Wow. With visits from some little people (i.e. my nieces and nephew), reorganizing my bookshelf (who knew removing 37 cluttered hardcover books could improve its aesthetic so drastically?), late nights at the Aquatic Center in London (now, sadly, over), completing a course in world history taught by the devil incarnate (cue “Song 2”: WOO-HOO), and of course freaking out about the Old Navy commercial with Jason Priestley and Gabrielle Carteris (aka Brandon Walsh and Andrea Zuckerman), there hasn’t really been much time for blogging.
Last week, though, I was racking my brain for a way to teach the final chapters of The Bean Trees by Barbara Kingsolver. In those concluding chapters, the protagonist makes several key phone calls, and I wanted to find a film scene to reflect the themes and emotions expressed in those phone calls. My mind immediately went to one of my favorite pieces of acting ever committed to film.
Can you guess what it is?
Well, can you?
“I was comin’ out of my boots!”
I’m so predictable.
Of course it’s Montgomery Clift.
Of course it is.
The Misfits didn’t make my list of favorite Clift performances, but that’s because I limited myself to five. (Okay, six.) It is one of his best–and probably most underrated–performances. It’s a relatively small role, which suited his fragile state best by this point in his career, but the scene where Clift’s character, Perce Howland, makes a phone call to his mother is by my favorite in the entire film.
Gay Langland (Clark Gable) and Guido (Eli Wallach), with Roslyn (Marilyn Monroe) and her friend Isabelle (Thelma Ritter) in tow, drive into town in pursuit of a third man to help them in their plan to round up wild mustangs to sell. Just outside of town, seated alongside a phone booth, is Perce, waiting to place a phone call home. After briefly greeting Gay and the gang, Perce’s call to his mother finally comes through.
What I love most about this scene is how Clift seamlessly uses the phone booth as a prop. The door is casually left open when the conversation is light and non-invasive–Perce boasts of his recent accomplishments in the rodeo and sends his love and greetings to his family back home; the door is hastily closed to prevent his new and old acquaintances from hearing–or seeing, rather–his fractured state–the arguments with his mother about spending his rodeo money and his relationship with his stepfather.
And I think part of what makes this scene–and this character–so real, so very real, is that Clift embodies it almost perfectly. Perce, like Clift (especially at this time in his life), is self-destructive and lonely. He later tells Roslyn his friends and girlfriend abandoned him a year previously, and he has no one talk to. Many of Clift’s friends, too, severed him, particularly after his accident and further spiral into drug addiction, branding him a lost cause. Perce’s relationship with his mother is strained, as evidenced by the phone call; Clift’s suffocating and tumultuous relationship with his own mother arguably fueled many of his deep-rooted and life-long problems. And when Perce emphatically states, “Oh, no, no, no, my face is fine. It’s all healed up. Just as good as new.” Well, my heart just breaks.
The most devastating line of the phone call, however, is reserved for last. The operator has notified Perce his call is about to expire, and Perce hurriedly tells his mother to tell his relatives, whom he lists by name, hello for him. An argument about his stepfather–and his failure to specifically ask his mother to say hello to him–ensues. And subsides. The door is, of course, closed. Perce promises to call at Christmastime and anxiously asks, “Hello? Hello?”, wanting to tell his mother one more thing. The call has been disconnected. “God bless you, too,” he mutters–presumably to dead air.
The Misfits was on television the night Clift suffered a fatal heart attack. When his live-in personal secretary asked him if he wanted to watch the film, Clift responded from inside his locked bedroom, “Absolutely not!” Those were the last words he spoke to anyone.