Edward Montgomery "Monty" Clift (October 17, 1920 – July 23, 1966) was an American film and stage actor. The New York Times’ obituary of Clift noted his portrayal of "moody, sensitive young men". He is best remembered for roles in Red River (1948), The Heiress (1949), George Stevens's A Place in the Sun (1951), a Catholic priest in Alfred Hitchcock's I Confess (1952), a soldier in Fred Zinnemann's From Here to Eternity (1953) and Edward Dmytryk's The Young Lions (1958) and a mentally challenged sterilized concentration camp survivor in Stanley Kramer's Judgment at Nuremberg (1961). He received four Academy Award nominations during his career: three for Best Actor and one for Best Supporting Actor.
Along with Marlon Brando and James Dean, Clift was one of the original method actors in Hollywood; he was one of the first actors to be invited to study in the Actors Studio with Lee Strasberg, Michael Chekhov and Stella Adler. He also executed a rare move by not signing a contract after arriving in Hollywood, only doing so after his first two films were a success—"a power differential that would go on to structure the star-studio relationship for the next 40 years."
Clift was born on October 17, 1920, in Omaha, Nebraska. His father, William Brooks Clift (1886–1964), was a vice-president of Omaha National Trust Company. His mother was the former Ethel Fogg Anderson (1888–1988), mostly called "Sunny". They had married in 1914. Clift had a twin sister, Ethel, who survived him by 48 years, and a brother, William Brooks Clift, Jr. (1919–1986), who had an illegitimate son with actress Kim Stanley and was later married to political reporter Eleanor Clift. Clift had English, as well as Dutch and Scottish ancestry. Sunny Clift was an adopted child. At eighteen she'd been told that her real father and mother were members of prominent Yankee families, forced to part by the tyrannical will of the girl's mother. She spent the rest of her life trying to gain the recognition of her alleged relations. Part of her effort was her determination that her children should be brought up in the style of true aristocrats. Thus, as long as Bill Clift was able to pay for it, Brooks, Ethel and Montgomery were privately tutored, travelling extensively in America and Europe and becoming fluent in German and French, kept apart from people whom Sunny thought "common". (Bosworth, chapters 1–4) The Wall Street Crash of 1929 and the Great Depression of the 1930s ruined Bill Clift financially. Unemployed and without money, he was forced to move his family to New York, but Sunny still persisted in her plans, and as her husband's situation improved, she was able to enroll Brooks at Harvard and Ethel at Bryn Mawr College. Montgomery, however, could not adjust to school and never went to college. Instead he took to stage acting, beginning in a summer production which led, by 1935, to his debut on Broadway.
In the next ten years he built a successful stage career working with, among others, Dame May Whitty, Alla Nazimova, Cornelia Otis Skinner, Frederic March, Tallulah Bankhead, Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne. He appeared in plays written by Moss Hart, Robert Sherwood, Lillian Hellman, Tennessee Williams and Thornton Wilder, creating the part of Henry in the original production of The Skin of Our Teeth. "In 1939, as a member of the cast of the 1939 Broadway production of Noël Coward's Hay Fever, Clift participated in one of the very first television broadcasts in the United States. A performance of Hay Fever was aired during the New York World's Fair as part of the introduction of television. It is not likely that any recording of the broadcast exists." He resided in Jackson Heights, Queens, until he got his break on Broadway.
He first acted on Broadway when at just 15 years, he appeared as Prince Peter in the Cole Porter musical "Jubilee" on Broadway (Imperial Theater). At 20, he played the son in the Broadway production of There Shall Be No Night, which won the 1941 Pulitzer Prize.
At the age of 25 he moved to Hollywood. His first movie role was opposite John Wayne in Red River, which was shot in 1946 and released in 1948. His second movie was The Search. Clift was unhappy with the quality of the script, and edited it himself. The movie was awarded a screenwriting Academy Award for the credited writers. Clift's performance saw him nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actor. His naturalistic performance led to director Fred Zinnemann's being asked, "Where did you find a soldier who can act so well?".
