It’s…Hard

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.

1948

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.

cowboys

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.

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 

SELECTED* FILMOGRAPHY

  • 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.

Best Actor: 1953

Just shy of a year later…The Oscars series returns, with another round of the Best Actor nominees — this time ’round featuring the nominees of 1953! The purpose of this series is to examine and rank past Oscar-nominated performances — who won and who should have won? And to refresh your memory (and mine!), here are the criteria I have established in reviewing and ranking performances:

  • Is this a believable performance? Or, rather, is the actor utterly captivating, pulling me into their performance for the entire duration of the film? Do I forget that this actor is…well, acting?
  • Does the actor and his performance make (…or break) the film?
  • Would I watch this film again? Would I recommend it to other people?
  • The complexity/depth of the performance.

The nominees for Best Actor in a Leading Role of 1953 were as follows:

  • Marlon Brando, Julius Caesar 
  • Richard Burton, The Robe
  • Montgomery Clift, From Here to Eternity
  • William Holden, Stalag 17 
  • Burt Lancaster, From Here to Eternity 

Think you know who I’m going to give the Oscar to? Who do you think should have won the Oscar? Let’s see how our rankings compare! (I’m feeling a bit like Ellery Queen here, challenge to the reader and all.)

5. Richard Burton in The Robe **/*****

vlcsnap-00001

That’s the exact expression I had while watching this movie. Flattering, huh?

This was Richard Burton’s second Oscar nomination (although his first for a Best Actor in a Leading Role). He did not win. He would be nominated a total of seven times and amazingly, he never won.

The premise of The Robe is that it answers the question: what happened to the Roman soldier who won Jesus’ robe in a dice game?

Richard Burton plays that Roman soldier, Marcellus Gallio, who is cruel, condescending, and a womanizer to boot. When he wins Christ’s robe in a dice game at the site of the crucifixion, he is cursed by his slave, Demetrius, and is furthermore plagued by guilt and nightmares, leading people to believe he is crazy (which he kind of is). In an effort to rid himself of this guilt, he searches for Demetrius, who now possesses the robe, with the plan to destroy the robe, which he believes in turn will cause the nightmares to cease. Instead, however, after a series of events and meetings, he becomes converted to Christianity.

You would expect such a dramatic transformation to be extraordinary and rich with palpable emotion. This performance, however, is rather dull and flat, with little depth. I kept waiting to feel something, to care about this character and what happened…but I never did. Caligula was more interesting to me because…well, it was Caligula, so of course it was entertaining.

I think Burton was a great actor (or at least I remember him as being so in what films my 9th grade World Geography teacher showed our class…don’t ask), but this was not a very good performance, and it did not deserve the Oscar. Maybe next time!

4. Marlon Brando, Julius Caesar ***/*****

brandocaesar

Yo, wassup, Brand-o?

This was Marlon Brando’s third (in a row!) Oscar nomination for Best Actor in a Leading Role. He did not win. He would be nominated a total of eight times and win twice, in 1954 for On the Waterfront and in 1972 for The Godfather (an honor which he famously rejected).

Ouch. It hurts to see Brando ranked fourth out of five because it’s Brando and I love Brando. Frankly, however, when I was reviewing which films/performances I needed to watch/review for 1953, I completely forgot that he was even nominated, signaling that this was not a standout performance. Reviewing the film, however, it’s not so much that it’s not a standout performance (indeed, it’s a very, very good one) as that it’s more of a supporting performance. Perhaps a Best Actor in a Leading Role nomination would have been more suitable for James Mason as Brutus, while nominating Brando in the Best Supporting Actor category. At the same time, however, every time Brando enters a scene, he commands your attention. You can’t take your eyes off him!

Brando had been deemed “The Mumbler” and doing Shakespeare was seen as a chance to disprove that title. He does a fantastic job — the guy could do it all! — the famous speech of Mark Antony is especially impressive. Check it out:

Goosebumps!

In Brando’s autobiography, Songs My Mother Taught Me, he wrote of his experience making Julius Caesar: “After being a Mexican revolutionary, I played Mark Antony in Julius Caesar. Joseph L. Mankiewicz, the director, assembled a good cast, including Louis Calhern, James Mason, Greer Garson, Deborah Kerr, Edmond O’Brien and John Gielgud, who played Cassius. Though English actors generally are far superior to American actors in their style, speech and familiarity with Shakespeare, many British actors, like Maurice Evans, are no better than we are in his plays. It takes someone of Gielgud’s stature to perform with authority because he has played most of the important Shakespeare roles. But for me to walk onto a movie set and play Mark Antony without more experiences was asinine.”

I think Brando was being a bit harsh — he did a great job. (And he looked pretty good in those skimpy Roman outfits, too.) There were, however, stronger and more captivating performances deserving of the Oscar that year.

3. William Holden, Stalag 17 ****/*****

vlcsnap-00002

“I’m no escape artist…You can be the heroes, the guys with the fruit salad on your chest. Me, I’m staying put. And I’m gonna make myself as comfortable as I can. And if it takes a littler trading with the enemy to get me some food or a better mattress…that’s okay by Sefton.” 

This was William Holden’s second Oscar nomination. He won! He was nominated a total of three times, with this being his only win.

William Holden plays Sefton, an American airman in a German Prisoner of War camp. Sefton is cynical and practical. He derides the others’ attempts at escape. He has decided to make the best of his situation, trading cigarettes (which he mostly wins by betting with the other prisoners) with the Germans for food and favors. Because of this behavior and certain occurrences demonstrating that someone inside their camp is keeping the Germans informed of their plans and deviations, he is soon accused of  being a “stoolie.” After suffering physical abuse because of this accusation, he becomes determined to reveal the true rat.

