The Tormented Brilliance of Montgomery Clift

Montgomery Clift

On a brisk April evening in 1958, Broadway’s newly refurbished Paramount Theater hosted the glittering premiere of Edward Dmytryk’s World War II epic The Young Lions. The film, adapted from Irwin Shaw’s acclaimed novel, had been generating high interest given its lavish budget and A-list cast, namely, Marlon Brando, Dean Martin and Montgomery Clift.

Perhaps more than anyone else involved in the project, Clift had the most riding on the film’s success. In a business where you’re ‘only as good as your last film,’ it was important for this film be a hit. His near-fatal car wreck two years prior had left him physically wrecked, emotionally spent and his last big budget film, Raintree County, had been a critical failure. Lions was his first real chance, post the debilitating accident, to prove himself to his critics and the public that he was still a formidable contender. He had poured his lifeblood into his performance as the Jewish soldier Noah Ackerman and seemed confident that it would be the role to prove he still “had it.” He’d even allowed himself to consider the possibility of an Oscar nomination (“I’ve already written my acceptance speech,” he said). The professed confidence was a security blanket: inside Monty was deeply anxious.

The lights dimmed and applause filled the auditorium when his name appeared on the screen. For twenty minutes he sat in the dark, tension mounting, waiting his appearance on screen. But the sight of Monty as Noah Ackerman, slouchy, mousey and gaunt in his tweed suit and bowtie, gave the audience a shock. A rush of whispers swept the theater: “Is that him?” Then as if on queue, a girl in the balcony stood up, screamed, and fainted.

It was a reaction that he simply could not have anticipated. Nor was the early review from The New York Times: 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. By the end of the night, over a drink with friends, Monty broke down and confessed through frustrated tears: “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.”

Eight years later, he would still be trying to prove that he could still compete as an actor. Even though he systematically destroyed himself with drugs and alcohol, his mental and physical health deteriorating until work became an impossibility, Monty would never stop striving for perfection in every role he undertook, always giving all the heart he possessed — fragmented though it was.

That is, until Montgomery Clift had nothing left to give and his tortured heart finally gave out on him.

The following is an in-depth portrait of “the lost poet from Omaha, Nebraska”, Montgomery Clift. One of the most influential actors of his generation.

Montgomery Clift portrait young
The Outsider: Monty Clift was the Hollywood star who defied the Hollywood system and shunned Hollywood stardom.

Hot Property

‘I’m not called an actor out there,” Montgomery Clift once said about Hollywood. “I’m called a hot property. And a property is only good if it makes money at the box office.”

To say that Monty hated Hollywood is an understatement. A proud New Yorker and the toast of Broadway, Monty refused to play by Hollywood’s rules before he ever saw a script. When Hollywood began courting him with supposedly attractive offers, he refused to even stay overnight while on business: he would fly to LA, meet with producers and then turn right around and fly back to New York. An early letter penned from within Hollywood’s golden enclaves is signed as being sent from “Vomit, California.”

Right from the start, Hollywood knew Monty disliked them intensely and the feeling was entirely mutual. “I’m trying to be an actor, not a movie star,” said Clift, emphatically. “An actor.” The studio system’s standard seven-year-contract was thinly veiled slavery as far as Monty was concerned, and the more they begged for him to sign the more resolute his refusals became. They called him arrogant. Maybe. Or perhaps the word those execs were looking for was “integrity”—the freedom to direct his own career was not something Monty was willing to sign away on a dotted line.

Director Howard Hawks, who had seen Monty on Broadway, was the one who finally succeeded in corralling him to Hollywood for his big-budget western Red River. There was no doubt in his mind that Monty’s raw intensity was the sort of quality that would resonate powerfully on screen.

In spite of protests from the film’s star John Wayne, who thought Monty an arrogant little bastard, he was cast as Wayne’s foster-son in what would become one of the biggest films of 1948, and one of the greatest Westerns ever filmed. Clift managed to not only infuse his cowboy with sensitivity, but make it seem the most natural thing in the world. There was something going on behind Monty’s surface that was both magnetic and mysterious. Audiences were riveted.