Clift's next movie was The Heiress (1949). He signed on for the movie in order to avoid being typecast. Again unhappy with the script, Clift told friends that he wanted to change his co-star Olivia de Havilland's lines because "she isn't giving me enough to respond [to]." Clift also was unable to get along with most of the cast; he criticized de Havilland, saying that she let the director shape her entire performance.
The studio marketed Clift as a sex symbol prior to the movie's release in 1949. Clift had a large female following, and Olivia De Havilland was flooded with angry fan letters because her character rejects Clift's character in the final scene of the movie. Clift ended up unhappy with his performance, and left early during the movie's premiere. Clift also starred in The Big Lift which was shot on location in Germany in 1949.
In the 1950s, according to Elizabeth Taylor (as quoted in Patricia Bosworth's biography of Clift), "Monty could've been the biggest star in the world if he did more movies." Clift was notoriously picky with his projects. Clift's performance in A Place in the Sun is regarded as one of his signature method acting performances. He worked extensively on his character and was again nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actor. For his character's scenes in jail, Clift spent a night in a real state prison. He also refused to go along with director George Stevens' suggestion that he do "something amazing" on his character's walk to the electric chair. Instead, he walked to his death with a natural, depressed facial expression. His main acting rival (and fellow Omaha, Nebraska native), Marlon Brando, was so moved by Clift's performance that he voted for Clift to win the Academy Award for Best Actor and was sure that he would win. That year, Clift voted for Brando in A Streetcar Named Desire. A Place in the Sun was critically acclaimed; Charlie Chaplin called it "the greatest movie made about America." The film received added media attention due to the rumors that Clift and Taylor were dating in real life. They were billed as "the most beautiful couple in Hollywood." Many critics still call Clift and Taylor "the most beautiful Hollywood movie couple of all time." After an almost two years stop, in the summer of 1952 Clift committed himself to three more films: I Confess, to be directed by Alfred Hitchcock; Vittorio De Sica's Terminal Station, and Fred Zinnemann's From Here to Eternity. The latter would earn Clift his third Oscar nomination.
Clift's final completely pre-accident movie was Terminal Station (also known as Indiscretion of an American Wife), shot before From Here to Eternity, but released after it. Once again Clift's performance was critically acclaimed; however, the movie bombed at the box office due to its lackluster script. Clift reportedly turned down the starring role in East of Eden just as he had for Sunset Boulevard.
On the evening of May 12, 1956, while filming Raintree County, Clift was involved in a serious auto accident when he apparently fell asleep while driving and smashed his car into a telephone pole minutes after leaving a dinner party at the Beverly Hills home of his Raintree County co-star and close friend, Elizabeth Taylor, and her second husband, Michael Wilding. Alerted by friend Kevin McCarthy, who witnessed the accident, Taylor raced to Clift's side, manually pulling a tooth out of his tongue as he had begun to choke on it. He suffered a broken jaw and nose, a fractured sinus, and several facial lacerations which required plastic surgery. In a filmed interview, he later described how his nose could be snapped back into place.
After a two-month recovery, he returned to the set to finish the film. Against the movie studio's worries over profits, Clift correctly predicted the film would do well, if only because moviegoers would flock to see the difference in his facial appearance before and after the accident. Although the results of Clift's plastic surgeries were remarkable for the time, there were noticeable differences in his facial appearance, particularly the left side of his face which was nearly immobile. The pain of the accident led him to rely on alcohol and pills for relief, as he had done after an earlier bout with dysentery left him with chronic intestinal problems. As a result, Clift's health and physical appearance deteriorated considerably from then until his death.
Clift never physically or emotionally recovered from his car accident. His post-accident career has been referred to as the "longest suicide in Hollywood history" by famed acting teacher Robert Lewis because of his alleged subsequent abuse of painkillers and alcohol. He began to behave erratically in public, which embarrassed his friends, including Kevin McCarthy and Jack Larson. Nevertheless, Clift continued to work over the next ten years. His next three films were The Young Lions (1958), Lonelyhearts (1958), and Suddenly, Last Summer (1959). Clift next starred with Lee Remick in Elia Kazan's Wild River in 1960. He played a Tennessee Valley Authority agent sent to do the impossible task of convincing Jo Ann Fleet to leave her land, and ends up marrying her widowed granddaughter, played by Lee Remick. In 1958, he turned down what became Dean Martin's role as "Dude" in Rio Bravo, which would have reunited him with his co-stars from Red River, John Wayne and Walter Brennan, as well as with Howard Hawks, the director of both films.
