What I Did on My Summer Vacation

It’s September! Students are finally returning to school, trying to figure out whether room 206 is on the first or second or maybe even third floor, turning their heads in every direction in an attempt to read an analog clock, and eagerly composing the perpetual return-to-school essay: What I Did on My Summer Vacation. Do teachers really assign this topic? I do not recall ever once being asked to write about what I did on my summer vacation. I remember being told not to fill my Language Arts journal with Beach Boys lyrics but instead my own original thoughts. Nobody wanted to know about my summers, though, and I consequently feel deprived. Even as an adult, when people ask, “How was your summer?” I respond, “Pretty good.” And you know what? They accept that! They don’t beg for details about what I did or what I saw or what I thought or anything substantial like that because apparently I’m not as fascinating to the rest of the world as I am to myself. Lacking original thought (still), let’s talk about what I did on my summer vacation.

Not update this blog, obviously. Mainly because I didn’t really read or watch anything of value or anything that provoked thought or inspired love (and obsession) as much as Love and Mercy did. Speaking of Love and Mercy, I think I saw it a total of four times. Maybe five. I’m not sure. I quit counting after I ran out of fingers, and I think I only have ten of those. I am sure of a few things, though: Love and Mercy is the best movie of the year, Love and Mercy is the only movie that matters, Paul Dano deserves an Oscar, and it comes out on DVD on Tuesday (tomorrow!), and I’ve already pre-ordered a copy for every member of the family. Merry Christmas.

Speaking of Paul Dano (who else?), I’m working on a family of popsicle sticks with this guy’s head on them. (See previous post for an explanation of popsicle sticks and men’s heads. I am a well-adjusted, mentally stable, healthy individual. Promise.) I’m slowly working through his filmography, and so far he hasn’t really disappointed me. Except for that one movie where he played a homeless guy. Let’s not talk about that. Let’s not talk at all. Let’s communicate solely by writing messages on a compact spiral notebook because that’s what Dwayne does in Little Miss Sunshine, a film I chose as the subject of my Individuals with Disabilities in Film paper because if there is a way to be graded for being obsessed with Paul Dano, I am going to find it, goshdarnit. A+!

While we’re handing out grades, let’s grade the long-anticipated second novel of Harper Lee, Go Set a Watchman. When I first heard about this new novel from Harper Lee, I was under the mistaken impression that it was actually a new novel by Harper Lee. Wrong, wrong, wrong. Go Set a Watchman, otherwise known as A First Draft of To Kill a Mockingbird In Desperate Need of a Plot and Editor, STAT! Seriously. Whose idea was it to publish this? The whole process of reading and digesting the book was equal parts depressing, confusing, and frustrating. Save your time.

I did start to read a book called Why Sinatra Matters, published almost twenty years ago. I didn’t finish it (yet…because of course I’m slowly–oh, so slowly, am I getting old or what?!–reading about six books simultaneously), but one of the opening pages passages has stuck with me:

“The world of my grandchildren will not listen to Sinatra in the way four generations of Americans have listened to him. But high art always survives. Long after his death, Charlie Parker still plays his version of the urban blues. Billie Holiday still whispers her anguish. Mozart still erupts in joy. Every day, in cities and towns all over the planet, someone discovers them for the first time and finds in their art that mysterious quality that makes the listener more human. In their work all great artists help transcend the solitude of individuals, they relieve the ache of loneliness, they supply a partial response to the urging of writer E.M. Forster: ‘Only connect.’ In their ultimate triumph over the banality of death, such artists continue to matter.”

I guess this quote has stuck with me not only because it is true but because I’ve been thinking a lot about the things I like, why everyone doesn’t like these same things (and thank goodness for that! Except for the people who do not hold the belief that Marlon Brando in A Streetcar Named Desire is the most attractive man ever aka the people hanging out at the water pump with Annie Sullivan), and how these things can mean so much to me and nothing to someone else. What does it mean? What does it matter? I guess I just don’t believe that people come into our lives by accident–and that includes the artists we admire. In response to the question, “Why do I write?”, I explained that writing is like a puzzle, arranging and re-arranging words so that the rhythm and flow is a perfect fit, that writing is a search for the connection between the quiet wonder of the first (but not twenty-first) snowfall of the year and the expression on Scout Finch’s face when she sees Boo Radley for the first time. I guess that’s why Sinatra–and any artist–matters to me. There’s a unique connection there that not every one else feels. And maybe it is because that artist transcends isolation or maybe it’s more than an earthly connection. These things matter, and I spent (part of) my summer contemplating this, looking to find another artist that mattered and discovering Paul Dano and wondering what link (if any) exists between the single tear that runs down his cheek in a scene of Love and Mercy and the feeling of overwhelming comfort that comes from listening to The Verve’s “On Your Own” for the first time in eons.

I also spent more time than I care to remember in Iowa, disobeyed a sign (which I coud not see, in my defense) and jumped off a pier, and made From Here to Eternity references that nobody appreciated. Sigh. It’s tough being a ninety-something in a twenty-something body sometimes.

Until next time (which is hopefully less than three months from now with a more interesting topic),
The Count(ess) Petofi

P.S. Please don’t kill yourself tonight.


Love & Mercy (Bill Pohlad, 2015)

After The Beatles, The Beach Boys were the first band I really loved. I bought records that I couldn’t really play, committed an A&E Biography of Brian Wilson to memory (still looking for a way to put this skill on a resume), and I may have even fashioned some Beach Boys puppets out of popsicle sticks. Okay, so maybe I was a little obsessed–crazy, even (popsicle sticks?!)–but my love for this band, including their introverted, slightly off-center leader, was so indelible that fifteen or so years later I approached Love and Mercy, Bill Pohlad’s biopic about Brian Wilson, with both excitement and trepidation–excitement because I love Brian Wilson and his story, trepidation because there is so much room for error.

