The Most Beautiful Man in Film
BY Jeremy Kinser
July 13 2010 12:00 AM ET
How did Clift’s being gay — or bisexual, as some suggest — when it was still taboo affect his drinking, drug taking, and ultimate downward spiral?
The homophobia of the time, which intensified nationally just as Clift’s career was beginning in the late 1940s and early ’50s, certainly exerted pressure on Clift. A serious relationship with choreographer Jerome Robbins in the ’40s threatened both their careers when Robbins was blackmailed into testifying before the House Un-American Activities Committee hearings regarding communists and other “subversives” in Washington and the entertainment community. I would be hesitant, though, to cast Clift as a “sad young man,” “self-loathing homosexual,” or fit him into any other category into which gay men were sorted from the 1950s to ’70s. Alcoholism affects everyone, and in the postwar period heavy drinking was routine across the board. By the time Clift’s drinking became full-blown alcoholism, it was impossible to disentangle from his devastating car accident, the prescription painkillers he needed at the time, and his professional fear regarding the damage done to his face. In the latter part of his career, his drinking and drug taking were so dominant in his life that he couldn’t function without them. Paradoxically, at the point when he worked with unsupportive or openly hostile homophobic producers and directors, the drugs and drinking sustained him as much as they destroyed him.
You write about the fan magazines of the 1950s that frequently used sexually suggestive headlines such as “Who Is Monty Kidding?” How well known was the truth about Clift’s sexuality during that era?
Clift worked in a period when fan magazines were challenged by scandal magazines, each promising “the truth” about stars’ private lives. Ironically, even the scandal rags did not want any “truth” firmly established because that would rob them of the chance to repeatedly tantalize readers with the next promised exposé. Biographical information suggests that people who worked with Clift always “knew” in exact proportion to what they wanted to know. Fans likewise. Everyone minimized the complexity of Clift’s emotional relationships — with men, older women, young women — in order to maintain the image of the actor that appealed to them most.