The Most Beautiful Man in Film
BY Jeremy Kinser
July 13 2010 12:00 AM ET
Well remembered for the staggering effect his film performances in classics such as A Place in the Sun and From Here to Eternity had on post-World War II movie audiences, Montgomery Clift is equally known today as one of Hollywood’s greatest casualties. A mysterious, sensitive antidote to the blandly handsome bobby-soxer idols of the day, Clift ushered in a new, naturalistic style of acting, years before Marlon Brando and James Dean, who both worshipped him.
The camera adored him as well. Clift was described by one biographer as “having a face of impenetrable beauty,” and Elizabeth Taylor, his close friend and frequent costar, claimed her heart stopped the first time she saw him. After a near-fatal auto accident in 1956 ravaged his perfect face, Clift, now addicted to alcohol, painkillers, and, by some accounts, tormented by his closeted homosexuality, began a downward spiral that would last until his death at 45 in 1966. Marilyn Monroe, Clift’s costar in 1961’s The Misfits who was tortured by her own demons, famously called him “the only person I know who’s in worse shape than I am.” But in The Passion of Montgomery Clift (University of California Press, $24.95) Dartmouth film professor Amy Lawrence performs an academic autopsy on the late actor’s legacy and challenges the myth of Clift as the tortured, self-destructive film star. Lawrence discusses with The Advocate the reasons we’re still under the spell of the charismatic actor.
The Advocate: There are so many biographies of Montgomery Clift and numerous websites devoted to him. What was the biggest surprise you learned about him while researching your book?
Amy Lawrence: I was most impressed by Clift’s canny understanding of his own image. Many biographers depict him as refusing to participate in the Hollywood star system, but that didn’t mean he was ignorant of it. He understood how an actor’s image was built and maintained. In giving interviews or choosing roles, he knew exactly how to shape a performance to achieve the effect he wanted — and to resist the efforts of others to simplify a character. For instance, he was aware that screenwriters and directors often wanted to make the hero perfect; Clift wanted to make the character human, complicated, and not always admirable.
Clift is often spoken of in context as a “gay actor” or in conjunction with Marlon Brando and James Dean. What do you see as Clift’s singular legacy?
Brando and Dean both thought of Clift as singular. Brando saw Clift as his only major competition, and Dean saw him as a model, an ideal to emulate. Unlike those performers, Clift’s best work has not become dated. In Red River, From Here to Eternity, A Place in the Sun, I Confess, and half a dozen others, his performances are impeccable. At his best he is never mannered or predictable. His performances are subtle, intelligent, graceful, and deeply empathetic regardless of the character’s flaws.
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