In this week’s episode, we’ll explore the life and times of one of Hollywood’s earliest gay stars—Montgomery Clift. Edward Montgomery "Monty" Clift was born on October 17, 1920 in Omaha, Nebraska. His father was William Clift and his mother was Ethel, nicknamed "Sunny". They had married in 1914. Clift actually had a twin sister, also named Ethel, and a brother, William. Clift’s ancestry was English, Dutch and Scottish. He had a relatively normal upbringing, but the Wall Street Crash of 1929 and the Great Depression of the 1930s ruined his family financially. Unemployed and without money, his father was forced to move the family to New York. Montgomery, who never fully took to formal schooling, instead 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 luminaries such as Tallulah Bankhead, appearing in plays written by Lillian Hellman, Tennessee Williams and Thornton Wilder. In 1939, as a member of the cast of the Broadway production of Noël Coward's Hay Fever, Clift participated in one of the very first television broadcasts in the United States. At that point in his life, he was residing in Jackson Heights, Queens, until he got his big break on Broadway.
Clift first acted on Broadway when, at just 15-years-of-age, he appeared as Prince Peter in the Cole Porter musical "Jubilee" at the 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 25, after having some modicum of success on Broadway, he decided that to further his career, he would need to make the move to Hollywood. He very quickly secured his first movie role opposite none other than John Wayne in Red River. His second movie was called The Search, on which, Clift was unhappy with the quality of the script, so he decided to edit it himself. The movie ultimately was awarded a screenwriting Academy Award for the credited writers. His performance in the film gained him a nomination for an Academy Award for Best Actor. His naturalistic performance led to the director of that film being asked, "Where did you find a soldier who can act so well?"
Clift's next movie in 1949 was The Heiress. He signed on for the movie in order to avoid being typecast, as the role was quite different from what he was usually cast. 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, and by that point, Clift already had a large female following. Olivia De Havilland was actually flooded with angry fan letters because her character in the film rejects Clift's character in the final scene of the movie. Clift ended up unhappy with his performance in The Heiress and left early during the movie's premiere.
Coming into the fifties, Clift was notoriously picky with his projects. According to Elizabeth Taylor, who by then had become a wonderful friend to him, "Monty could've been the biggest star in the world if he did more movies." By this point in his career, Montgomery had fully embraced Method Acting, a technique of acting in which an actor aspires to complete emotional identification with a part, often immersing oneself in their part, even when the cameras weren’t rolling. His performance in A Place in the Sun—arguably his most regarded project--to this day is regarded as one of his most signature method acting performances. He worked extensively on his character in that film, 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 same year, Clift voted for Brando in A Streetcar Named Desire. A Place in the Sun was critically acclaimed with Charlie Chaplin calling it "the greatest movie made about America." The film received added media attention due to the rumors that Clift and Taylor were dating at the time in real lifewith the press billing them as "the most beautiful couple in Hollywood." Many critics still call Clift and Taylor "the most beautiful Hollywood movie couple of all time."
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. For From Here to Eternity, Clift would gain his third Academy Award. Clift reportedly also turned down the starring role in East of Eden just as he had for Sunset Boulevard, feeling that both projects weren’t right for his canon.
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. He 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. Moments after the accident, actor Kevin McCarthy who had witnessed the accident, ran to check on him, seeing that “his face was torn away—a bloody pulp. I thought he was dead.” McCarthy ran to fetch Taylor, Wilding, and Rock Hudson and Hudson’s wife, Phyllis Gates, who all raced to the site of the accident.
What happened next is somewhat fuzzy: one version has Hudson pulling Clift from the car and Taylor cradling him in her arms, at which point Clift started choking and motioning to his throat, where, it soon became clear, two of his teeth had lodged themselves after coming loose during the accident. Taylor opened his mouth, put her hand down his throat, and pulled out the teeth. True or not, the resilience of the story is a testimony to what people wanted to believe about the bond between the two stars. According to this version of the story, when photographers arrived, Taylor announced that she knew each and every one of them personally-- and if they took pictures of Clift, who was still very much alive, she’d make sure they never worked in Hollywood again. Regardless of the veracity of this story, one thing remains true: there’s not a single picture of Clift’s broken face.