Love and Mercy tells the story of Brian Wilson in two distinct periods of his life. His story is told by two different actors out of necessity. The Brian Wilson of the 1960s was a very different person from the Brian Wilson of the 1980s. It’s that simple. He was different, both physically and mentally. It would be impossible for a single actor to play both roles; it would be asking too much. It’s a miracle that Brian Wilson lived through the experiences. How can you ask one actor to do the same?

In the first narrative, Paul Dano plays Wilson in his mid-20s at the height of his musical powers creating Pet Sounds, “Good Vibrations,” and the ill-fated Smile album. The seeds of mental illness are evident, however, as Brian begins to suffer notably from auditory hallucinations and paranoia during this period. The later thread shows the progression and effects of this mental illness.

In the 1980s, Brian (now portrayed by John Cusack) has become a somnambulant and over-medicated prisoner of his controlling and manipulative doctor, Eugene Landy (played with terrifying ferocity by Paul Giamatti). When he meets his future wife, Melinda (Elizabeth Banks), for the first time, he leaves her a note on the back of her business card: “Scared, Lonely, Frightened.” Each thread is equally compelling, even though I initially doubted that the 1980s story would be able to hold my attention the way the Pet Sounds sessions would. I was also uncertain that John Cusack could convincingly render Wilson.

My doubts were ill-placed. I was wrong. I feel like one of those freaks that booed Dylan at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965–and not even one of the freaks booing because the sound quality was poor, but one of those folk purists irate at Dylan for plugging in an electric guitar. Oh my gosh. Don’t be one of those freaks. The quality of Cusack’s performance is not poor; it is subtle and sensitive and maybe different from anything else he’s ever done before–I wouldn’t know, though, because I never made a popsicle puppet out of his head.

Brian (John Cusack) and Melinda (Elizabeth Banks) outside the Griffith Observatory.

Cusack undoubtedly has the more difficult role for one simple reason: there is virtually no music in the 1980s storyline, and if you want to know Brian Wilson, you have to listen to the music. Cusack instead has to communicate Wilson’s thoughts and feelings through his walk, his mannerisms, nervous ticks, and wooden speech. There is a single scene where Cusack’s Wilson sits at the piano and plays a song for Melinda, and for a brief moment, you catch a glimpse of the creative, trusting, sweet man that Wilson is or was or could be.

As impressive as Cusack’s depiction is, Paul Dano is, quite simply, amazing. A·maz·ing. AMAZING! Oh my gosh. I am ready to make a popsicle puppet out of this guy’s head. (I’m kidding. I think.) Dano physically bears a stronger resemblance to Wilson, and he even sings like Wilson in the film–so much so that it is often difficult to discern whether it’s actually Dano or Wilson singing. Music helps Dano’s characterization significantly. When Dano’s Wilson is in the studio, headphones on, singing with his brothers and cousin and bandmates, he just looks so happy and at ease. I felt tears welling up in my eyes because I know that’s who Brian Wilson is.

Brian (Paul Dano) plays “God Only Knows” for his cruel and abusive father, who tells him it sounds more like a suicide note than a love song.  

Dano’s skill is part of what makes the 1960s story so satisfying to watch, but it’s also the recreation of the period. The attention to detail in the film is extraordinary: the filmmakers faithfully replicated Beach Boys concert footage, the studio where Brian created Pet Sounds, and every piece of clothing, right down to Mike Love’s dumb fur hat.

There is little humor in the 1980s (mostly it derives from whatever Paul Giamatti is wearing), but the humor is abundant in the 1960s. Remember, Brian Wilson is actually a very funny person. While the rest of the band has been on tour in Japan, Brian has been at home in the studio, working tirelessly on Pet Sounds. When the band returns to the studio to record vocals, Mike Love pats cousin Brian’s belly and tells him he’s put on some weight. “You need to go on a fast with me sometime,” he tells Brian. “I’m eating as fast as I can,” Brian responds. Amen!

Humor also comes in the form of Mike Love’s existence. Concerned about the lyrics of “Hang on to Your Ego” (turned into “I Know There’s An Answer” on the released album because Love refused to sing the lyrics of “Ego”), Love whispers to Brian “Is this a druggie song?” The rest of the guys roll their eyes. (I imagine this happened a lot because Mike Love is really embarrassing. It’s kind of a mystery how and why they let him in the band.) Humor comes from one liners from brother Dennis (who looks less like Dennis but acts like Dennis so it’s OK). “Surfers don’t even like our music,” Brian insists in response to Mike Love’s claim that they should keep making music about surfing and cars and girls because that’s what their fans love and understand, not the radically different music and lyrics of Pet Sounds. “They don’t,” shrugs Dennis, with perfect timing. And a lot of humor comes from Brian Wilson’s two dogs, Banana and Louie, who are featured on Pet Sounds. They steal every scene they’re in, including one of my favorites.

With Pet Sounds having been completed and received lukewarmly by fans, Brian and the band are moving onto their next project. Brian has an idea for a song about the vibrations dogs pick up from people, but, as always, he’s struggling with lyrics. He calls Mike over to help. Brian sits at his piano, placed in a sandbox in the middle of his living room, and pounds out the rhythm. Mike suggests some lyrics, and they begin to put the two together. Banana barks (and maybe does something else). “Well, piss on you, Banana, I like it!” Mike scolds.

