great acting scenes of that or any era. Of course Kazan deserves credit for whatever it was he did to get that on film. Even the blocking was brilliant, they way they moved around the room in a pas de deux of anxiety and attraction and avoidance. I recently saw Miss Lonelyhearts on TCM and that performance also seems underated; it's well worth tracking down. And one last comment regarding his masculinity, which the Siren captured so astutely. The scene I think of when I think of Clift's distinct masculinity is in Place in the Sun when Elizabeth Taylor comes upon Clift playing billiards by himself in the wood-paneled room in her family's mansion where a party was going on - their first meeting. The way Clift shoots pool, how he moves around the table while talking to Taylor after he has been so smitten that the bidirectional sexual tension grips the whole scene, is both graceful and very male. And you can see her fall in love with him, too, as she follows his moves around that table, his cigarette dangling unself-consciously - nothing mannered about anything he does in the scene. Which makes him that much more manly, because it's no act, it's who he is.

Mutaman said...

I think if your going to avoid
an artist because of their politics, you're going to miss out on a lot of good art.

Unknown said...

Hello. Great essay from start to finish.
I have been looking for a quote of Clift's after being called a fairy by Clark Gable. Does anyone know it? Saw it in French and it is quite funny.

irish said...

I Like Dean. Brando, although I recognise his brilliance in certain movies, I'm not really a fan. But Clift is the one I would rather watch. Brando and Dean could overact. Dean is awful as the older version of his character in Giant.
Clift never overacted. I'm not saying he was always brilliant. For instance in The Heiress, I think he was overshadowed by Richardson. Brando and Dean were imho "look at me actors" Clift wasn't. It's like Brando and Dean shouted at you to notice them. Clift knew you would sooner or later, and it would probably be sooner. it's really sad that he is not remebered in the same way as the other two. Of course if there is a documentary on him, people will talk about him. But If you see a clip of De Niro, Pacino. Martin Sheen, Dennis Hopper on a tv talk show or whatever, being asked what actor imfluenced them, they will say "Brando and/or Dean. There's nothing wrong with that. But It would be nice if someone said "Montgomery Clift"

kayden said...

I have just discovered this blog and i love it. I love this piece on Montgomery Clift. I have always loved him and found him to have the most haunting child like eyes that pull you in and evoke feelings of protection in you. He has sensitivity oozing from him. My Gf is also a fan of Monty and actually admired his 'soft masculinity'. I feel i am a similar actor to him with regards to sensitivity. It's sad, but many directors bully male sensitive actors. Thanks again