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.
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.'”
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.”
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?”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
RECOMMENDED FURTHER READING
- 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…
(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.