But what was it about Montgomery Clift? It’s not as though the screen was starved of talent in 1948. To the contrary, it was a great era for filmmaking with, most notably, the powerhouse performances of Robert Ryan in Crossfire and Humphrey Bogart in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre leaving audiences breathless.

But Monty fell into none of Hollywood’s established roles–a square peg surrounded by round holes. Sure he was handsome, strikingly so, but even that was something of a curiosity–as William Mann put it, “Clift was moody, dark, and sultry, with kind of smoldering good looks that made studio executives nervous. [He was] a challenge for Hollywood press agents who were forced to dispel perceptions that he was too pretty or not quite masculine enough.“

Was he your virtuous hero? Would he marry a homely heiress for her money? Was he capable of drowning his pregnant girlfriend? Was he in fact even interested in women at all? “You could place Yul Brenner,” said film critic Andrew Sarris, “but you couldn’t place Montgomery Clift. On screen [he] was a chameleon – furtive.”

Montgomery Clift in RED RIVER
“I saw myself in Red River and I knew I was going to be famous, so I decided to get drunk anonymously one last time.”


Montgomery Clift in THE HEIRESS
With Olivia deHavilland in THE HEIRESS (1949). Monty hated his performance despite favorable reviews.
Montgomery Clift watching THE HEIRESS
Monty watching his performance in THE HEIRESS with visible dismay.

That anonymity, androgyny and mystery was something missing in his square-shooting contemporaries. You knew exactly what you were gonna get with a Bogart film, a Gable film, a Wayne film. With Monty, were never quite sure.

“He seemed to be creating a new kind of acting,” said photographer Richard Avedon upon seeing him in director Fred Zinnemann’s The Search. (Filmed after Red River, but released first.) “The minute Monty came on the screen I cried because he was so realistic and honest. I was deeply touched.”

“The true originator of the rebellious twentieth-century antihero was Montgomery Clift,” Marcello Mastroianni once said. “Not Marlon Brando or James Dean…[but] the restrained performer with the inner tension and those ancient, melancholy eyes…his presence so unobtrusively strong that it lingered even when he was off-camera.”

Director Peter Bodganovich made a similar sentiment: “Clift [was] a kind of unacknowledged leader. His performances heralded in a new acting style. After Clift came Brando and after Brando, James Dean. But Clift was the purest, the least mannered of these actors, perhaps the most sensitive, certainly the most poetic.”

That purity—that emotional purity—came shining through in Monty’s first role when Howard Hawks gave him the simple direction of “underplaying” his scenes. His silent candor was new, not necessarily nice, and altogether captivating. Red River became the third-highest grossing film of 1948. The Search earned him a best-actor nomination for his tender, refreshingly earnest performance as a soldier caring for a lost boy. Monty was, almost literally, an overnight sensation.

Monty resisted the movie star image violently. “He became almost studiously messy in old chinos and frayed shirts,” said a friend. “He told me he would not give up his $40 a month flat because he liked living in New York … to be around ordinary people … he said that ‘the inbred hothouse atmosphere of Hollywood makes you lose contact with the real world. Suddenly real people don’t exist for you.’”

Hollywood became a necessary evil.

The Mixmaster and the Slob

New York City in the mid 1940s was a white-hot den of new, raw talent that made the Broadway stage electric and unpredictable. Writers pushing the envelope and actors flouting established convention were the center of a new school of acting—an artform in flux—and parties in their crowded flats on humid summer nights were every bit as sought after as the resplendent glitterati gathered at Sardis.

The manic energy of it all suited Montgomery Clift’s own manic energy to a tee. He couldn’t stand being alone and had difficulty sleeping, so the close-knit community of artists offered plenty of companionship and excitement on a fairly round-the-clock basis. He would stay up all hours of the night, laughing till dawn with friends in their flats or over the phone. Karl Malden who lived next to Monty on 57th Street came to know his insomniac ways all too well as Monty would climb down the fire escape, rap on the window and whisper ‘Hey! It’s me, Monty! Whatcha doin’?’ Malden may have been annoyed, but Monty possessed the sort of charming, boyish charisma that made it impossible not to smile and let him in.