Holden gives an excellent, gripping performance, pulling you into the story, gluing you to the screen as you become determined as him to uncover the truth. You grow to care about Sefton, cynical and unsympathetic as he is at times. Still, at the end of the film, you, like the others, wonder what made him do it. (What “it” is…you have to watch the film to see!) Holden’s performance earned the Oscar. I just happen to think two others may have earned it more — an opinion Holden himself held!

Good on Holden for giving the shortest Oscar acceptance speech on record: “Thank you.”

2. Burt Lancaster, From Here to Eternity ****/*****

vlcsnap-00003

This was Burt Lancaster’s first Oscar nomination. He did not win. He would be nominated a total four times, winning once in 1960 for Elmer Gantry.

Aren’t you proud of me for resisting the temptation to use a screencap of a half-naked Lancaster on the beach? I am. Aren’t you disappointed in the Academy for resisting giving Lancaster the Oscar just for being half-naked on the beach? I am.

burt lancaster & deborah kerr - from here to eternity 1953

Oh, you didn’t really think I had that much willpower, did you?

Moving on from Burt Lancaster’s booty to his actual performance…Lancaster brings the perfect mixture of toughness and gentleness to the role of First Sergeant Milton Warden, a man who loves the Army more than anything, including the woman he loves, yet despises and undermines the corruption and cruelty of Captain Holmes. Even though he is no nonsense on the surface, there is a warmth and gentleness to Lancaster’s performance that lets you know Warden is a good, kind man underneath his tough exterior, which, I think, is slowly revealed through his relationship with Clift’s Private Prewitt, a man he at first believes to be stubbornly stupid but by the film’s end perhaps realizes he has more in common with him than he initially thought.

I was torn between Lancaster and Holden — I think their performances are equal in terms of quality and depth, and I can’t exactly pinpoint what made me pick Lancaster over Holden — perhaps a personal preference for Lancaster or a character with more depth or maybe an overall preference for From Here to Eternity

1. Montgomery Clift, From Here to Eternity *****/*****

vlcsnap-00006

This was Montgomery Clift’s third Oscar nomination for Best Actor. He did not win (again). What the heck, Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences? He would be nominated a total of four times, and he would sadly never win — unjustly so.

There was no question for me as to who should have won the Oscar this year. Montgomery Clift as Private Robert E. Lee Prewitt is undoubtedly the heart of this film. Director Fred Zinneman noted: “Clift forced the other actors to be much better than they really were. That’s the only way I can put it. He got performances from the other actors, he got reactions from the other actors that were totally genuine.” Indeed, both Frank Sinatra and Donna Reed, who each won Supporting Actor and Actress Oscars for their performances in From Here to Eternity, would credit Clift with helping them craft and perfect their performances.

Prewitt is a loner, a principled man whose choices and actions do not make much sense to others but to him are simple — in a way, Prewitt is an embodiment of Clift himself. Prewitt switches companies after being relegated to second Bugler in his previous outfit not because of talent or skill but favoritism. When he arrives at his new company, he is immediately pressured by the crooked Captain Holmes to join the boxing team, which he refuses to do despite continuous pressure and cruelty. To Lancaster’s Warden, this is stupid, and he tells Prewitt so.

Warden: You know what you did just now when you turned down dynamite Holmes? You put your head in a noose. Things are soft for a boxer in this outfit. Otherwise, you’d better know how to soldier.
Prewitt: I can soldier with any man.
Warden: You’ll fight, Prewitt. You’ll fight because Captain Holmes wants to be Major Holmes. He’s got an idea he’ll make it if he gets a winning team. And if you don’t do it for him, you’ll do it for me, ’cause my job is to keep him happy, see? The more he’s happy, the less he bothers me and the better I run his company. So we know where we stand, don’t we, kid?
Prewitt: I know where I stand. A man don’t go his own way, he’s nothin’.

“I know where I stand. A man don’t go his own way, he’s nothin’.” These are probably my favorite lines in the entire film and lines that better than any other encapsulate the character of Prewitt.

Clift, as always, puts so much into his performance. From the moment the novel From Here to Eternity was published, he hoped to play Prewitt in a screen adaptation. He envisioned Prewitt as an inarticulate man and thus cut his dialogue as much as possible. Furthermore, he modeled his subtle accent on recordings of Kentucky speech he tracked down with director Fred Zinneman. He spent hours learning and practicing the bugle, even though he knew he would not actually be playing in the film. He complete engrosses himself in the character, and as a result, he pulls you in with him. His performance is, in a word…meticulous, fearless, emotional, breathtaking, flawless, unforgettable.

This performance matches every criteria I have set for reviewing performances. Yes, this performance is believable and makes the film. Yes, I forget Montgomery Clift is acting. Yes, I would watch this film again and recommend it to other people. Yes, there is a depth and feeling to this performance unmatched by any of the others. So why didn’t Clift win the Oscar? Karl Malden offered these thoughts: “Because he always became part of the warp and woof of a script. So much so that his artistry wasn’t always appreciated. If you watch him in From Here to Eternity, he completely immerses himself in the character and situation of Prewitt, so much so that he actually sinks into the flesh of the story.”

vlcsnap-00005

What is your face? A work of art, that’s what. Your face was made to be seen in high definition, so let’s release as many of your films in Blu-Ray as soon as possible and there will finally be world peace. And your skill and talent as an actor — pure artistry. The best. My favorite. Always.

Previously: Best Actor 1951 

Up next (by Christmas, maybe): Perhaps a year where Montgomery Clift wasn’t nominated so I won’t be so doggone predictable.

The Young Lions (Edward Dmytryk, 1958)

April 2, 1958. Paramount Theater, New York City. It is the première of The Young Lions. As the lights dim and the film’s opening credits appear, applause bursts at the sight of the names of the film’s stars: Marlon Brando, Montgomery Clift, Dean Martin.