Clift suffered a broken jaw and nose, a fractured sinus area, and several facial lacerations which required plastic surgery. His nose had to be snapped back into place, after leaving the scene. According to Clift’s doctors, it was “amazing” that he was even alive. But after an initial flurry of coverage, he retreated from public view entirely. Months of surgeries, rebuilding, and physical therapy followed. Production resumed on Raintree County, which the studio feared would fail following Clift’s accident. But Clift knew the film would be a smash, if only because audiences would want to compare his long unseen face from before and after the accident. In truth, his face wasn’t truly disfigured. It was, however, much older—by the time Raintree County made its way to theaters, he’d been off the screen for four and a half years. But the facial reconstruction, heavy painkiller use, and rampant alcohol abuse made it look like he’d aged a decade.
And thus began what Robert Lewis, Clift’s teacher at the Actors Studio, called “the longest suicide in Hollywood history.” Even before Raintree, the decline had been visible. Author Christopher Isherwood tracked Clift’s decline in his journals, and by August 1955, he was “drinking himself out of a career”; on the set of Raintree, the crew had designated words to communicate how drunk Clift was: bad was Georgia, very bad was Florida, and worst of all was Zanzibar. “Nearly all his good looks are gone,” Isherwood wrote. “He has a ghastly, shattered expression.” And it wasn’t just in private record: in October 1956, Louella Parsons reported on Clift’s “very bad health” and Holman’s attempts to clean him up. His decline was never explicitly evoked, but with his visage in Raintree County, it was there for all to see.
While filming his next picture, Lonelyhearts (1958), Clift lashed out, proclaiming, “I am not—repeat not—a member of the Beat Generation. I am not one of America’s Angry Young Men. I do not count myself as a member of the ripped-sweatshirt fraternity.” He wasn’t a “young rebel, an old rebel, a tired rebel, or a rebellious rebel”—all he cared about was re-creating a “slice of life” on the screen. He was sick of being a symbol, a symptom, a testament to something.
In The Young Lions (1958), released just two years after the accident, the pain and resentment seem almost visible. It’d be his only film with Brando, even though the two barely shared the screen. Taylor, at last free from her long-standing contract with MGM, next used her power as the biggest star in Hollywood to insist that Clift be cast in her new project, Suddenly, Last Summer (1959). It was a huge wager: since everyone knew how much booze and pills Clift was on, he was virtually uninsurable on set. But the producer, Sam Spiegel, decided to go forward, no matter the risk.
The results were not pretty. Clift couldn’t get through longer scenes, having to split them up into two or three chunks. The subject matter, which involved him assisting in the cover-up of a dead man’s apparent homosexuality, must have sparked mixed emotions. Director Joseph Mankiewicz tried to replace Clift, but Taylor and co-star Katharine Hepburn defended and supported him. Hepburn was reportedly so incensed by Mankiewicz’s treatment of Clift that when the film officially wrapped, she found the director and spat in his face.
The decline continued. Clift appeared in The Misfits, a revisionist western best known as the final film of Marilyn Monroe and Clark Gable. The director, John Huston, supposedly brought in Clift because he thought he’d have a “soothing effect” on Monroe, who was deeply embroiled in her own addictions, with her own personal demons. But even Monroe reported that Clift was “the only person I know who is in even worse shape than I am.” The pictures from the set are as poignant as they are heartbreaking: it’s as if all three were meditating on their respective declines, and there’s a sad, peaceful resignation at the difference between what their bodies could do and how people wanted to remember them.
But 1961 audiences were too close to the day-to-day deterioration of its stars to see the meditative genius of The Misfits. It was also a dark, melancholy film: as a review in Variety pointed out, the “complex mass of introspective conflicts, symbolic parallels, and motivational contradictions” was so nuanced as to “seriously confound” general audiences, who were likely unable to cope with the philosophical undercurrents of the Arthur Miller script. Or, as Bosley Crowther, taking the populist slant in The New York Times, explained, the characters were amusing, but they were also “shallow and inconsequential, and that is the dang-busted trouble with this film.”
Whether morally repulsive or philosophically compelling, The Misfits bombed, only to be recuperated, years later, as a masterpiece of the revisionist genre. Looking back, the film had a legacy of darkness surrounding it: Gable died of a heart attack less than a month after filming; Monroe was only able to attend the film’s premiere with a pass from her stay at a psychiatric ward. She wouldn’t die for another year and a half, but Misfits would be her last completed film. As for Clift, the shoot was incredibly taxing, both mentally and physically: in addition to acquiring a scar across his nose from a stray bull’s horn, severe rope burns while attempting to tame a wild horse, and various other rough-and-tumble injuries, he also performed what has widely come to be regarded as one of his best scenes, a stilted, heartbreaking conversation with his mother from a phone booth. Even if Clift himself was already spiraling out of control, playing a character that did the same only amplified the psychological toll.