The pivot of the acting universe was certainly the Actors Studio, established in late 1947 by Elia Kazan and based on the Stanislavsky’s method of acting. The Actors Studio would refine, and really, come to define the method style of acting—the two are in fact inextricably linked.

It is hardly surprising that Monty, a Broadway darling since 1943, was among the first students at the Actors Studio. Never truly a “method” actor in the finite sense of the word (he was a classically trained Thespian mentored by the likes of Alfred Lunt and favored the use of imagination in exploration of his characters) Monty was nevertheless a common presence at the studio during its formative years.

As was Marlon Brando.

Lee Strasberg himself admitted that neither Brando nor Clift were really ardent students. “Perhaps they didn’t need it,” he said. “Perhaps their talent was enough.”

Brando, the unruly and explosively talented newcomer, was Monty’s natural rival. Polar opposites on stage and off, Brando was brawny, overtly sexual and volatile. Monty thought him a slob. Monty was elegant, sophisticated, and charming. Brando thought he acted like he had a ‘mixmaster up his ass and didn’t want anyone to know.’

Marlon Brando and Montgomery Clift
Rebel, Rebel: Marlon & Monty

They first met when Marlon spotted Monty window-shopping on Madison Avenue. Marlon, who got around ever so conspicuously got around town on a motorcycle, pulled up alongside him and asked if he was Montgomery Clift.

“I am. And you’re Brando. I recognize you.”

“People tell me I remind them of you.”


“I don’t think so,” said Brando, speeding off on his bike.

On screen, they were on the opposite sides of the same coin. Both bearers of a rebellious new brand of acting, but by completely opposing approaches. The larger than life Brando was brash, with the power of a runaway locomotive that could absolutely destroy everything its way. The diminutive Monty favored restraint, resulting in a reserve of tension that was deafening in its silence.

Marlon called Monty his ‘touchstone—his challenge’ and likened it to the sort of healthy competition that existed between the likes of Laurence Olivier and John Gielgud—men who challenged each other professionally. For most of the 1950s, with both careers flying high, this was certainly the case with Marlon and Monty.

Montgomery Clift and Elizabeth Taylor in A PLACE IN THE SUN
With Taylor in A PLACE IN THE SUN (1950), which earned him his 2nd Oscar nom.
Montgomery Clift in FROM HERE TO ETERNITY with Donna Reed
Monty’s Prewitt in FROM HERE TO ETERNITY (1953) was a career-defining role. Oscar nom number three.
Montgomery Clift with Anne Baxter in I CONFESS
With Anne Baxter in I CONFESS (1953)
Montgomery Clift with Jennifer Jones in STAZIONE TERMINI
Monty had been excited to work with director Vittorio de Sica, but producer David O Selznick butchered STAZIONE TERMINI ( (1954) beyond recognition. The film, renamed by Selznick as INDISCRETION OF AN AMERICAN WIFE flopped and received almost unanimously bad reviews.
Montgomery Clift on set of FROM HERE TO ETERNITY
Monty had the extraordinary faculty for giving you a sense of danger. You were never quite sure whether he would blow his lines or explode.” – Richard Butron
Montgomery Clift portrait in the 1940s
“Monty had a special kind of pain–a pain he could not release. He had a tragedy hanging over him like a big black cloud.” -James Jones

Blaine Waller, a friend of Monty’s, remembers accompanying him to a screening of Guys and Dolls in November 1955, shortly before the film went into wide-release. “Soon after the movie started, Monty started in with loud outbursts at the screen. “Marlon is vomitable—oh, look at poor Frank!” People began to shush him. Finally, in the middle of it he said, “This picture sucks, let’s get out of here.”

They hurried down the stairs, Monty all the while ranting and raving over Hollywood’s corruption: “He was really steamed up. Suddenly, for no reason at all, he smashed his fist through the display case, you know, where all the glossy photographs of Marlon Brando, Sinatra and Jean Simmons were pasted up. Glass shattered everywhere. Ushers came running. At first they were furious—then when they recognized Montgomery Clift as the culprit they were tongue-tied. Monty was immediately contrite. He keeps saying ‘I’m sorry, I’m so sorry, I don’t know what possessed me. I’ll pay for everything.’ And with that he darts in to the street. I follow. He starts running up Third Avenue—running like a jackrabbit chased by dogs. Laughing his hooting, crazy laugh.”