In his seat, Montgomery Clift is anxious. He believes the future of his career depends on this film and his performance. Privately, he believes, knows even, that his portrayal of the sensitive Jew Noah Ackerman is his best, even going so far as to expect his fourth Oscar nomination (and his first win). But he is also unsure because he knows what he has done is risky. The Young Lions is his first full film after his disfiguring car accident  in 1956 (which occurred amidst the filming of Raintree County, requiring an especially watchful eye to be able to discern which shots are pre-accident and which are post-accident), and he has attempted to develop the character of Noah Ackerman using a minimum number of tight shots. Thus, the audience often sees Noah at a distance or an angle, and yet, due to Clift’s extraordinary gift and skill as an actor, Noah’s experiences, perceptions, and feelings are palpable.

When that audience in Paramount Theater first sees Clift as Noah, however, there are audible whispers, expressing a mixture of shock and pity, “Is that him?” A girl in the balcony even screams and faints. Clift tenses but remains immobile, staring blankly ahead as the film continues to unfold.

Three hours later, the film is over, and the audience cheers. Many of Clift’s peers make their way through the crowded aisle to congratulate him on his performance. Later, Clift attends a party with his co-star Hope Lange, and actors again offer him compliments on his outstanding performance. He is ecstatic and relieved. After the party disseminates, Hope Lange cries as she reads a review of the film in The New York Times. Clift snatches the newspaper from her and reads aloud the singular line devoted to his performance: “Clift’s performance is strangely hollow and lackluster as the sensitive Jew. He acts throughout the picture as if he were in a glassy-eyed daze.”

Clift tried to disguise his torment by joking and clowning. Around three in the morning, at the home of a friend, Clift finally breaks down, sobbing. “Noah was the best performance of my life,” he declared. “I couldn’t have given more of myself. I’ll never be able to do it again. Never.”

The young lions poster

The Young Lions tells the story of three soldiers and their very different experiences in World War II. There is Marlon Brando, with his hair dyed blonde and a German accent, as Christian Diestl, who is introduced as decent ski instructor hopeful that the reign of Hitler will bring him a better life who later becomes a Nazi officer, yet, by the war’s end, he has become disillusioned with it all. There is Dean Martin as Michael Whiteacre, a singer/actor who becomes a reluctant participant in the war, explaining his contempt of the war to his girlfriend, “Look, I’ve read all the books. I know that in 10 years we’ll be bosom friends with the Germans and the Japanese. Then I’ll be pretty annoyed that I was killed.” And then there is Montgomery Clift as the sensitive, awkward, and proud Noah Ackerman, a Jew who faces anti-Semitism from the men in his own company.

When discussing Clift, the discussion often involves a discussion of two different actors: the pre-accident Clift and the post-accident Clift. I resent this. He looked different, yes. He looked older and exhausted at times. The breathtaking beauty that had captivated and mesmerized movie audiences beginning with 1948’s The Search had been altered–some may even argue it had vanished–but he was still handsome, and he was still captivating and mesmerizing, only now there was no confusion as to whether it was his preternaturally beautiful face doing the captivating and mesmerizing: it was now purely his acting prowess.

While it may be easy to point to Clift’s car accident as the cause for the change in his appearance in The Young Lions that startled that audience at the Paramount Theater on April 2, 1958, that is only partially responsible. The accident had made it difficult for him to move his upper lip and rendered the left side of his face practically immovable. Clift, however, had made the deliberate choice to alter his appearance further to personify the awkward and proud Noah Ackerman more fully. He reduced his already thin frame from 150 pounds to a mere 130 pounds, allowing for his clothes to hang loosely. He also distended his ears, and he augmented his nose with putty. The result was a total embodiment of the character.

The back of the case of the DVD touts Brando’s character and performance–how it was a controversial role, how Brando makes the German tragic and sympathetic. That is tantamount to blasphemy. This film belongs to Montgomery Clift. (Still love you, Brando.) His scenes are more vivid, authentic, and human. I love how he shyly walks home with his future wife Hope (played by Hope Lange) for the first time, impulsively kisses her, leading to Hope reprimanding him, and he sheepishly walks away, only to turn back and tap incessantly on the window to ask for directions home. “You’re lost?” Hope asks him skeptically. “No one will find me again,” he answers. “Ever.” His delivery is perfect. I love how he walks around town with Hope’s father, who admits he has never known a Jew and has reservations about allowing his daughter to marry one. Hope’s father points out his connections to the town and its people, eventually leading Noah to their family plot where seven generations of their family are buried. Noah interrupts him, “Mr. Plowman, I don’t have a family plot. I don’t have a family. I earn $35 dollars a week, and I’m 1-A in the draft. But I love Hope, and I shall love her for all my life.” Perhaps I love most of all how he says goodbye to Hope, now his wife. He kisses her, and then begins to walk down the street. He turns around half-way, hoping to see her once more, but he can only bare to stare for a few seconds. He slowly turns and begins to walk again, and he lifts his right hand in an effort to wave, but he only manages to raise it to his waist and give a small wave. It is pathetic and heartbreaking and very real.

vlcsnap-00002

Clift’s eyes were always his best feature, and he continued to use them to full effect. Only, it seems, that after the accident (and here I am, contradicting myself, speaking of post-accident Clift as a separate being) his eyes expressed more vulnerability, more longing, more pain, more hope, more happiness. They are, in short, even more expressive and powerful than they ever were, if that is possible. In a scene where Noah speaks with his wife in an army prison, it is not the dialogue that makes the scene so effective and poignant (although I love the way he bends back down to whisper “I love you”), but it is instead Clift’s facial expressions, how he uses his hands, and his eyes. Oh, the eyes have it, I tell you. You don’t even have to know the specifics of a conversation between an army Captain, a German mayor of a neighboring town, and a Jewish rabbi asking to hold memorial services for those who have died in the concentration camp. You see it all reflected in Clift’s eyes, his face, the posture of his body.