Clift then co-starred in John Huston's The Misfits (1961), which was both Marilyn Monroe's and Clark Gable's last film. Monroe, who was also having emotional and substance abuse problems at the time, famously described Clift in a 1961 interview as "the only person I know who is in even worse shape than I am."
Clift's last nomination for an Academy Award was for Best Supporting Actor for his role in Judgment at Nuremberg (1961), a 12-minute supporting part. He played a developmentally disabled man who had been a victim of the Nazi sterilization program testifying at the Nuremberg trials. The film's director, Stanley Kramer, later wrote in his memoirs that Clift—by this stage a wreck—struggled to remember his lines even for this one scene:
Finally I said to him, "Just forget the damn lines, Monty. Let's say you're on the witness stand. The prosecutor says something to you, then the defense attorney bitterly attacks you, and you have to reach for a word in the script. That's all right. Go ahead and reach for it. Whatever the word may be, it doesn't really matter. Just turn to (Spencer) Tracy on the bench whenever you feel the need, and ad lib something. It will be all right because it will convey the confusion in your character's mind." He seemed to calm down after this. He wasn't always close to the script, but whatever he said fitted in perfectly, and he came through with as good a performance as I had hoped.
By the time Clift was making John Huston's Freud: The Secret Passion (1962), his self-destructive lifestyle and behavior was affecting his health. Universal sued him for his frequent absences that caused the film to go over budget. The case was later settled out of court, but the damage to Clift's reputation as unreliable and troublesome endured. As a consequence, he was unable to find film work for four years. The film's success at the box office brought numerous awards for screenwriting and directing, but none for Clift himself. On January 13, 1963, a few weeks after the initial release of Freud, Clift appeared on the live TV discussion program The Hy Gardner Show, where he spoke at length about the release of his current film; he also talked publicly for the first time about his 1956 car accident and its after-effects, as well as his film career, and treatment by the press. During the interview, Gardner jokingly mentioned that it is "the first and last appearance on a television interview program for Montgomery Clift."
Barred from feature films, Clift turned to voice work. Early in his career Clift had participated in radio broadcasts, though, according to one critic, he hated the medium. On May 24, 1944, he was part of the cast of Eugene O'Neill's Ah, Wilderness! for The Theatre Guild on the Air. In 1949, as part of the promotional campaign for the film The Heiress, he played Heathcliff in the one-hour version of Wuthering Heights for Ford Theatre. In January 1951 he participated in the episode "The Metal in the Moon" for the series Cavalcade of America, sponsored by the chemical company DuPont Company. Also in 1951 Clift was for the first time cast as Tom in the radio world premiere of Tennessee Williams' The Glass Menagerie, with Helen Hayes (Amanda) and Karl Malden (the Gentleman Caller), for The Theatre Guild on the Air. The recording of this broadcast is now available at : So, having become unemployable for the film industry, in 1964 he recorded for Caedmon Records The Glass Menagerie, with Jessica Tandy, Julie Harris and David Wayne (the recording is now available as a downloadable app). In 1965 he gave voice to William Faulkner's writings in the TV documentary William Faulkner’s Mississippi, airing on April 1965.
After four years of failed attempts to secure a film part, finally in 1966, thanks to Elizabeth Taylor’s efforts on his behalf, he was signed on to star in Reflections in a Golden Eye. In preparation for the shooting of this film, he accepted the role of James Bower in the French Cold War thriller The Defector, which was filmed in West Germany from February to April 1966.