Following The Misfits, Clift’s disintegration continued. He was such a mess on the set of Freud (1962) that Universal sued him. While filming a 15-minute supporting role as a mentally handicapped victim of the Holocaust in Judgment at Nuremberg (1961), he had to ad-lib all of his lines. But something of the old talent remained—or at least enough to earn Clift a nomination for best-supporting actor, playing, in the words of film critic David Thomson, “a victim irretrievably damaged by suffering.” Plans for Clift to play the lead in the film adaptation of Carson McCullers’s The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter fell through, in large part due to his uninsurability on set, and promises of a fourth collaboration with Taylor, this time with producer Ray Stark, never came to pass. Between 1963 and 1966, he faded from public view, emerging only to film a final performance in the French spy thriller The Defector (1966). But before the film could be released, Clift passed away, wholly without fanfare, at the age of 45, succumbing to years of drug and alcohol abuse. Taylor, caught up in filming with Richard Burton in Paris, sent flowers to the funeral. The long suicide was complete.
Many Hollywood stars have committed versions of the long suicide. Biographies of Clift posit that he drank because he couldn’t be his true self, because homosexuality was the shame he had to shelter within. But if you look at his own words, his testimonies about what acting did to him, you’ll see the culprit. His perpetual question to himself, as he once scribbled in his journal, was, “How to remain thin-skinned, vulnerable, and still alive?” For Clift, the task proved impossible. Clift once said, “The closer we come to the negative, to death, the more we blossom.” He took himself to that precipice, but he fell straight in. And so he remains frozen in the popular imagination, circa From Here to Eternity—those high cheekbones, that set jaw, the firm stare: a magnificent, proud, tragically broken thing to behold.
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 due to the damage from the accident. The pain stemming from 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 the trauma originating 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, who played the original Jimmy Olson on the Adventures of Superman. Nevertheless, Clift continued to work over the next ten years. His next three films were The Young Lions in 1958, Lonelyhearts in ‘58, and Suddenly, Last Summer in ‘59.
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 he 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. It may have been his sliding doors moment, but alas, he took a different path. Clift then co-starred in John Huston's then coveted The Misfits in 1961, which was both Marilyn Monroe's and Clark Gable's last film that was actually released. 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." The downward spiral continued…
Clift's last nomination for an Academy Award was for Best Supporting Actor for his role in Judgment at Nuremberg ‘61, 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 complete 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, also starring in the film) 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 in 1962, his self-destructive lifestyle and behavior was severely affecting his health. Universal Studios 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. Back 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 actually available on our site, where we’ve included a link to it. (https://archive.org/details/TheaterGuildontheAir)
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.
Patricia Bosworth, a very well-known biographer who had access to Clift's family and the many people who knew and worked with him, detailed 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."
It was the first time that open speculation about his sexuality was detailed in print. There was no doubt that 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, chemistry, and their appearance. Clift and Taylor appeared together again in Raintree County and Suddenly, Last Summer.
He also had a close friendship with a woman named Myra Letts, whom the gossip columnists tried arduously to frame as a love interest. But Clift’s rebuttal was firm, emphasizing that they were neither in love nor engaged—they’d known each other for 10 years, she helped him with his work, and “those romantic rumors are embarrassing to both of us.” He was also very close with stage actress Libby Holman, 16 years his senior, who had become a notorious feature in the gossip columns following the suspicious death of her wealthy husband, rumors of lesbianism, and her general practice of dating younger men. Clift was so protective of Holman that when offered the plum role of the male lead in Sunset Boulevard, he turned it down—reportedly to avoid any suggestion that Libby Holman was his own delusional Norma Desmond, using a handsome young man to pursue her lost stardom.
Clift was unperturbed by his apparent lack of a love life: he told the press that he would get married when he met a girl he wanted to marry; in the meantime, he was “playing the field.” When another columnist asked him if he had any hobbies, he replied, “Yes, women.” But as the years passed, it became more and more clear that Clift wasn’t just picky. He was, at least in the eyes of the press, something approaching asexual—the title of a movie magazine, Motion Picture, article, “authored” by Clift, declared simply, “I Like It Lonely!”