The Young Lions isn’t necessarily a flawless film, but it is a very good one.  What makes it such a rewarding movie-watching experience for me, though, is Clift. His acting is not hollow or lackluster, and he does not wander through the movie in a glassy-eyed daze. Rather, he is fascinating, expressive, and you cannot take your eyes off of him, for fear you might miss some nuance–like the little wave of his right arm as he turns away from his wife for what could be the last time–that makes his Noah Ackerman that much more vivid and real.

Clift was right when he declared that he couldn’t have given more of himself to the character of Noah Ackerman. I’m not sure he was right when he said it was the best performance of his life–he had far too many outstanding performances to make that distinction so easily. What a great performance Noah Ackerman was, though. What a great actor. My favorite.

Best Actor: 1951

A few weeks ago, Daniel Day-Lewis made Oscar history when he became the first male actor to earn three Academy Awards for Best Actor in a Leading Role. (Katharine Hepburn still holds the record for any performer–four Academy Awards for Best Actress in a Leading Role. That be my girl.) We all woo-hoo’d and hallejuah’d ’round here–not only because every superlative in existence could be applied to his performance as President Abraham Lincoln (or just one superlative: P-E-R-F-E-C-T) but also because no other actor in recent memory could be deemed more deserving of such an honor than Daniel Day-Lewis. This is, after all, the man who played Hawkeye in The Last of the Mohicans, the movie I watched countless times and the character I proudly told anybody I had the courage to speak to as a four-year-old I would someday marry. Yes, I had a normal childhood.

Inspired by Day-Lewis’ historic win and a few other things (but mostly Daniel Day-Lewis), I decided to examine and rank previous Best Actor Oscar winners and nominations. Who won? Who should have won? I decided to first take a look at 1951, mainly because I was very familiar with three of the five nominated performances but also because it was an interesting year for acting with the arrival of Method Acting, perfectly executed by two its nominees. But before I delve into those actors and their performances, let’s establish some criteria that will direct my evaluations and rankings:

  • Is this a believable performance? Or, rather, is the actor utterly captivating, pulling me into their performance for the entire duration of the film? Do I forget that this actor is…well, acting
  • Does the actor and his performance make (…or break) the film?
  • Would I watch this film again? Would I recommend it to other people? 
  • The complexity/depth of the performance. Let me clarify this through an example: In 1973, Robert Redford was given his only (!!) Oscar nomination for acting for his performance in The Sting. Now, ya’ll know how I feel about Robert Redford. And if you don’t, I will tell you right now: I love Robert Redford. A lot. And The Sting is one of my favorite movies. And he is great in it. But I’m not sure that he really deserved the nomination for this role. More deserving that year was his performance as Hubbell Gardner in The Way We Were. But let’s not talk about The Way We Were because I’m starting to dissolve into a puddle of tears just thinking about it. Your girl is lovely, Hubbell! Oh, don’t mind me, I’m just rocking back and forth in my desk chair here, quietly sobbing. And not just because Hubbell belonged with Katie but because I’m thinking of Barbra Streisand brushing Robert Redford’s hair across his forehead…and I’m just really envious. I’m continuing that whole “normal childhood” thing into my adulthood.

Without further ado (or gushing about Robert Redford and his immaculate hair), here are my rankings of the Best Actor in a Leading Role nominees of 1951:

5. Fredric March in Death of a Salesman **/*****

marchsalesman

This was Fredric March’s fifth and final Oscar nomination. He did not win. He previously won in 1931 for Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (tied with Wallace Beery for The Champ) and in 1946 for The Best Years of Our Lives.

In this production of Arthur Miller’s play, Willy Loman (Fredric March) is portrayed as a complete lunatic, something which disgusted the playwright. I spent much of the film wondering if I was supposed to feel something for this character or see some depth in him beyond the fact that he is insane? Because I didn’t feel it, and I didn’t see it. The film also inserts the flashbacks sloppily. I suppose that these flashbacks were supposed to demonstrate Willy’s descent into insanity, but they were integrated (or, rather, not integrated) into the story in such a way that they were frustrating. Regardless, this performance is lifeless and, quite frankly, boring.

Ultimately, I felt nothing watching this film, save boredom, and I would not watch it again. If I were in a high school English class reading Death of a Salesman and the teacher showed us this film, I would probably throw darts at a picture of that English teacher.

Just for fun, of course.

4. Arthur Kennedy in Bright Victory ***/*****

vlcsnap-00026

This was Arthur Kennedy’s first and only Oscar nomination for Best Actor in a Leading Role. He did not win. He received four Oscar nominations for Best Actor in a Supporting Role throughout his career but never won.

I had never heard of Bright Victory, which tells the story of Sergeant Larry Nevens, who is blinded by a German Sniper during World War II. Kennedy gives a fine performance as Nevens, who, when we first meet him, is cocky and unlikable. As Nevens comes to grips with his injury, however, Kennedy creates a character whom you feel sympathetic toward and whose fate you care about. Kennedy is especially effective in the first half of the film, before Nevens becomes too comfortable with himself as a blind man, particularly in the scene in which he tries to commit suicide after first learning of his permanent blindness and a later scene when he calls his parents and finally tells them the seriousness of his injury. Less effective, however, is the film’s subplot dealing with racism. While traveling to Valley Forge Hospital with other wounded soldiers, Nevens converses with another black soldier. When he realizes the soldier is black, he asks the nurse to sit by him instead. Nevens’ racism arises again when he befriends another blind soldier (who happens to be black) in the hospital and uses a racial slur casually one day, not knowing the race of his friend. There is silence, and instead of further conversation or exploration of his offense, the scene ends with the two parting ways. While this is later resolved, the entire subplot seems half-formed and leaves you wanting a more meaningful exploration of the issue.

