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.

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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.

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.