To some, the narratives of Love and Mercy may seem disjointed and unrelated. I disagree. Even though Brian Wilson was different in the 1960s than he was in the 1980s, there are striking similarities and parallels. In 1985, Brian Wilson is starving. “I’m hungry, Gene,” Brian tells his doctor. “You’re not hungry! You only think you are! Can’t you tell the difference?” Landy screams in response. Brian is starved of food, his family, his free will, his music, and love. He is the victim of Dr. Landy’s control and cruelty. In the 1960s, Brian Wilson is starving, too, even though he is saturated with food, drink, and drugs. He craves the approval of his brutal father, and he ultimately abandons Smile not just because he is taking way too many drugs (which he is) but because he is starved of the musical support and love of his bandmates. Even though he always brought so much love and happiness to others through his music, Brian Wilson himself was always looking for love.

Love and Mercy is a sensitive, factual film. Of course it doesn’t tell you everything about Brian Wilson or The Beach Boys. (To the reviewer complaining that the film doesn’t explain the presence of Tony Asher and Van Dyke Parks: well, piss on you! Read a record label and figure it out for yourself. Actually, it’s pretty clear who Van Dyke Parks is in the film, so I don’t know what your hang up is.) It can’t, and it doesn’t need to. It just needs to offer you a representation of who Brian Wilson was and why he–and his music–matter. It does just that, with the finest acting and the best soundtrack. I can’t wait to see it again.

My only complaint? The actor who plays Al Jardine (who has NO speaking lines) is actually taller than Carl Wilson…
Uh, yeah. Right. Baby needs a step ladder to get up on that car.

My Other Favorite Actor From Omaha

In the past two months that I have not updated this blog, I have spent a ridiculous amount of time researching a select group of plays by Tennessee Williams. This has included watching A Streetcar Named Desire more times than I care to count. This has made me want to watch nothing but Brando, which works out well since TCM is celebrating the man’s 91st birthday today with a slew of films.

My favorite, though, is absent from the line-up. That’s okay because I’ve also watched it more times than I care to count. It is another perfect film. It is another film to take to that desert island. It is a film with a quote for every occassion. Overhear a conversation about weight or dieting? “When you weighed 168 pounds you were beautiful.” Someone say something that rubs you the wrong way? “You know, you’re not too funny today, fat man.” Need to pay someone a compliment? “You had your hair…Looked like a hunk of rope. And you had wires on your teeth and glasses and everything. You was really a mess.” Someone hounding you to grow up, get a real job, get some ambition? “I always figured I’d live a little bit longer without it.” Get annoyed with questions? “It’s none of your business!” See a pigeon in the road? “A pigeon for a pigeon!” Someone insults the upcoming holiday that is Easter? “Some people think the Crucifixion only took place on Calvary. Well, they better wise up!” And for everything else, there’s… “Definitely!” It is On the Waterfront

"During an acting class, when the students were told to act out 'a chicken hearing an air-raid siren,' most of the students clucked and flapped their arms in a panic, while Brando stood stock-still, staring up at the ceiling. When asked to explain himself, Brando replied, 'I’m a chicken - I don’t know what an air-raid siren is.'" -- Marlon Brando by Patricia Bosworth

“During an acting class, when the students were told to act out ‘a chicken hearing an air-raid siren,’ most of the students clucked and flapped their arms in a panic, while Brando stood stock-still, staring up at the ceiling. When asked to explain himself, Brando replied, ‘I’m a chicken – I don’t know what an air-raid siren is.'” — Marlon Brando by Patricia Bosworth

This film–like so many of his great performances–is all about Brando. You cannot take your eyes off of him–not that you would want to. Why? Because he creates a character with such a front of toughness that has such an underlying vulnerability, a character (Terry Malloy) who is constantly torn between his loyalty to his “friends” and his “conscience.” (“Conscience. That stuff can drive you nuts.”)

There’s probably no better example of Brando doing this than in the famous taxi cab scene with Rod Steiger, who plays Terry’s older brother Charlie. Charlie has been sent to talk to Terry to try to convince him to play “D&D” (“deaf and dumb”); if Charlie can’t convince him, then he has been instructed to kill his own brother. When Charlie pulls the gun on Terry, Terry gently pushes away the gun. He does not respond with anger but with sadness that suggests the depth of his pain. “Oh Charley!” he says in tone that is reproachful, loving, and sad.

"To see if there were vibes between Marlon and myself, Elia Kazan put us in a room, and he whispered to me 'Eva Marie, you’re home alone and your sister’s boyfriend is coming. Do not let him in the house!' So here comes adorable Marlon knocking on my door, and I did everything possible to discourage him. And somehow he got in the room, and we started talking and he put the radio on, and we started dancing. The sparks just flew. He was adorable but a little frightening…you felt he could see right through you. He gave every line reading differently, so that it was always new. You could just see it in his eyes. I’ve worked with many fine actors but he was the finest.”

“To see if there were vibes between Marlon and myself, Elia Kazan put us in a room, and he whispered to me ‘Eva Marie, you’re home alone and your sister’s boyfriend is coming. Do not let him in the house!’ So here comes adorable Marlon knocking on my door, and I did everything possible to discourage him. And somehow he got in the room, and we started talking and he put the radio on, and we started dancing. The sparks just flew. He was adorable but a little frightening…you felt he could see right through you. He gave every line reading differently, so that it was always new. You could just see it in his eyes. I’ve worked with many fine actors but he was the finest.” — Eva Marie Saint

Not too much later, Terry is called into the street to discover the dead body of his brother, who has been killed for not following through with his assignment. Terry is distraught and angry. He immediately seeks revenge and goes looking for mob boss Johnny Friendly with a gun in hand. His love interest, Edie, has followed him and begs him not to do anything. He ignores her and instructs her to get the Father to take care of Charley’s body, but “For God’s sake, don’t leave him alone here long!” His voice nearly cracks with emotion; there is so much concern for his brother and his dead body being left alone.