On July 22, 1966, Clift spent most of the hot summer day in his bedroom in his New York City townhouse, located at 217 East 61st Street. He and his private nurse, Lorenzo James, had not spoken much all day. Shortly before 1:00 a.m., James went up to say goodnight to Clift, who was still awake and sitting up in his bed. James asked Clift if he needed anything and Clift politely refused and then told James that he would stay up for a while either to read a book or watch some television. James then noted that The Misfits was on television that night airing as a late-night movie, and he asked Clift if he wanted to watch it with him. "Absolutely not!" was the firm reply. This was the last time Montgomery Clift spoke to anyone. James went to his own bedroom to sleep without saying another word to Clift. At 6:30 a.m. the next day, James woke up and went to wake Clift, but found the bedroom door closed and locked. James became more concerned when Clift did not respond to his knocking on the door. Unable to break the door down, James ran down to the back garden and climbed up a ladder to enter through the second-floor bedroom window. Inside, he found Clift dead: he was undressed, lying on his back in bed, with eyeglasses on and both fists clenched by his side. Clift was age 45 when he died. James then used the bedroom telephone to call the police and an ambulance.
Clift's body was taken to the city morgue less than two miles away at 520 First Avenue and autopsied. The autopsy report cited the cause of death as a heart attack brought on by "occlusive coronary artery disease". No evidence was found that suggested foul play or suicide. It is commonly believed that drug addiction was responsible for Clift's many health problems and his death. In addition to lingering effects of dysentery and chronic colitis, an underactive thyroid was later revealed during the autopsy. The condition (among other things) lowers blood pressure; it may have caused Clift to appear drunk or drugged when he was sober, and also raises cholesterol, which may have contributed to his heart disease.
Following a 15-minute ceremony at St. James' Church attended by 150 guests, including Lauren Bacall, Frank Sinatra and Nancy Walker, Clift was buried in the Friends [Quaker] Cemetery, Prospect Park, Brooklyn, New York City. Elizabeth Taylor, who was in Rome, sent flowers, as did Roddy McDowall, Myrna Loy and Lew Wasserman.
Patricia Bosworth, who had access to Clift's family and many people who knew and worked with him, wrote in her book;
"Before the accident Monty had drifted into countless affairs with men and women.(...) After his car accident and as his drug addiction became more serious, he was often impotent and sex became less important to him. His deepest commitments were emotional rather than sexual anyway and reserved for old friends; he was unflinchingly loyal to men like William LeMassena and women like Elizabeth Taylor, Libby Holman and Ann Lincoln."
Elizabeth Taylor was a significant figure in his life. He met her when she was supposed to be his date at the premiere for The Heiress. They appeared together in A Place in the Sun, where, in their romantic scenes, they received considerable acclaim for their naturalness and their appearance. Clift and Taylor appeared together again in Raintree County and Suddenly, Last Summer.
Because Clift was considered unemployable in the mid 1960s, Taylor put her salary for the film on the line as insurance, in order to have Clift cast as her co-star in Reflections in a Golden Eye. Still, shooting kept being postponed, until Clift agreed to star in the mediocre The Defector so as to prove himself fit for work. He insisted on performing his stunts himself, including swimming in the river Elbe in March. The schedule for Reflections in a Golden Eye was then set for August 1966, but Clift died before the movie was set to shoot. He was replaced by Marlon Brando. Clift and Taylor remained good friends until his death.
Awards and honors
- 1948: Best Actor in a Leading Role—The Search
- 1951: Best Actor in a Leading Role—A Place in the Sun
- 1953: Best Actor in a Leading Role—From Here to Eternity
- 1961: Best Actor in a Supporting Role—Judgment at Nuremberg
The song "The Right Profile" by the English punk rock band The Clash, from their album London Calling, is about the latter life of Clift. The song alludes to his car crash and drug abuse, as well as the movies A Place in the Sun, Red River, From Here to Eternity and The Misfits.
- As Husbands Go (1933)
- Fly Away Home (1935)
- Jubilee (1935)
- Yr. Obedient Husband (1938)
- Eye On the Sparrow (1938)
- The Wind and the Rain (1938)
- Dame Nature (1938)
- The Mother (1939)
- There Shall Be No Night (1940)
- Out of the Frying Pan (1941)
- Mexican Mural (1942)
- The Skin of Our Teeth (1942)
- Our Town (1944)
- The Searching Wind (1944)
- Foxhole in the Parlor (1945)
- You Touched Me (1945)
- The Seagull (1954)
|1952||Theatre Guild on the Air||The Search|