Years later, when Monty’s drug addiction was destroying his career, Brando would try to talk sense into him with a strong dose of tough love. In so many words, he told Monty to ‘Knock off the shit. You’re killing yourself.’ Monty was touched that Brando cared so much but, pouring himself a vodka, told him that he ‘didn’t have a problem.’ Brando left, angry, and told mutual friend Maureen Stapleton that “Monty Clift is a lost cause.”

The Right Profile

“I see a car smashed at night
Cut the applause and dim the light
Monty’s face is broken on a wheel– is he alive? Can he still feel?
And everybody say, is he all right? And everbody say, what’s he like?
Everybody says, he sure looks funny … That’s Montgomery Clift, honey!”

-The Right Profile, by The Clash (from London Calling, 1979)

He dubbed her Bessie Mae, for no particular reason at all, and their connection was immediate and electric. What began as cooked-up studio romance for Montgomery Clift and Elizabeth Taylor became the most powerful friendship of their lives.

Monty was awed by Liz’s ethereal beauty, openly admitted that she was ‘only woman who turned him on,’ and told her on more than one occasion that she was the only woman he would ever love. “Monty seriously considered [marriage],” said friend Blaine Waller, “and he alluded to it often enough, but eventually decided against it.”

But Monty’s torn heart cold never be entirely complete towards Liz, or anyone for that matter. He had an “underground existence,” said his acting coach/friend Mira Rostova. “Monty was totally split sexually. That was the core of his tragedy because he never stopped being conflicted and he never stopped feeling guilty about being conflicted. … He wanted to have a lasting relationship with someone. He tried to have lasting relationships but he was unable to.”

Indeed, his most meaningful, spiritual relationships were with women and his list of lovers is long and sundry (Liz Taylor, Libby Holman, Mira Rostova, Nancy Walker, Myrna Loy, etc.,) but he was attracted to men and was absolutely more fulfilled by them sexually. In the hidden hours of Monty’s life he cruised Third Avenue, picked up guys at the underground gay bars and had a string of highly volatile affairs.

“He’d pick up guys and bring them to the duplex,” said Bill La Massena. “He’d sleep with them and that would be that. He’d get bored. Once he told me ‘I don’t understand. I love men in bed but I really love women.”

Deborah Kerr put it more succinctly: “He wanted to love women,” said Deborah Kerr, “but he was attracted to men. And he crucified himself for it.”

Montgomery Clift and Elizabeth Taylor
“We loved each other in the most complete sense of the word.” -Elizabeth Taylor
Montgomery Clift and Elizabeth Taylor in RAINTREE COUNTY
By the time of RAINTREE COUNTY (1956), Monty and Liz had developed an extraordinarily special bond.

Knowing this and watching Monty on screen adds another layer of depth to his romantic roles. Bosworth wrote, “This inner tension makes Monty fascinating to watch … Sex isn’t everything, he seems to say with his eyes. It’s just a beginning.”

On rare occasion, Monty would accidentally forget himself and let the two sides to his personality intersect, as for instance what happened at a party given by Frank Sinatra. Monty got very drunk that night and came on to a fella at the party. Sinatra saw it. He promptly had his bodyguards throw Monty out.

What may very well have started off as a romantic interlude with Liz, ripened into a deep emotional bond that would never be severed. By the time the two appeared with each other in Edward Dmytryk’s Raintree Country they were more than kindred spirits—they were soul mates, albeit asexual ones. (Although the film itself is overinflated and underwhelming, Monty makes the most of the material and Liz is, if nothing else, quite convincingly off her bloody rocker.)

Monty hated disappointing his Bessie Mae, which is why he agreed to join her dinner party on the evening May 12th 1956. He drove himself up the dark winding road to what was a decidedly bland affair. He did not drink that night and sulked in the corner, tired and moody, and left early. His friend Kevin McCarthy agreed to guide him down the unfamiliar road since Monty was unaccustomed to driving himself.

