Montgomery Clift was a gifted actor and a beautiful man, but also depressive, self-destructive, and tortured over his sexuality — right? Not exactly, say the makers of a new documentary about the star.
Making Montgomery Clift, premiering Sunday at the Los Angeles Film Festival, shows a different side to Clift, portraying him as a man who enjoyed life and love, and was comfortable enough with his attraction to men to be affectionate with his male partners in public.
Off the soundstage, Clift “was closer to Jerry Lewis on-screen than he was to Montgomery Clift on-screen,” one of those partners, the late actor Jack Larson, says in the film. “You have this impression of him as serious, brooding. He was very much a clown himself.”
Yes, Clift had a melancholy side, as he himself acknowledges in archival footage in the documentary. But he also emphasizes that a person is never just one thing — and the film’s producer-directors, Robert Clift and his wife, Hillary Demmon, want to show audiences there were many facets to Monty.
“I was always aware that there was a disconnect” between the widespread perception of Monty and the man his loved ones knew, says Robert Clift, Monty’s youngest nephew. “It was just never addressed in any systematic manner. This film gave me an opportunity to explore that.”
Robert, who is the son of Monty’s late brother, Brooks Clift, and the distinguished, still-active political journalist Eleanor Clift, never knew his famous uncle, who died at age 45 in 1966, long before Robert’s birth in the 1980s. But he knew his family had some serious reservations about the biographies of Monty, which portray him as a tormented “beautiful loser” and a slow suicide, although he actually died of a heart attack.
Through archival clips and interviews with Adventures of Superman actor Larson, Monty’s dear friend Lorenzo James, and another friend, Judy Balaban, whose father ran Paramount Studios, a different picture emerges. As the film tells it, Monty had a brooding side but also a fun-loving one, and he was not at all tortured by the fact that he had romantic attractions to both men and women. Larson says Monty was unafraid to display same-sex affection publicly, and he recalls Clift kissing him upon their first meeting.
Clift, of course, couldn’t be out to the media as bisexual during his Hollywood career, which spanned the late 1940s to the early 1960s. Fan magazines reported on his relationships with women, such as Elizabeth Taylor, who was perhaps a lover and definitely a lifelong friend. But he was determined not to be forced into a heterosexual box, according to the documentary. He wouldn’t sign a long-term studio contract, although most film actors did at the time, partly because he wanted to avoid any clause mandating that he get married. And he didn’t want to be forced into roles that weren’t right for him. The studios “were definitely not accustomed to that level of independence,” Demmon says.
The documentarians make a case that Clift’s notorious choosiness about his roles was not evidence of any pathology, as some commentators have maintained, but was simply born of a desire to always do his best. It’s been said he turned down Sunset Boulevard because its portrayal of a struggling young screenwriter being “kept” by an aging movie star hit too close to home, given Clift’s relationship with an older woman, torch singer Libby Holman. But Making Montgomery Clift asserts that Clift simply didn’t think he’d be good in the role of writer Joe Gillis, and he had effusive praise for William Holden’s performance in the part.
Clift may have underestimated himself, although Holden’s performance is indeed great. Nevertheless, while rejecting many movie offers, Clift compiled an impressive body of film work after coming to Hollywood from Broadway — Red River, The Heiress, A Place in the Sun, From Here to Eternity, The Misfits, and more. He was nominated for four Academy Awards. Clift did more that just act in his movies, the documentary makes clear; he often rewrote his own lines and improvised, with the goal of improving the final product.
Making Montgomery Clift further takes issue with the assumption that Clift’s life and career were irreparably damaged by the auto accident he had in 1956, driving home from a party at Elizabeth Taylor’s home during the filming of Raintree County. Clift incurred serious injuries that made his facial features a bit rougher, less delicate, although he remained a stunningly handsome, magnetic man. But two of his favorite performances came after the accident — as a mentally challenged man castrated by the Nazis, testifying to their atrocities in Judgment at Nuremberg, and as an American Jew who goes off to fight in World War II in The Young Lions. “He liked his performances better” after recovering from the crash, Larson says in the documentary.
There’s no question that Clift had his problems, including abuse of alcohol and other drugs. The documentary doesn’t linger on this, but says Monty’s substance abuse intensified, accompanied by depression, because of a lawsuit director John Huston filed against him, claiming Clift’s behavior impeded the making of the 1962 film Freud. Huston lost the suit, but his accusations that Clift was difficult and often in no condition to work harmed Monty’s reputation and made it hard for studios to insure him, so he had no work for four years. His final film was The Defector, released in 1966.
Clift had worked smoothly with Huston on The Misfits, but the director developed homophobic animosity toward him after discovering that Clift had had sex with another man while staying at Huston’s castle in Ireland. The documentary cites Huston’s biography, in which he expressed disgust with that aspect of Monty’s sexuality.
Biographers of Clift also pathologized his sexuality instead of simply treating it as a fact. Robert LaGuardia’s 1977 book Monty contended that the actor was psychologically impaired by his close bond with his mother — at one time, something considered to “cause” homosexuality. Patricia Bosworth’s Montgomery Clift, published in 1978, was not overtly homophobic but advanced the narrative of Clift as a tortured soul and misrepresented one of his casual hookups as being with a boy, not a grown man.
Some of the pathologizing seems to arise not just from homophobia but from a misunderstanding of bisexuality — the belief that someone who is bisexual can’t have a successful relationship with one person. “It was a sad thing to figure out how Monty’s relationships were characterized in such a way [to suggest] that he couldn’t be happy,” Demmon says. “He did have meaningful relationships.”
Robert Clift adds, “Often when people are labeling Monty, it seems like they’re limiting that capacity for life that he had and turning it into a sickness.”
The family has a “bittersweet relationship” with Bosworth’s biography, which has won substantial acclaim and gone through several printings, Robert says. All of Monty’s relatives own it, but many of them have had issues with its portrayal. Brooks Clift, who seems to have taped almost every phone conversation he ever had, is heard in the documentary arguing with Bosworth and asking for changes in the text. Monty made many tapes too, and these proved invaluable to the filmmakers. Other sources helped as well. “At least half the people we talked to had things in their basements — photographs, film reels, audio reels,” Demmon says.
One compliment they’ll give Bosworth, who appears in the documentary, is that her book may have inspired readers to watch Monty’s films and learn more about him. They hope their documentary will inspire that too. “It would be great for people to go look at his films again,” Demmon says. She and Robert Clift add that they also hope their work will show viewers there are multiple ways of looking at a life.
Making Montgomery Clift premieres Sunday at 8:30 p.m. at the ArcLight Hollywood as part of the L.A. Film Festival; advance ticket sales for the screening have closed, but rush tickets may be released at the venue Sunday evening. Check here for details.
Other screenings are scheduled for September 30 at the Portland, Ore., Queer Film Festival; October 7 at the Tampa Bay International Gay & Lesbian Film Festival in Florida; and October 30 at the closing night gala of New York City’s Newfest. Additional bookings are in the works; get updates at the Making Montgomery Clift Facebook page. Watch a trailer below.