My favorite scene, though, comes toward the end of the film. Terry has testified against Johnny Friendly, and all of his friends are angry at him–even the young “Golden Warriors” Terry has befriended. Terry, who keeps pigeons, goes up on the roof to check on his pigeons. He finds that they are all dead, killed by the youth who once idolized him. “What did he have to do that for? Every one of them.” Edie has again followed him and calls his name, attempting to comfort him. Brando does not face her but turns into the pigeon coop and waves her away meekly with his hand. He needs to grieve alone–just for a moment. And Brando communicates this with a single gesture. It’s the same gesture he would use years later in The Godfather when Don Corleone learns that Michael–Michael, whom he loved so much, for whom he wanted so much more than the life of a Don–has been sent to Sicily because he is the one who killed Sollozzo. The Don lifts his hand and weakly waves away the speaker: he needs to be alone with his grief.


“I interviewed some deaf actors and I asked them who their favorite actor was, and they said Marlon Brando. And I said, ‘Why?’ and they said, ‘Because even though we can’t hear what he’s saying, we know exactly what he means.’ In other words, his expression told everything.” — Patricia Bosworth 

I could talk about every scene in this film, but I (sadly) have more research to do. (It is addicting.) Brando rightly won an Oscar for his performance in On the Waterfront. It’s one for the ages. Happy birthday, Bud.

The Perfect Film

A few months (yes, months–I am a slacker, just like George McFly) ago, I pondered the question of which films I would most like to take with me to a fictional desert island. I composed a long post sort of contemplating this question without ever reaching any conclusion.

The recent holiday season, however, reminded me of one film I would definitely want to take to that desert island. Even though I have seen this film so many times that I can recite each line of dialogue and anticipate every inflection of James Stewart’s voice, its story is just as compelling, revelatory, and poignant as its first viewing: It’s A Wonderful Life.

There is not a single mis-step in this film: every actor is perfectly cast, every line of dialogue is essential and perfectly delivered, and at no point does the film lag or lose its focus. It is a perfect film. That is not a statement of hyperbole; that is the truth. And even though in some ways, It’s A Wonderful Life is a product of its time, it remains, at the same time, essentially timeless.

A favorite scene? Impossible. Young George, his sore ear bloodied, cowering from Mr. Gower, who then embraces him for what he has done for him. George and Mary hovering near the edge of the swimming pool in the midst of a Charleston Dance Contest. “They’re cheering us, we must be good!” George and Mary, faces pressed together, on the telephone. “I don’t want any plastics, and I don’t want any ground floors, and I don’t want to get married – ever – to anyone!” Mr. Potter extends a tempting offer — George asks to have time to think it over with his wife — he reaches to shake Mr. Potter’s hand and realizes he doesn’t need 24 hours, he doesn’t need to talk to anybody, the answer is no, doggone it because Mr. Potter is nothing but a scurvy little spider. George, having seen how his absence affects the lives of those he loves, prays on the bridge where moments earlier he had contemplated suicide, “I wanna live again. I wanna live again. Please, God, let me live again.” Snow falls and…Zuzu’s petals! The final scene — George, overwhelmed and overjoyed at the love and support of his family and friends. “Look, Daddy, Teacher says, every time a bell rings, an angel gets its wings.” “That’s right, that’s right. Attaboy Clarence!”  

A favorite line of dialogue? Equally impossible. “George Bailey, I’ll love you ’til the day I die.” “Oh, why don’t you stop annoying people?” “Isn’t it wonderful? I’m going to jail!” “I wish I had a million dollars…Hot dog!” “My mouth’s bleeding, Bert! My mouth’s bleeding!” “And that goes for you, too!” “…and then I’m comin’ back to college and see what they know.” “Excuse you for what?” “You were born older, George.” “Merry Christmas, you wonderful old Building and Loan!”

A favorite character? Ah, now that’s easy. There’s really only one choice, isn’t there? George Bailey, so proud of his membership in the National Geographic Society, was so sure he knew what he was gonna do tomorrow and the next day and the next year and the year after that — exploring and building things — but instead he ends up staying in Bedford Falls selflessly taking over his father’s job he found so stifling, ultimately feeling like a failure who wished he’d never been born — a wish whose devastation can only be revealed to George by an angel without wings. How fitting then that the film was not a critical or commercial success upon its release — like George and his father before him — and through the years has rightly been elevated to the status of classic.

It is often difficult to separate an actor and the character he plays, and it is never so hard as with Jimmy Stewart in It’s A Wonderful Life. He creates a character so real that the instant he speaks a line, you believe him. You believe George Bailey is a real person, not a character in movie, and Stewart does it so effortlessly that it’s hard to believe that he’s acting. Without George Bailey, the people around him and the town of Bedford Falls falls apart and without Jimmy Stewart, It’s A Wonderful Life, too, would fall apart.

It’s A Wonderful Life is quite possibly the most effective and affective film. You identify with George Bailey, you care about him and root for him as if you really know him, and at the end of the film, you’re so glad that he has recognized how wonderful he is that you are even able to forget that nasty old Mr. Potter is left unpunished.

It’s the perfect film to watch at Christmas. It’s the perfect film to watch in July. It’s the perfect film to watch on a desert island. It’s the perfect film.


Happy New Year to you…in jail!

How to Select and Attack a Vampire Victim by Barnabas Collins

In the spirit of Halloween, I’ve been revisiting Dark Shadows (circa 1897) and boy, is it awesome–and by it, I mean Quentin’s sideburns. I’ve been noticing a lot of things I didn’t notice before, and I’m prepared to share some of my knowledge. So to appease all you (hallo)weenies who whine about this blog’s lack of Dark Shadows content, here’s a brief tutorial on how to select and attack your vampire victims, as demonstrated by the master that is Barnabas Collins.