The unspoken truth, of course in hindsight, was that Clift was gay. The revelation of his sexuality did not emerge until the 70s, when two high-profile biographers, one endorsed by his close confidants, revealed as much, rendering him a gay icon within the span of two years. Today, it’s actually impossible to know the specifics of Clift’s sexuality: his brother, Brooks, would later claim that his brother was bisexual, while various writings from within Hollywood indicate that Clift’s sexuality wasn’t entirely a secret.
Testimonies to Clift’s homosexuality were rampant: early in his film career, he had purportedly been warned that being gay would absolutely ruin him. One wonders what kind of sage advice that the studios give current-day actors, regardless of the community leadership given by such luminaries as Matt Bomer, Neil Patrick Harris, and Zachary Quinto. Clift, at the time, was so conscious of being seen as feminine in any way on celluloid that when he ad-libbed a line in The Search, calling a boy “dear,” he insisted that director Fred Zinnemann reshoot the take...
Clift’s sexuality, like those other contemporary 50s idols Rock Hudson and Tab Hunter, was carefully concealed from the public—both by himself and by the small network of close friends he held. But that didn’t mean that the gossip press didn’t hint at something different, something queer, and in the broadest sense of the word, about him. One need only take a gander at all the magazine headlines of the day, describing Clift: titles such as: “Two Loves Has Monty,” “Montgomery Clift’s Tragic Love Story,” “Is It True What They Say About Monty?” “Who Is Monty Kidding?” “He’s Travelin’ Light,” “The Lurid Love Life of Montgomery Clift,” and, perhaps most flagrantly, “Monty Clift: Woman Hater or Free Soul?” Editorial note: these are the choices??
Clift, either by accident or to his credit, never made the pages of the scandal rags, unlike his peer Rock Hudson, whose affairs were very nearly exposed to the entire nation by Confidential. He was “lonely,” yet with the help of his refusal to live in Los Angeles or participate in café society, he was able to keep his private life private and disappear into the streets of New York.
Clift’s private life was in fact, rather boring—he didn’t date, he didn’t flirt, he didn’t hang out in public. One almost suspects that he had been asexual, and had a small leaning toward homosexuality. As a result of this lack of public lasciviousness, the fan magazines got creative: the August 1949 cover of Movieland, for example, featured a grinning, suited, respectable-looking Clift paired with the tantalizing headline “Making Love the Clift Way.” But when readers looked inside the magazine, all they found was a two-page spread of stills from The Heiress, featuring Clift in various stages of flirtation with Olivia de Havilland, explaining that Clift’s kissing style was “soft yet possessively brutal; pleading, but demanding all. . . .” It was a flimsy speculation built on shaky evidence at best, but with no sign of any “real” lovemaking in Clift’s life, it was all the fan magazines had to run with.
Back to Taylor and Clift: what they had went beyond the usual loyalties that exist between friends; she definitely supported him emotionally, sometimes physically, and even financially here and there, remaining a very dear friend up until his death. The Grace to his Will. In fact, as Clift was considered by and large in Hollywood to be unemployable due to his personal problems stemming from the accident, in order to get him work, Taylor put her salary on the line as insurance for the film Reflections in a Golden Eye, in which he would star with her. One wonders if she simply wanted to keep her eye on him to help him survive, by having him by her side each day. Ultimately, the start date on the film kept getting pushed back, so instead, Clift agreed to star in the lackluster The Defector so he could prove to Hollywood and the studios that he was as such a big gamble as his reputation heralded. On that film, he insisted on performing his own stunts, including a fair amount of swimming. Reflections of a Golden Eye finally received a formal start date—to begin in August 1966, but as it turned out, Clift would never make it to the set…
Prior to August of course, and 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 only 45 years old 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 promptly 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 unfortunately could only send flowers; she was in Rome at the time with Richard Burton in one of several attempts to both re-fan the flames between the two of them AND escape the fever pitch of the paparazzi prior to the run-up that would end in her winning her Best Actress Oscar for Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolfe. Like how he liked to live his life, his funeral was quiet, unassuming, and only attended by his closest supporters.
Thank you for listening to the Mattachine Podcast. This episode was researched, written, narrated, and produced by Brad Dunshee—yours truly. Our logo was designed by Matt Smith.
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