Overall, however, this was a good performance in a good film. Good–not great, but by no means poor.

3. Humphrey Bogart, The African Queen ****/*****

vlcsnap-00027

Humphrey Bogart received his second Oscar nomination for The African Queen. This was his only Oscar win. He was nominated two additional times, previously in 1943 for Casablanca and again in 1954 for The Caine Mutiny.

Some detractors may claim that Bogart’s win for The African Queen was the Academy’s attempt to mask a “Best Actor” award as a “Lifetime Achievement” award, thereby remedying its mistake of not awarding him the award for Casablanca. And while I obviously think there were at least two actors more deserving of this award in 1951, I do not think that by any means was this award undeserved. Bogart is very, very endearing and effective in this film. I mean, look at him up there imitating the hippos and monkeys.

Now, let’s get one thing straight here: I initially watched The African Queen for Katharine Hepburn. I was never drawn to Bogart and thus never felt compelled to watch any of his films (although I had watched Sabrina). He was just kind of this old, gruff actor to me. So The African Queen was a pleasant surprise.

Of course, a major draw of this film and Bogart’s performance (for me, at least) is his chemistry with Katharine Hepburn. I love how at the start of the film the two characters have absolutely nothing in common but slowly build a relationship as the film progresses. Amidst World War I, Charlie Allnut (Bogart) and Rose Sayer (Hepburn) are aboard The African Queen, a boat which they plan to convert into a torpedo boat and sink the enemy’s boat downstream–a plan suggested by Rose. Charlie, however, hoped that Rose would soon become discouraged and abandon the plan, but after they survive the first set of rapids, Rose becomes even more dedicated to their cause. She tells him, glossy-eyed, when he asks how she liked the rapids, “I never dreamed that any mere physical experience could be so stimulating! I’ve only known such excitement a few times before, a few times in my dear brother’s sermons when the spirit was really upon him!” Later, Charlie half-drunkenly reveals he never intended to complete their plan and insults Rose, who retaliates by branding him a liar and a coward–and promptly disposes of all the alcohol on board.

Then comes my favorite scene (outside of Bogart mimicking the hippos and monkeys, which is just fun) and one of Bogart’s best in the film.

Charlie attempts to apologize to Rose, by cleaning up his appearance (via shaving) and complimenting her. Rose completely ignores him, silently reading a book. Charlie grows frustrated, apologizes, and explains his actions, saying, “What ya bein’ so mean for, Miss? A man takes a drop too much once in awhile–it’s only human nature.”

“Nature, Mr. Allnut, is what we are put in this world to rise above,” replies Rose.

Touché!

In this scene, Bogart is adroitly conciliatory, frustrated, angry, pleading, and begrudgingly submissive in the space of just a few minutes. Even though (in my opinion) there were more deserving performances in 1951, Bogart earned this Oscar for a very good performance.

2. Marlon Brando, A Streetcar Named Desire *****/*****

vlcsnap-00029

Brando received his first Oscar nomination for A Streetcar Named Desire. He did not win. He would be nominated an additional seven times (six Lead Actor nominations, one Actor in a Supporting Role) and won twice, in 1954 for On the Waterfront and in 1972 for The Godfather, an honor (some might call it an offer) he refused.

Update: I am now writing this blog toothless and hairless because I pulled out all my teeth and all my hair trying to rank these last two performances. Now that you have that lovely image in your head, let’s talk about something slightly more pleasant and pretty.

vlcsnap-00028

“What’s that?”

“Oh, those cats. ME-OW!”

(That’s what I say when I see your face.)

So.

Brando.

Marlon Brando.

What do you say about one of the greatest screen performances of all-time? What do you say about an actor who took a flat, detestable character and made him explosive, sensuous, and vulnerable? And what do you say when you learn that this actor was robbed of the Oscar (co-stars Vivien Leigh, Kim Hunter, and Karl Malden were all nominees and winners in their respective acting categories)?

You don’t “say” anything, per se, you just sort of do this:

vlcsnap-00030

It’s really not fair. He should have won.

Still, there’s one more performance that I think was maybe–just maybe–even better.

1. Montgomery Clift, A Place in the Sun *****/*****

vlcsnap-00031

This was Montgomery Clift’s second Oscar nomination. He did not win. He had been nominated in 1948 for The Search, would be nominated in 1953 for From Here to Eternity, and in 1961 for Best Actor in a Supporting Role for Judgement at Nuremberg. He never won, and that is an absolute travesty.

According to Patricia Bosworth’s biography of the actor, Clift sometimes imitated Charlie Chaplin’s “goofy, expectant smile” in the last frames of City Lights, which a spectator described: “It was fascinating to watch him become a different person without uttering a sound. He could capture the essence of a personality, a character, instantly and not only that, make you experience a rush of emotion–and you had no idea how he did it.” Bosworth quotes a film director later observing this same technique, stating, “Montgomery Clift knows how to use silence and fill it up.”

And this is exactly what he does in A Place in the Sun. 

Clift portrays George Eastman, an ambitious young man who attempts to earn his own “place in the sun” by working his way up through his wealthy uncle’s prestigious company. Along the way, though, he falls in love with two women: Alice Tripp (Shelley Winters), a fellow factory worker in the company and Angela Vickers (Elizabeth Taylor), a wealthy socialite. George and Alice’s romance must remain a secret, as it is against company policy, but it quickly moves further into the shadows as George becomes acquainted with Angela. It becomes even more complicated, however, when Alice reveals to George that she is pregnant.