1. Go to the docks. 


It’s the best place to find victims because, as you can see, the place is crawling with people–er, barrels. I think there’s a deleted subplot in On the Waterfront about this.

2. If you see something on the ground, (in)conspicuously pick it up.


Especially if it’s a compact. Because you may need to glance at your reflection and–oh, wait, you don’t have a reflection…Pick it up anyway. It may be useful.

3. Eavesdrop, startle, and start a conversation about a lost item which you have…


Eavesdrop on any conversations you may hear to pick up important details such as “I’m gonna go look for my compact.” Hover creepily so you can startle your victim. Then begin a conversation by asking if you can help her find something which you conveniently have…

4. Don’t mention your name. 


Especially if you’re a Collins. Don’t want people to get the wrong idea–like that members of the Collins family actually leave Collinwood and interact with common, everyday folk who aren’t their servants.

5. Play “hard to get.” Pretend to get “cold feet.” In other words, act like you have to go to the bathroom REALLY BAD!! 


“I don’t understand you. What’s the matter with you?” Haven’t you heard? Barnabas Collins has a really small BLADDER!! Also: you don’t look like Josette reincarnated, so you have negative one thousand percent of a chance with this guy.

6. When your cover is blown, remain calm. 



Try not to look like you just crapped your pants when your victim asks why she can’t see your reflection. It just looks bad.

7. Just do it. 



There’s no turning back now. Go in for the kill. Cue horrible scream. This show is never short of GREAT actors.

Good night and good luck and happy Halloween,

The Count(ess) Petofi


I recently saw this question posed: “Which five films would you take with you to a desert island?” I’ve been contemplating what my answer to this question would be, and in formulating a list of the films that I love and that reveal more to me with each viewing, I reached a point where I could not decide which film of a particular actor I would bring with me. There was no question as to would I bring a piece of this actor’s work; it was the torture of deciding which one to bring. There are days when I just want to be charmed by Cary Grant or drown in the jewels that are Paul Newman’s eyes or listen to Spencer Tracy tell it like it is or melt into a puddle at the sight of Robert Redford, but there is one actor above all the rest who means the most to me. That actor is, of course, Montgomery Clift.

But why? What would make a desert island so unbearable without one of his films to keep me company?

In the simplest terms, the man was spell-binding. It is difficult to imagine him as an actor today, in an age where it is hardly uncommon to watch a movie without resorting at least once to checking your e-mail or Googling the weather or checking IMDB to identify from which episode of a sitcom you recognize an actor, because when Clift is on the screen, you–or at least I–cannot take your eyes off of him, and it is not simply because of his looks.


World peace is found in 1) your smile and 2) close-ups of your face

Clift had the ability to become so embedded in the script and character that you forget he is an actor; he is the character, and the transition he makes from actor to character is so seamless that you do not even realize it has taken place. You become so engrossed in his performance that you do not even realize that it is just that–a performance–until it is over. Then you are compelled to watch the performance again and take note of every nuance — how he underplays each scene in Red River and yet his presence still demands attention, how he bids goodbye to his wife in The Young Lions, only able to lift his hand to his waist in a final, small, pathetic wave, how he raises his hand to his lips to blow a kiss to Lee Remick in Wild River but falters, self-conscious.

This ability to embody his character so fully, to fuse his body and soul so seamlessly with the character that the distinction between character and actor is indistinguishable, is what some believe cost him an Oscar. (He was nominated four times and unjustly robbed each time. Not that I’m biased. No, really, I’m not. He. Was. Robbed. Four times.) If that theory is true, then that is utterly ridiculous. Isn’t that what an actor does (or should do)? Perhaps there is some truth in that theory, but I lend more credence to the theory that he never won because he always refused to play the game, so to speak, of Hollywood. He repeatedly refused to sign long-term contracts with studios, and when he did finally make the transition from stage to screen, he did so on his own terms. “I told them I wanted to choose my scripts and my directors,” he later recalled. “‘But sweetheart,’ they said, ‘you’re gonna make a lotta mistakes.’ And I told them, ‘You don’t understand; I want to be free to do so.'”

Photographed by Stanley Kubrick, 1949

“They try to put people into smart little pigeonholes. It’s the same way they make instant coffee, it’s quick and easy–but I’m not coffee and I don’t pigeonhole.”
— Montgomery Clift, 1960

The dedication and effort he put into perfecting his craft is remarkable. In Raintree County, there is a flash scene (a scene which lasts no more than a second or two on the screen) in which Clift’s character opens the door to his wife’s bedroom and sees his son for the first time. He practiced opening and closing the door countless times–abruptly, tentatively, fearfully, joyfully, excitedly–all in his search for the one way which would convey the exact emotion in the exact way he wanted.

He learned to play the bugle for From Here to Eternity not because his bugle-playing would be heard on-screen but because he believed it was necessary for his mouth and throat movements to be accurate. He memorized the entire Latin mass for his role as a priest in I Confess. He went to get a terrible haircut before filming his appearance in Judgment at Nuremberg because he believed it was the kind of thing his character would do. He nearly broke his back while learning to ride a bronco for The Misfits. On his final film, The Defector, he performed all his own stunts, repeatedly falling into the icy Elbe River and refusing to wear a waterproof suit beneath his clothes, despite his poor health.