But Montgomery Clift never made it down that hill, crashing headlong into a telephone pole.

Liz was quick to the scene and fought off attempts to keep her away “like a tiger.” McCarthy recounted in Bosworth’s biography that she was like “Mother Courage. Monty’s car was so crushed she couldn’t get in through the front door so Liz got in through the back and crawled over the front seat. She cradled Monty’s head in her lap. He gave a little moan. Then he started to choke. He pantomimed weakly to his neck. Some of his teeth had been knocked out and his front two teeth were lodge din his throat. … She stuck her fingers down his throat and pulled them out otherwise he would have choked to death.”

The paparazzi weren’t far from the scene, and when they arrived, Liz absolutely went mad. Rock Hudson, who helped the doctor pull Monty from the wreckage, said she used “the foulest language I’ve ever heard. She shocked them out of it. Things like ‘you son of a bitch! I’ll kick you in the nuts.'” The photographers backed off.

Monty suffered a broken jaw and nose, a fractured sinus, several facial lacerations, a severed nerve in the left side of his face, rendering it immobile, and damage to his back that would plague him the rest of his life.

After he was released from the hospital Monty stubbornly went back to work on Raintree County, in spite of excruciating pain. Dmytryk shot him mostly from his right profile which had the least physical damage, but Monty’s pain is clearly evident. He body is stiff and rigid. His face a melancholy shadow of what had previously been almost perfect in its beauty.

In spite of all efforts to appear otherwise, Monty never truly adjusted to the change. Peter Bogdanovich remembers meeting Monty while working at The New Yorker Theater. Monty, who was an avid filmgoer, came to see I Confess, one “gray spring day in 1961… I came up and said I worked there. He was polite. I said I liked the picture and asked if he did. The huge image on the screen at that moment of his pre-accident beauty must have seemed to mock him. He turned away and looked at me sadly. “It’s … hard you know.” He said it slowly, hesitantly, a little slurred. “it’s very … hard.” Bogadanovich proceeded to show him the theater’s request book in which someone had written to screen ‘ANYTHING WITH MONTGOMERY CLIFT!’ “That’s very … nice,” he said and continued to look down. I realized he was crying.”

In Bosworth’s biography, she writes that even though Clift survived that accent “and lived for ten more years, his real death occurred as he lay bleeding and half-conscious in Elizabeth Taylor’s arms. Nothing would be the same for him after that.” It would be called the longest suicide in Hollywood history.

Montgomery Clift after his car accident; RAINTREE COUNTY
Monty was very disappointed with RAINTREE COUNTY but knew it would be a box office success. He was sure people would go to see him before and after the accident.
Montgomery Clift's totaled car from the accident.
Monty’s car after the crash. Kevin McCarthy (right) gives testimony to the police. He would leave the site and go directly to see Monty at the hospital. “He just glared up at me helplessly.”
Montgomery Clift Before and after the cat accident
Before and after the accident. As Giovanni in STAZIONE TERMINI (1953) and as Chuck Glover in WILD RIVER (1960)

I’ve Been Knifed

Truman Capote, a friend of Monty’s, recounted in an interview with Andy Warhol something Monty said one night while they were having dinner. “The check came and Monty insisted on paying the check, so he just wrote his name on it. [The waiter] said he was very sorry but Monty didn’t have a charge account and he’d have to see some identification. Monty looked up absolutely stupefied and said the saddest line I’ve ever heard in my life. He said: ‘My face is my identification.’”

Not to sound insufferably Freudian, but Monty’s real issues with identity stem from his mother, Sunny, a woman obsessed with her ancestry and driven by her quest to be recognized by the blue blood family that had disowned her at birth. Sunny’s entire existence revolved around a day that would never come: Sunny’s acceptance into her estranged family’s social set.