Stop reading if you’ve never seen this film (watch it) and don’t want to be spoiled.

The only solution Alice and George are able to find is to marry and leave town and start a new life somewhere else, where nobody knows them. This plan, however, would thwart George’s designs for his “place in the sun.” He is also unwilling to give up Angela.

And so George plans (or does he?) to take Alice out in a boat on the lake and, knowing she cannot swim, drown her. As the two are in the boat, however, George begins to have second (and third…and fourth…) thoughts. In just a scene lasting just a few minutes, Clift expresses George’s contempt for Alice as she talks about what their married life would be like, then you see his face soften, feeling almost sorry for her, then you see him imagining drowning her, malice shining in his eyes, and he then again crumbles, unable to fathom going through with the murder. Clift faultlessly conveys this wrestling of emotions George has with himself–and he does it without uttering a single word. 

vlcsnap-00043

It gives me goosebumps. It just might be Clift’s finest piece of acting–and that’s saying quite a lot.

But what follows is perhaps even more compelling and impressive acting by Clift. George is eventually arrested and put on trial for the murder of Alice. The film leaves it unclear whether George truly and maliciously murdered Alice Tripp. During the trial, George testifies that he could not go through with the murder and that he was thinking of someone else (Angela) while he and Alice were on that boat, not of murdering Alice, and that her death was an accident. You believe him. Clift makes you believe him. You believe him so much that when George is grilled by the prosecuting attorney, who declares, “You pushed that poor girl into the lake and watched her drown. Isn’t that the truth?” You sit there, shouting at the screen, “No! No, it isn’t! That isn’t the truth! He isn’t a murderer!” And you get so mad at that stinking lawyer, you just want to stick your tongue out at him. Or something slightly more menacing.

And then you remember…George Eastman is just a character. Montgomery Clift is an actor. This is just a movie.

But that is a testament to the power of Clift’s acting and skill. And that is what ultimately compels me to rank his performance at the top of this list.

But then I have a soft spot for Montgomery Clift.

I can’t believe he never won an Oscar.

I mean, shouldn’t he have at least got a special Oscar for that face?

vlcsnap-00032

Lord have mercy.

Well, there you have it. In 1951, the Academy awarded Humphrey Bogart the Oscar for Best Actor in a Leading Role. But I would have given it to Montgomery Clift. Or Marlon Brando. Or Montgomery Clift and Marlon Brando. Oh, think of all the beautiful photos of those two holding their awards together that could have been!

Now do I not only have no teeth, no hair, but I am officially just a puddle of nothing. Melted by visions of Brando and Clift. I must say, writing this blog post has done wonders for my complexion.

Okay. See ya next time.

(Note: This is a topic I may revisit occasionally–examining and ranking a given year’s nominees in Best Actor/Supporting Actor, Best Actress/Supporting Actress, Best Picture, although I doubt I will ever watch every Oscar-nominated film/performance ever because there are some films I have no desire to ever, ever watch, and I hope to someday have a life. I wouldn’t count on the latter ever happening, though.)

“God bless you, too.”

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 know.

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.

Five Favorite Montgomery Clift Performances

The Oscars are next week and just to give you an indication of how incredibly vacuous and self-congratulatory the ceremony will be, George Clooney is nominated for Best Actor. I mean, it’s not exactly Marlon Brando for The Godfather, is it?

Once upon a time, though, Montgomery Clift was nominated for an Oscar. Four times. He never won–unjustly so–but his performances inspired countless actors: Brando, Dean,   Pacino, de Niro. And on and on. He did not die young, an immortal idol like James Dean; he died at home quietly, alone, aged 45. He did not remain an enduring film star like Cary Grant or John Wayne, dying with just seventeen films to his name. And so he is often forgotten–but only by those who have never witnessed one of his indelible performances, each one marked by his exceptional talent, vulnerability, and intensity.

This list could easily encompass all his films because Montgomery Clift never committed a mediocre performance to film. But here they are–my five favorite Montgomery Clift performances.

Honorable Mention: Judgment at Nuremberg (Stanley Kramer, 1961) 

Montgomery Clift, Judgment at Nuremberg

“I want that you tell me was she feeble-minded? My Mother! Was she feeble-minded? Was she?!”

OK, so I fibbed a bit. There’s six films on this list. Five was just way too constrictive.

Clift appears in a mere seventeen minutes of Stanley Kramer’s 186-minute film about four judges who executed Nazi sterilization and “cleansing” policies. The film boasts an all-star cast, including Marlene Dietrich, Judy Garland, Burt Lancaster, and Spencer Tracy, but Clift’s performance eclipses them all. He portrays a sterilized Jewish man, Rudolph Peterson, who claims the Nazis sterilized him because of his family’s political affiliations. During cross-examination, however, the defense alleges the reason for his sterilization was his genetic “feeble-mindedness.” Peterson’s vigorous, heart-wrenching reaction to the charge is unforgettable, as he holds up a photograph of his mother and asks the court if she was feeble-minded.

Clift struggled to remember his lines; Spencer Tracy reportedly told Clift to play the scene to him, and that is the take that appears on film. Director Stanley Kramer states that he instructed Clift to ad lib, a way to convey the character’s confusion, and that helped calm and drive Clift to his performance. Criticisms that the shambling behavior Clift exhibits in the film (parodied here by Martin Short) are indicative of his drug addiction are ridiculous; Clift appears a mess because his character is a mess. The fragmented sentences, the broken syntax, the trembling hands show that the character of Peterson is not in control of his physical or mental state. The actor, however, despite all his personal turmoil, is.

Actress Nancy Walker and her husband, who were close friends of Clift, reportedly got up and left the theatre after Clift’s scene, Walker declaring that nothing else in the film could possibly surpass what they just saw. Too true.