So intense was his concentration that while filming A Place in the Sun, he would often finish a take drenched with sweat. “When I play a role I pour all my energy and emotion into it,” he explained. “My body doesn’t know I’m only an actor. The adrenalin rushes around just like in a real emotional crisis when you throw yourself into an emotional scene. Your body doesn’t know you’re kidding when you become angry, tearful, or violent for a part. It takes a tremendous toll on the performer emotionally and physically. I delve as deeply as possible into the characterization. I can’t pace myself the way some other actors can. I either go all out or I don’t accept the picture. I have to dredge it out of me. I’m exhausted at the end of a picture.”

Monty with the McCarthys and their son, Flip

“He struggled from the plane with an armful of unwrapped toys for all the kids he knows. His own luggage was in a beach bag…”
–Augusta Dabney, commenting on his return from a trip to Europe in the fall of 1948

Clift believed that a character could be defined by his gestures, in the way he walked, and so he poured over his scripts, paring his lines to a minimum. “Good dialogue simply isn’t enough to explain all the infinite gradations of a character,” he declared. “It’s behavior–it’s what’s going on behind the lines.” This philosophy made him ideal for the deaf mute in The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, a script he was sent toward the end of his life and was enthusiastic about but unfortunately never lived to fulfill. While filming The Search, he persistently battled with the screenwriters about the changes he felt should be made to the script. His input and revision of the script was such that he should have received a writing credit. Instead, the men with whom he battled so relentlessly won an Academy Award for their screenplay.

The end result of this immense commitment to his craft was a character who was so real, so believable that you can imagine what he is feeling and seeing just by seeing the gamut of emotions reflected in Clift’s beautiful and haunting grey eyes. And the instant he speaks a line, so carefully culled, you believe him. So moving and realistic was his portrayal of the G.I. Steve in his film debut The Search that an audience member approached director Fred Zinnemann and asked, “Where did you find a soldier who could act so well?”

The Heiress

Clift watching himself in The Heiress (1949). He was not pleased.

Despite all the energy he put into his characters, despite his meticulous revision of his scripts, and despite his selectiveness about the roles he accepted, he was rarely, if ever, pleased with his performance on the screen. He didn’t like Red River or The Heiress or From Here to Eternity or, least of all, Raintree County, the film during which he had his near-fatal accident that changed his looks and life. He was too hard on himself.

The Young Lions (1958)

“I had to try to master myself, find the real me outside my looks which people were hung up on and so was I.”
–Montgomery Clift

There are, however, people who agree with Clift’s assessments of his acting. They say he always looked so frail and sensitive on-screen that you could pinch him or utter an unkind word and he would collapse and burst into tears. True, Monty was a sensitive man and often portrayed equally sensitive characters on-screen, but there was often an inner resolute spirit present in the characters he portrayed–and, I would venture to say, in himself. Was Matthew Garth frail and sensitive as he withstood the brutality of John Wayne’s Thomas Dunson in the final scene of Red River? What strength must have Clift possessed to continue to work after his accident that changed his looks, some would say ruined (boo!), in an industry so smitten with superficial beauty?

These same critics might even make a claim that Clift had limited range, that he only ever played the same character, a version of himself, over and over. Similarities exist between the characters he played–the tenacity of Noah Ackerman and Robert E. Lee Prewitt, the mercenary nature of Morris Townsend and George Eastman, the near-naiveté of Danny MacCullough and Ralph Stevenson, but these similarities are slight. The characters are diverse and distinct from one another; Noah and Prewitt may have been similar in their resistance to succumbing to the cruelty of the Army and their swiftness in crumbling at the rejection of a girl, but the two characters are hardly identical. There is a nervous edge, an unsurety to everything Ackerman does–how he bounces on toes when he talks, how he lights his cigarette, how he takes hold of a girl’s face with both hands to kiss her. Prewitt, on the other hand, appears constant, immovable, unaffected; his moments of weakness and vulnerability flicker.


Been watchin’ cowboy films on gloomy afternoons, tinting the solitude: Clift before his accident as the defiant adopted son of John Wayne in Howard Hawks’s Red River (1948) and afterward as the punch drunk cowboy Perce Howland in John Huston’s The Misfits (1960). 

Or perhaps these critics would try to blame Clift’s looks for the attention his acting receives and similarly denounce the films made after his accident. It is not disputable that the man was devastatingly handsome. It’s just not. (And if you want to dispute it…well, I don’t know. Don’t talk to me. I can’t help you, but glasses might.) Don’t be fooled, however, into thinking that he was less handsome after his accident; the accident made his features less delicate, not less beautiful, and the man aged and didn’t properly take care of his body. Don’t be fooled into thinking that his looks negated or sidelined his acting; he refused to be typecast and always put value on the complexity and interest of the role and story, not the amount of fame or money it would attract. Don’t be fooled into thinking his acting prowess deteriorated after his accident; some of his finest acting is found on film after the accident, despite the pain he was enduring.

Monty & Burt

“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. But I’d never worked with an actor of Clift’s power before; I was afraid he was going to blow me right off the screen.”
–Burt Lancaster

And so where does this leave me? Back on that desert island, trying to decide which of his films I would most like to have with me.

Peter Bogdanovich recalled the one time he met Montgomery Clift, when Bogdanovich was working as an usher at a movie theater in New York City. One gray afternoon in 1961, the theater was showing several Hitchcock films, including I Confess, and Clift was in attendance. Part way through the film, Clift made his way toward the back of the theater and lit a cigarette, watching the breathtaking image of his younger, pre-accident self. Bogdanovich approached Clift, told him he liked the film, and asked if he was enjoying it. Clift turned to Bogdanovich and said sadly, “It’s…hard. It’s very…hard.”