Montgomery Clift handsome portrait
“Monty led many different lives. We were only part of one of them.” – Jeanne Greene
Montgomery Clift with watermelon and cigarette
“Monty didn’t know *what* he was.”-friend Bill La Massena

That delusional fancy resulted in a fiercely sheltered and admittedly bizarre upbringing for her children. Brooks, the rambunctious more thick-skinned eldest, and the twins: the studious Ethel and the sensitive Montgomery. Born October 17, 1920, Ethel preceded Montgomery by nearly seven minutes—an act, Monty would later joke, of chivalry on his behalf. Sunny was both mother and drillmaster sergeant: the clothes they wore (exceedingly fine and tailored), the children they played with (none—most children were ‘too common’ for Sunny’s taste) their education (privately tutored in Europe) were carefully selected by Sunny who reared them like royalty so as to be presentable when the time came to her aristocratic family. Their summers were spent soaking up culture in Europe, staying the finest hotels and meeting only the most important families, learning art and theater, taking music lessons, mastering French and German before finally being allowed to attend ‘regular’ school in their teens.

The sight of the Clift children in their European finery back home in Highland Park, Illinois, during an era of baseball, chewing gum and hot jazz must have been a strange one.

“We came across as effete eccentrics,” said Brooks. Their father was desperate to ‘toughen them up’ and wanted them to go to a military school. Sunny would not have it, and Sunny’s word was law.

“We were forced to swallow our opinions in front of Ma and agreed to her demands,” Monty said. “We were never allowed to trust our own judgment or experience.”

It is hardly surprising that Monty’s connection to the stage was immediate. He was allowed, on stage, to explore the emotions and experiences he was never allowed to as a child. Sunny was not at all pleased of her son’s decision to go into acting—what would her family think should they ever recognize her and discover that her son is, of all things, an actor?

As an adult, Monty’s relationship with his mother was strained at the very best. Still feeling entitled to have a degree of authority over Monty’s life she was often unduly critical and, when Monty would push his opinion on a matter, she would guilt him with ‘Why are you doing this to me?’ One day she came to see him at his place in the country, bringing him some potted plants that she insisted on adorning his front porch. She planted them herself. Monty allowed her, complimenting on how beautiful they were. When her visit was over, as soon as she was out of eyesight, he uprooted each and every one of them.

As is the case in families where members don’t know how to handle a range of emotions, Monty learned to protect himself by denying his emotions. That denial, the inability to reconcile his emotions, and his burying of his own sense of self would lead to a life of constant inner conflict summed up, perhaps perfectly, by what Monty once told Robert Ryan (quoting Nathanael West), “When you think of me, think of two men—myself and the chauffeur within.” Ryan agreed. “He was such a man of vast contradictions. Sober, he eluded himself with fantasies—drunk, he became savage and scornful of any illusions.”

Montgomery Clift drinking beer
Monty caught with his pants down by none other than Stanley Kubrick. Photo © Stanley Kubrick
Montgomery Clift with Frank Sinatra in FROM HERE TO ETERNITY
With Sinatra on FROM HERE TO ETERNITY (1953). Sinatra said he learned more about acting from Clift than anyone else. On the shoot they were inseperable drinking buddies.
Montgomery Clift with Marilyn Monroe
Monty and Marilyn, 1960. Monty said that Monroe was “the greatest actress I have ever worked with.” © Bruce Davidson, Magnum Photos

He was also deeply compartmentalized and carried on intimate friendships with a vast spectrum of people—each feeling they were the center of Monty’s world, none of them knowing of the others’ existence. “Monty led many lives,” said friend Jeanne Greene. “We were merely part of one of them.”

Monty’s frustrated sexuality was very much aggravated by this identity crisis and manifested itself dangerously in the form of pills and booze. After being urged by friends to seek help for his drinking, Monty started seeing a therapist in late 1950. Dr. Fox said that Monty suffered from a severe “lack of self-esteem” and that most of the time “he seemed in acute distress almost close to mental collapse.”

The drinking was his fatal release. “His drinking was more deadly than Spencer Tracy’s,” said a cast member on From Here to Eternity. “Drunk or sober, Spencer knew who he was, but when Monty drank he seemed to loose his identity and almost melt before your eyes.”