Clift received his fourth and final Oscar nomination for this film–this time as Best Supporting Actor. George Chakiris won the award for his performance in West Side Story. If anyone needed further proof that the Oscars is a sham, that’s it.

5. The Heiress (William Wyler, 1949) 

Montgomery Clift as Morris Townsend, The Heiress (1949)

I want that you tell me this dude is a fortune hunter. Look how utterly disappointed he looks that Catherine is dancing with some old guy. Come on!

 Ah, my first Montgomery Clift film, you will always be very near and dear to my heart. I wanted to watch an Olivia de Havilland film that wasn’t, you know, Gone with the Wind, and so I found The Heiress and was completely enchanted by Clift and his performance.

Based on the Henry James novel Washington Square, it is the story of Catherine Sloper (de Havilland), a plain yet wealthy young woman, who comes under the spell of the charming and handsome Morris Townsend (Clift). Is he truly in love with her or is he simply after her money? Clift’s performance is so infuriatingly convincing, I’ll never be completely persuaded. He apparently hated his performance (here’s a photo of him watching the rushes of the film), however, and he was criticized for appearing too “modern.” Sorry, I missed that.

'Stached Monty, The Heiress

Important lesson I learned from this film: if you want to age someone seven years, just give them a ‘stache. It does wonders. 

The bigger villain in the story (to me, at least), though, is Catherine’s father, Dr. Sloper (Ralph Richardson), who constantly belittles his daughter for being so plain, awkward, and unlike her dead graceful mother. He threatens to disinherit her if she defies him by marrying Townsend, whom he believes to be a fortune hunter. He is perhaps more responsible for the transformation we see Catherine undergo–a chilling performance that earned de Havilland her second Academy Award for Best Actress.

Clift’s performance, though, sticks with me. You’ll never convince me he was just a greedy fortune hunter. You just won’t.

4. A Place in the Sun (George Stevens, 1951)

Montgomery Clift & Elizabeth Taylor, A Place in the Sun

“I love you. I’ve loved you since the first moment I saw you. I guess maybe I’ve even loved you before I saw you.”

After The Heiress, this was the next Clift film I watched, and I remember wondering if this guy was ever going to stop fooling me into thinking that these dirtbags (?? I’ll never be completely convinced!!) were actually innocent, decent people.

Clift portrays George Eastman, a poor relation of a wealthy industrialist who takes an entry-level factory job at one of his uncle’s facilities. His rich family treat him as an outsider, but Eastman is eager to impress them and works hard to advance in the company. He also begins a relationship with fellow factory worker Alice Tripp (Shelley Winters), a breach of workplace policies, until he meets socialite Angela Vickers (Elizabeth Taylor), with whom he immediately falls in love. The fact that Alice is pregnant and expects Eastman to marry her, however, complicates the situation.

Eastman takes Alice out on a boat, intending to drown her. He loses his nerve, and Alice stands up in the boat, falling into the water. Does Eastman really drown her or does he simply watch her die, refusing to help her? I don’t know. I just don’t know.

This was the first of three films that paired Taylor and Clift. To promote the film, the studio arranged to have Taylor accompany Clift to the premiere of The Heiress. Clift reportedly had no idea who Taylor was and dreaded the evening, but the pair instantly became lifelong friends once they met.

A Place in the Sun was Taylor’s first foray into more serious, dramatic films. Clift helped shape her performance, which was hailed as the best of her career at the time. This–extracting the best performance out of other actors–was to become a pattern, another testament to his extraordinary talent.

This film earned Clift his second Oscar nomination for Best Actor. Marlon Brando was also nominated that year for A Streetcar Named Desire. Both actors thought the other would win the award. Humphrey Bogart, instead, won for The African Queen.

3. The Young Lions (Edward Dmytryk, 1958)

Montgomery Clift, The Young Lions

“I want to say something to you. I’m not opinionated. I don’t think I have a single opinion in the whole world. I don’t know why I kissed you–I just couldn’t help it, I guess. I guess I wanted to impress you. I was afraid if I was myself, you wouldn’t look at me twice.”

After suffering a disfiguring car accident in 1956, Clift was unsure whether he still had a future as an actor. The Young Lions was his first post-accident film, and it proved unequivocally that yes, Montgomery Clift could still act. Or, at least, it proved it to me. People in 1958 were somewhat unsure and apparently brain-dead.

The Young Lions, based on Irwin Shaw’s acclaimed novel of the same name, tells the stories of three soldiers in World War II: Lieutenant Christian Diestl (a blonde Marlon Brando), a German officer who gradually loses his faith in the Nazi cause, Michael Whiteacre (Dean Martin), a show business coward who eventually wants to prove himself, and Noah Ackerman (Clift), a Jewish soldier who suffers bigotry in the military.

Clift, as always, underwent rigorous preparation for the role. His weight dropped to 130 pounds, and he used putty to augment his nose and ears. He is absolutely heartbreaking as the shy and sensitive Ackerman. One of my favorite scenes in the film is when Ackerman meets a girl, Hope (Hope Lange), at a party and accompanies her home. He clumsily kisses her, and she slaps him. He turns, embarrassed and ashamed, to return home, only to turn back to ask her for directions. It’s incredibly endearing. Ackerman bears many similarities to another soldier Clift portrayed, Private Robert Prewitt in From Here to Eternity. Both are resistant to conformity and refuse to succumb to the abuse of others. Ackerman, though, suffers extreme prejudice in a military professing to fight intolerance abroad.