That’s how I feel, trying to decide which film to take to this entirely fictitious desert island. It’s hard. Would it be his endearing screen debut, The Search, as he attempts to help a young boy, a survivor of a concentration camp who only answers “I don’t know” to every question, find his mother and teach him English? His arguably definitive portrayal of the stubborn and principled private Robert E. Lee Prewitt in From Here to Eternity? Or would I prefer his complex portrayal of a priest in I Confess, his speech restricted so that he says it all with his magnificent eyes? Would the power of his 17-minute performance in Judgment at Nuremberg as a man sterilized by the Nazis be enough to sustain me? Or what about The Heiress, the movie that introduced me to this wonderful actor, where his preternatural beauty is so distracting that I change my mind repeatedly about his character’s true intentions? (Currently: dude’s a cad but not as much of a cad as her father.) Would I want to be heartbroken by his portrayal of the sensitive Jew Noah Ackerman in The Young Lions, so similar to Prewitt in his endurance of “the treatment”? Or could I even bear to watch him, his thinning hair dyed and his taut skin stretched so thin he almost looks emaciated, perform all his own stunts, even though he was in poor health and probably dying, in his final screen performance, The Defector? Or would I want to enjoy the one film where he had the opportunity to display his comedic abilities (tripping on the train platform in Terminal Station and lambasting that dude about surf boarding in From Here to Eternity aside), The Big Lift, even if it is lacking as a film?

Back to that theater in 1961. Bogdonavich led Clift over to a ledger where patrons were encouraged to write suggestions of films they would like to see. Clift followed Bogdonavich, puffing absently on his cigarette. Bogdonavich opened the book to a page where someone had recently written in large, red letters: “ANYTHING WITH MONTGOMERY CLIFT!”

That, too, is my answer. Which films would I most like to have on a desert island? ANYTHING WITH MONTGOMERY CLIFT! I could watch any of them. Even when the script was weak (like Lonelyhearts or The Defector) or the film was wracked with problems behind the scenes (Raintree County and Freud), or his role was minimal (The Misfits, Judgment at Nuremberg, and Suddenly, Last Summer), his performance is noteworthy. He is compelling and fascinating, often more fascinating with each viewing, and I glean something new from his performance each time I watch. I am more aware of what he is doing as an actor, the extreme dedication and skill and understanding he is bringing to a character in order to bring him to life. Maybe it would be an exaggeration to say that he changed the way I watch movies. But the truth is: it’s not an exaggeration. I compare every actor to him; I watch and try to dissect what an actor is doing and what they are not saying because of him. And no actor is as mesmerizing and satisfying to watch as Montgomery Clift.

Montgomery Clift by Richard Avedon, 1958

“Luxury, swimming pools, expensive cars and all the rest just aren’t very important to me. The big job in one’s life is finding out what is important to you. It’s a major tragedy to race after things that you neither want or need.”
–Montgomery Clift

In his forty-five years and seventeen feature films, he created an indelible, if often unforgotten and underappreciated, impact on innumerable moviegoers, including me, born decades after his death. Today would have been his 94th birthday. Isn’t that amazing–amazing that someone can be gone from this earth for so long and yet still have such a lasting, powerful presence? I think so. Happy birthday, Monty. You were so special.


  • Patricia Bosworth, Montgomery Clift: A Biography 
  • Judith M. Kass, The Films of Montgomery Clift 
  • Peter Bogdanovich, Who the Hell’s In It 


  • The Search (Fred Zinnemann, 1948)
  • Red River (Howard Hawks, 1948)
  • The Heiress (William Wyler, 1949)
  • The Big Lift (George Seaton, 1950)
  • A Place in the Sun (George Stevens, 1951)
  • I Confess (Alfred Hitchcock, 1953)
  • Terminal Station (Vittorio De Sica, 1953)
  • From Here to Eternity (Fred Zinnemann, 1953)
  • Raintree County (Edward Dmytryk, 1957)
  • The Young Lions (Edward Dmytryk, 1958)
  • Lonelyhearts (Vincent J. Donehue, 1958)
  • Suddenly, Last Summer (Joseph L. Mankiewicz, 1959)
  • Wild River (Elia Kazan, 1960)
  • The Misfits (John Huston, 1961)
  • Judgment at Nuremberg (Stanley Kramer, 1961)
  • Freud (John Huston, 1962)
  • The Defector (Raoul Levy, 1966)

* Do you know what I say? Ha ha! Do you hear me? HA HA HA! Oh, wait, that’s the other actor from Omaha I’m enamored of…

Clift & Brando

“What’s the matter with your friend?” Brando, pictured here with Clift on the set of From Here to Eternity, reportedly asked Clift’s close friend Kevin McCarthy in the 1940s. “He acts like he’s got a Mixmaster up his ass and doesn’t want anyone to know it.” 

(Can I please bring this to my desert island, too? 😍😍)

If you don’t have time to watch all of Monty’s films today or are looking for a sampling of his work and have seven minutes or so to spare, check out this sublime tribute video from YouTube.

It combines some of my favorite moments with beautiful photographs (as if any other type exist of Clift) and a gorgeous, fitting soundtrack (Out of Africa). I’m kind of obsessed with it.

Also I’ll be loading my Monty board on Pinterest with all kinds of pretty, if you’re in the mood to slip into a Montgomery Clift-induced coma.

Cheers: Sorry. We’re closed.

I feel like a zombie, just going through the motions. I wake up. I do stuff. I go to bed. Repeat. Where is the purpose? Where is the joy? Where is the contentment?

Yes, I have finally, regrettably finished watching all eleven seasons of Cheers. That’s 275 episodes, equalling approximately 110 hours or 6,600 minutes or about five entire days of watching nothing but Cheers. That’s infinite minutes of laughter, sadness, and feeling a part of an eclectic group of people who, on the surface, have very little in common except that they frequent a little bar in Boston called Cheers.


