Say, where did I see this guy?
An empty, desolate feeling always haunts the start of the New Year. Time to take down the Christmas decorations, time to go back to school, time to face three more months of dreary winter. Syd Barrett’s music, with its raw, primitive quality, is a perfect soundtrack to this sentiment, and so I began last year by reading Rob Chapman’s remarkable biography of Barrett, A Very Irregular Head. It was a great read, and it perfectly complimented the harrowing feeling of the season. At the start of this year, I decided to tackle another emotionally exhausting read: Patricia Bosworth’s Montgomery Clift: A Biography.
I saw my first Montgomery Clift film in April 2011 (The Heiress), and I was never quite the same. I spent the remainder of the year working through his filmography and watched all seventeen of his films in the space of seven months. Film after film, I was completely captivated by his performance, even in some of his weaker films (of which there are literally only a couple–Clift was very particular about his film projects). I was further intrigued by his personal life, marred by insecurity and tragedy, and knew Bosworth’s biography was widely reputed to be the most thorough, accurate, and satisfying. I also knew it would be a draining read, considering the course of Clift’s life. It would be the perfect way to initiate the New Year.
Bosworth’s biography is much more compelling and original than its title would suggest. The early chapters detailing Clift’s background and childhood are utterly captivating and essential to understanding some of the demons that would haunt Clift later in life. In a nutshell: Clift’s mother, Sunny, was born to an aristocratic family–or, rather, a man and woman who were from aristocratic families and married against the wishes of their families secretly and then had to have the marriage annulled prior to the birth of their daughter. She was then taken under the care of her delivering doctor (Edward Montgomery, after whom she named her son) for a year until she was adopted by the Fogg family, who often treated her unfairly. Once she discovered her true family heritage, however, she began a life-long quest to gain acceptance from her aristocratic relatives. When she married and had children (Clift had a twin sister and older brother), she was determined to raise them as “thoroughbreds,” giving them private schooling, music lessons, and trips across Europe, often separating them from their father for long stretches of time. These excursions were supposedly a condition on Sunny being accepted or recognized by her true family. It never happened.
The absence of his father and constant presence of his domineering mother undoubtedly had a profound on Clift’s psyche. Clift rarely discussed his family history and by the peak of his film career had completely eradicated his critical, demanding mother from his life. It seems that through much of Clift’s life, he sought surrogate parents in friends because he had never truly experienced that family atmosphere. He sought meaning in his life but never found any. As the back jacket of the book proclaims, Bosworth gives his life that meaning.
While he may have thought his life void of meaning, Clift certainly lived his life with integrity. He was one of the first (if not the first) actors to come to Hollywood, free of a slavery contract (e.g. he was not signed to a seven-picture contract with MGM, who decided which films, regardless of quality, he would make). He was allowed to exert unparalleled control over his films for a newcomer. Prior to his debut in Howard Hawks’ Red River (co-starring and out-starring John Wayne), Clift was offered numerous opportunities to become a Hollywood star. Some friends thought him ridiculous for refusing such offers. He wanted, he told them, the agency to be able to pursue projects he felt worthy of his time and talent.
(Clift would almost become legendary for the roles he refused: On the Waterfront, East of Eden, Sunset Boulevard, Bus Stop, High Noon, Friendly Persuasion, Rio Bravo, Prince of Players, Farenheit 451. And on and on.)
Clift’s film career (and life) is typically viewed in two distinct stages: before and after “the accident.” During the filming of Raintree County, Clift was in a traumatic car wreck. After leaving a dinner party at Elizabeth Taylor’s, he lost control of his car and crashed into a tree. Taylor essentially saved his life that evening, pulling his loose tooth, causing him to choke, out of his mouth. (She remained a loyal friend to him, later offering her personal salary as insurance for him–Clift was practically unemployable throughout much of the 1960s because he was considered uninsurable–to be cast in a film that was to be his comeback of sorts, Reflections in a Golden Eye. He died before filming began, and the role went to Brando.)
As a result of the accident, Clift’s face suffered numerous cuts, his lips were severely lacerated, he lost his two front teeth, his nose was broken in two, his jaw was broken in four separate places, the entirety of one upper cheekbone was cracked, and the cracks seeped into the sinus area. The left side of his face was essentially immobile and thus he later preferred his right profile to be shot. No other part of his body was damaged–just his face. It was a cruel twist of fate. Clift had been devastatingly beautiful, and he knew it; it had been one less cause for insecurity. Now he was just attractive, replete with flaws.
While it is true that the accident caused Clift to spiral further into drug and alcohol addiction, his deep psychological and drug problems had been eating away at him for many years before his accident, as early as 1953. His truly was “the longest suicide in Hollywood.” When he died, he was deeply unhappy, largely because his ability to work and thus his main drive and purpose in life had been robbed from him because of the perception that he was uninsurable (due to a lawsuit following John Huston’s–a truly sadistic human being–butchered production of Freud). He had not worked for four years; his final film, The Defector, was released posthumously. Clift appears frighteningly thin and frail, a skeleton. It is truly a sad ending to a film career that began so promisingly.
Waste is a common theme in Clift’s life–waste of time, talent, money, energy–and this is one of the reasons why it is so devastating to read. You want it to get better, but it sadly never does. Bosworth devotes just as much time to Clift’s dedication to his acting as these disappointments, however. The amount of time and energy he consistently devoted to perfecting each of his roles is absolutely amazing–and one can see the work pay off on the screen. Clift is one of the finest actors, often forgotten in the shadow of Brando and Dean, who both worshipped him, but he is just as–if not more–talented and important in the history of film. His performances are not easily forgotten and will likely haunt me forever.
Reading Bosworth’s biography (which is undoubtedly the best of the three Clift biographies I’ve read–and just one of the plain best biographies) was a satisfyingly crushing, depressing way to begin the New Year. I wouldn’t have it any other way.
Look out for a companion post coming soon where I detail some of my favorite Montgomery Clift performances. I’ll try not to do all seventeen films. But he’s just that good.