Hollywood–that illusory land of smoke and mirrors–certainly didn’t help Monty’s case since it insisted on Monty being an All-American, strapping, sexy leading man. Someone like Monty, who hitherto had quite happily swung both ways was forced to mold himself to the accepted Hollywood (and really, America’s) model of masculinity. Monty hated it told a friend, “Look, I don’t feel particularly sexual and besides, what does it have to do with my work?” In 1950s Hollywood, it had everything to do with his work. And Monty found himself having to go to great lengths to promote his heterosexual image.

Scandal sheet queen Hedda Hopper, who was disliked Monty’s smug disregard of Hollywood, was unfortunate to perceive as a condescending quip what was actually one of the most telling remarks he ever gave the press:

Hedda Hopper: In one sentence, sum up the story of your life.

Monty: I’ve been knifed.

Montgomery Clift with Elizabeth Taylor in SUDDENLY LAST SUMMER
Monty, his right profile, and a crazy Liz Taylor in Joseph Mankiewicz’s SUDDENLY LAST SUMMER (1959)
Montgomery Clift with Hope Lange in THE YOUNG LIONS
Monty, his left profile, and Hope Lange in THE YOUNG LIONS.
Montgomery Clift with Lee Remick in WILD RIVER.
Monty with Lee Remick in WILD RIVER (1960) Dave Kehr calls the film “Kazan’s finest and deepest film. A meditation on how the past both inhabits and enriches the present.” We quite agree!
Montgomery Clift with Robert Ryan in LONELYHEARTS
For LONELYHEARTS, Monty brought a complex, emotional fragility to a role that would have, otherwise, been flat.

Strawberry Jam

“Pardonez-moi, senor!” said young Mr. Clift as he fell into the room, holding onto Boaty for support. “I’ve been sleeping off a hangover.” Off hand I would have said he hadn’t slept it off sufficiently. When Boaty offered him a martini, I noticed that his hands trembled as he struggled to hold it.

–from Answered Prayers by Truman Capote

Monty carried a dizzying range of pills that were washed down with his daily bottle of scotch or his thermos of vodka and grapefruit juice. Barbituates, nembutals, seconals, anticonvulsants, antidepressants, tranquilizers—the list of medications he mixed and match could, literally, fill a medicine cabinet 14 feet long. (He had one such cabinet built for him at his home.) Triggered by his roiling emotional issues, his consumption of both became acute following his accident and as a result Monty could be alternately hostile and placid, benevolent and spiteful, snobbish and meek, droll and moody. There were also blackouts, acute insomnia and hallucinations—he told Robert Ryan that he remembered having a dream where he smelled nothing but strawberry jam.

His friends called it a ‘Jekyll and Hyde’ effect and, towards the end, many shied away from him (with the notable exceptions of Liz Taylor and Roddy McDowall) as they simply could not anticipate how he would behave in public.

Unable to control his drinking, his dependency on drugs, his relationships—even his own body (a thyroid condition skewed his balance, he suffered muscle spasms, his eyesight was suffering), his career was the last thread of stability in a life teetering on the brink. His work was what kept him going and if his ability to perform went, if he was no longer able to compete, he simply wouldn’t have anything left to live for.

The Studios had been wary of Montgomery Clift for quite some time and had long considered him a high risk, reluctantly signing him on to do work in films like Wild River and The Misfits (both which produced some of his very finest work) and, following the nightmare production of John Huston’s Freud, Monty became un-insurable — the Studios wouldn’t touch him.

Monty had worked with Huston previously on The Misfits while Huston’s hands had been full with the emotionally shattered Marilyn Monroe. (A doctor had been kept on call 24/7 for both Monty and Marilyn. Monroe said that Monty was the “only person I know who’s in worse shape than I am.”) The shoot had been especially hard on Clark Gable who, although admiring Monty as “one hell of an actor,” was driven to his wits end by the endless delays caused by Marilyn and by Monty’s own unconventional behavior, shouting at him in a fit of anger “If you weren’t such a little runt I’d smash my fist into your face!”