I know, I’m being overdramatic. I can watch the show again — syndication, DVDs, Netflix! I know. I know how lucky I am. I honestly do not know how people coped — what people did on May 21, 1993. I really do not know. How did they find the strength to get out of bed the next morning? How did they cope with this immense feeling of loss? This indescribable feeling of emptiness?

I know, I’m being dramatic again. Shows end. People move on.

But I really, really, really loved Cheers. There were fantastic episodes. There great episodes. There were good episodes. But there was never really a bad episode — even when Diane Chambers, the most annoying character in the history of television, made me want to pull my hair out as she prattled incessantly about something that nobody — except maybe Frasier and then only maybe — cared about…even then, Cheers was good. Sometimes very good. Sometimes the best.

cheers1The original cast of Cheers: Ted Danson (Sam Malone), John Ratzenberger (Cliff Clavin), George Wendt (Norm Peterson), Nicholas Colasanto (Ernie “Coach” Pantusso), Shelley Long (Diane Chambers), and Rhea Perlman (Carla Tortelli).

In the early seasons, Coach was my favorite. I thought that when he left, I wouldn’t like the show as much anymore. I was wrong. Oh, I was so wrong. As much as I loathed Diane, I thought that when she left, the show’s quality would decline. I was wrong. Oh, I was so wrong.

cheers2The cast during the second half of the series: Rhea Perlman (Carla Tortelli), Woody Harrelson (Woody Boyd), Kelsey Grammer (Frasier Crane), Bebe Neuwirth (Lilith Sternin-Crane), George Wendt (Norm Peterson), Kirstie Alley (Rebecca Howe), Ted Danson (Sam Malone), and John Ratzenberger (Cliff Clavin).

Despite cast changes, Cheers never felt stale. It never reached a point where I thought, “This is no longer enjoyable. This really isn’t that good of a show anymore. I don’t need to keep watching it.” No, Cheers always made me laugh, made me feel a part of something, made me feel grateful to be alive.

frasierDiane’s saving grace: introducing Cheers — and the world — to Dr. Frasier Crane. When Cheers ended, only 1% of viewers surveyed voted Frasier as their favorite character on Cheers, with only 2% voting that Frasier should have his own spin-off.

While struggling to cope with this loss, I reached the episode in Frasier (thank goodness for Frasier) where Woody shows up.

Dear, sweet, dumb Woody. Every word out of your mouth is a gem.


Woody as Mark Twain? Unforgettable. Dear, sweet, dumb Woody. Every facial expression of yours is a gem.


Woody eating snowballs (which he hates)? Priceless. Dear, sweet, dumb Woody, you are a gem, and someday — someday soon — I am going to re-watch every episode of Cheers featuring Woody just so I can record every word that comes out of Woody Boyd’s mouth in a little journal because when Woody Boyd talks, people listen. And when I am sad and depressed, I can pull out this little journal and just laugh, laugh, and laugh. People will fight over this little journal when I am dead and gone. Believe me.

In “The Show Where Woody Shows Up,” Frasier and Woody reunite during Woody’s visit to Seattle. They swap stories about old times in Boston and laugh about Mr. Clavin and Carla and Norm and Sam. They have such a good time that they arrange to meet again. And again. And again — until Frasier is driven crazy at the thought of spending any more time with Woody Boyd, with whom he has nothing in common except their shared experiences in Boston — experiences and memories in which he has begun to feign interest and laughter. When Woody tells Frasier he has to leave Seattle early because of an infection his daughter has, Frasier is relieved.

But then he later sees Woody at a restaurant. Woody, embarrassed and ashamed because he has lied (Woody is a stickler for honesty, bless him), hides in the bathroom to avoid an awkward confrontation.

“Woody, come out of there please,” Frasier says, knocking on the bathroom door.

“No hablo Ingles,” Woody replies.

“I don’t understand this,” Frasier says.

“It means ‘I don’t speak English.'”

Love that Woody!

Woody and Frasier then admit to each other that their repeated reminiscences together became unbearable, and each felt the other was having such a good time neither one of them had the heart to break it to the other that he was no longer enjoying their time together.

Furthermore, Woody tells Frasier, he feels sorry for Frasier because he lives with his dad, spends most of social life with his brother Niles, and any other friends he has are kind of strange. Earlier, Frasier had been telling Niles how sorry he has felt for Woody because he’s been tending the same bar in the same town for the past 15 years. Instead of telling Woody this, however, Frasier realizes how lucky Woody is and tells him so. Woody is lucky, Frasier says, because he has found his place in life and he belongs there.

They share one last beer together, promising to reunite again in five or ten years (ten years it is, declares Frasier). “Cheers,” says Woody.

“Cheers,” says Frasier.

And I want to cry.

In the finale of Cheers, Sam reunites with Diane (gag me) and announces that he and Diane will marry and live together in California, denouncing his same old life tending bar in Boston. But by the end, he returns (without Diane, thank goodness). He shares cigars and beers with Norm and Woody and Carla and Cliff and reflects on the meaning of life.

“I’m the luckiest SOB on Earth,” Sam declares to a darkened, empty bar, pounding his fist on the counter, in the finale scene. A knock comes on the door, and Sam replies, “Sorry. We’re closed.”

What I love about this scene — and the scene in Frasier — is that both convey a level of contentment, a sense of ease with one’s self — what one has, the choices made, and where you are in life. It is a feeling I strive for, a feeling I have felt in those 6,600 minutes of my life watching Cheers, greeting “NORM!!!!”, rolling my eyes at Diane, wondering when Cliff would stop talking, rolling into a ball of laughter at the dim-wittedness of Coach and Woody.