Touted as rivals throughout the 1950s, Brando and Clift actually had great respect and admiration for each other. Brando wrote in his autobiography that he considered Clift a friend and a very good actor. This was the only film in which they both appear, although unfortunately they never share any scenes. (You have no idea how disappointed I was when I found this out…oh, about halfway through the film.) During filming, they apparently avoided one another–understandable, considering they had very different approaches to acting. Clift completely immersed himself in a role, endlessly debating how a character should say a certain line, where their eyes should focus their attention, how they should open a door. Brando could waste literally hours of film trying to figure out what direction he wanted to take with a scene, and he rarely bothered to learn his lines. Clift remarked that Brando was “sloppy” during filming. Brando was concerned about Clift’s growing alcohol and drug addiction, going so far as to offer to attend Alcohol Anonymous meetings with him. Clift privately appreciated the gesture deeply but publicly retorted that didn’t Brando have his own problems (i.e. Brando’s notorious weight fluctuations)?

The Young Lions was an important film for Dean Martin, who was looking to revitalize his career after his professional split from Jerry Lewis. Once again, Clift helped a fellow actor give one of his best performances. Clift also admired his own work; he considered the role and resulting performance his favorite, and he secretly felt it would earn him his fourth Oscar nomination. Following the premiere, his fellows actors congratulated him on his riveting portrayal, but none of them could hide the one condemnatory review that would crush Clift. Bosley Crowther wrote in The New York Times: “Mr. Clift is strangely hollow and lackluster as the sensitive Jew. He acts throughout the picture as if he were in a glassy-eyed daze.” (Obviously, he and I did not watch the same film.)

Clift broke down, telling friends, “Noah Ackerman was the greatest performance of my life. I couldn’t have given more. I’ll never be able to do it again. Ever.”

Sadly, I don’t think he ever really did.

2. From Here To Eternity (Fred Zinnemann, 1953)

Montgomery Clift, From Here to Eternity

“Nobody ever lies about being lonely.” 

Forget Burt Lancaster and Deborah Kerr smoochin’ on the beach, Montgomery Clift’s Private Robert Prewitt is what makes this film. Prewitt, like Ackerman of The Young Lions, is tough, principled, a loner, an outsider rejected by the thing he loves most (the Army). Watching him suffer through “the treatment” he endures because of having made the (right) choice to adhere to his principles makes you cringe with pain.

It’s hard to imagine anyone else in the role except Clift, who was not the first choice (Aldo Ray was). He took boxing and bugling lessons, although he knew his playing would eventually have to be dubbed for the film. He wanted his breathing and fingering to be completely realistic. Two of my favorite scenes in the film involve Clift playing the bugle–in the bar when he grabs the bugle from some punk and says, “Why don’t you learn to bugle?” and shows him how it’s really done, and playing “Taps” after the death of Maggio.

From Here to Eternity earned Clift his third Oscar nomination for Best Actor. Clift had not been overly concerned about winning the previous two, but by all accounts he really wanted to win this time around and was deeply disappointed when he lost to William Holden for Stalag 17. He reportedly said, “What do I have to do to prove I can act?”

Clift did not lose because Holden was a better actor who gave a better performance. It was mathematics. From Here to Eternity had more votes for Best Actor than any other film. Burt Lancaster, though, was also nominated for Best Actor and because so many members voted for him as well as Clift, the votes cancelled each other out. Further proof that math sucks.

Donna Reed and Frank Sinatra, though, both won Oscars for Best Supporting Actress and Actor, respectively. As before, Clift helped to drive them to perform. He and Sinatra, who was desperate to prove himself as an actor, became especially good friends. After winning his Oscar, Sinatra said, “I wanted to thank Monty Clift personally. I learned more about acting from Clift—it was equal to what I learned about musicals from Gene Kelly.”

Similarly, Donna Reed said of Clift: “I had never worked with any actor like him; to watch him was incredible and memorable. He had a talent and a side to our profession I had never seen before, just superb.”

Never seen before, never seen since.

1. The Search (Fred Zinnemann, 1948)

Montgomery Clift, The Search

“You have no idea how useful it’s gonna be for you to know English. You can go wherever you like–everybody knows what OK means. You can use English all over the world, not just America–Canada, Africa, Australia, India, even in England they understand English. Well, sort of.”

It was difficult to determine which Montgomery Clift performance is truly my favorite. As stated previously, any and all of his films could top this list. (Except maybe Freud, which is just extremely turgid and excruciating to watch, partly because I know what the film did to Clift as a person.) I ultimately chose The Search, his film debut (although Red River was filmed first, its release was delayed due to legal issues), because there is something so inexplicably pure and genuine in his performance as an army engineer, Steve, who tries to help a young child (Ivan Jandl), left orphaned and homeless by the war, learn English and find his mother.

Clift had a deep connection with children, friends said, not because he talked to them or treated them as children but because he treated them as fellow human beings. They instantly flocked to him and he to them. His scenes with Jandl, who spoke no English at the time of the film and memorized his dialogue phonetically, are unbelievably endearing. My favorite scene in the entire film is when Steve first tries to teach Jim “yes” and “no.” Just when Steve is about to give up all hope, Jim says no, and Steve excitedly asks him, “Am I genius or am I not?”

“No,” Jim says.

“OK. OK. But look, lad, the answer should have been yes!”

It’s one of the most adorable things in the world.

There are so many films about World War II, but this is one of my favorites because it tells such a different, heartwarming story. Director Fred Zinnemann allowed Clift a considerable amount of control over the script, and Clift remembered the experience of creative freedom fondly. It would remain one of his favorite roles, and it earned him his very first Oscar nomination.

He, of course, lost to Laurence Olivier for Hamlet.

Do yourself a favor–instead of watching the bland Oscars next weekend, watch Montgomery Clift put all the others to shame. Because he can act.

The Right Profile: That’s Montgomery Clift, Honey!

Montgomery Clift, Life Magazine, 1948

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.