For Wild River, director Elia Kazan ordered him to stay sober on the shoot otherwise he would refuse to work with him. He’d known Monty since his Broadway years and liked him enough, but never achieved the sort of bond with him that he had with Brando. Monty followed through on his promise not to drink. Almost. On the final day of filming, he showed up dead drunk. Kazan remained perfectly calm and told him “Congratulations, Monty. Up to now you’ve done fine. Now lie down.”

Both films were box office failures. Both films, with time, have revisited and reevaluated. And both films are now considered important artistic achievements. “Failure and it’s accompanying misery is for the artist his most vital source of creative energy,” said Monty. “Perhaps success deludes. It’s only when you believe what the general public believes that you start losing the courage to risk outward failure.”

The production on Freud was a disaster right from the start. Stories abound on both sides, pitying Monty and vilifying Huston, and vice versa. Regardless of what really may have happened during the shoot (it is my considered opinion that both sides were probably equally guilty and equally innocent) Huston made this perceptive comment in his autobiography: “Monty’s prior brilliance now came through in fitful flashes … His behavior was an attempt to hide from me and others, and probably himself, that he was no longer able to contend … there was a mist between him and the rest of the world that you simply couldn’t penetrate.” But even Huston, for all his tetchiness, was forced to admit “although you often felt like strangling Monty, there was at the same time something fundamentally appealing about him … suddenly you felt like embracing him.”

But even when Monty was at his absolute worst, his dedication to his art was still of utmost importance. Says John Huston, “In spite of all these things, it was impossible not to marvel at his talent.”

Watch that erratic, emotive talent unravel completely in the emotionally charged 7 minute scene from Stanley Kramer’s 1961 drama Judgment At Nuremberg— the film which earned Monty his final Oscar nomination:


Montgomery Clift with Susannah York in FREUD
With Susannah York in FREUD (1962)
Montgomery Clift in his final movie, THE DEFECTOR
THE DEFECTOR (1966) was filmed abroad at a time when Monty was unable to find work in the States. He would die of a heart attack three months before it was released.

After Freud, with Monty un-insurable, un-bankable, abandoned by many of his friends, and no longer able to perform, he spiraled into a depression from which he never fully pulled out of. In his James Dean biography, David Dalton describes Monty’s death as suicide by attrition“The result of ‘existential fallacy.’ … A film star is always the model of something in extreme—they are victims of implosion who, no longer able to reach the inner limits of their own personalities, dissolve.”

Monty’s self-destructive behavior both on and off the set is a matter of record and is, sadly, perhaps focused on more than is necessary when discussing his career. Sensationalists of the Kenneth Anger variety seem to be, not so much interested in reveling in the beauty of the artist’s work, but rather in rolling about in their dirty laundry. So for as much as Monty’s reputation as being an ‘alcoholic’ and a ‘pillhead’ were certainly earned, what is of more importance, and also rightly earned, is his reputation for being one of the most intensively dedicated, precise and passionate actors of his generation. His unflinching dedication to his work is also a matter of record, and his meticulous attention to detail is legendary.

Mike Kellin, Monty’s co-star in Dore Schary’s miscalculated morality play Lonelyhearts said that “as anguished as Monty was, and I sometimes felt there was an actual presence hovering in the room that he was terrified of—when he acted a scene it was sculpted forever. There was nothing casual about his acting. If he had a genius it was that he revealed himself so totally as an actor—he stripped himself naked. He hid his real life—nobody was as mysterious or remote as Monty except I guess to a few friends. But in his acting he revealed himself as powerfully as a scream.”

Perhaps Montgomery Clift’s most revealing moment on film is in Stanley Kramer’s Judgment at Nuremberg where he plays a Jew sterilized by the Nazis, testifying at the Nuremberg war crimes hearings. It was only a seven-minute scene, for which Monty refused a salary (he found it highly inappropriate for such a small part), but as Stanley Kramer put it, “the results are shattering.” Watching the man’s sanity slowly unravel, almost lyrically, is so extraordinarily honest that it’s almost frightening. After the final take, Spencer Tracy became so deeply moved by the performance that he flew from his seat at the directors’ bench and threw his arms around Monty. It would earn Monty his 4th Oscar nomination.

“The only time I was ever really afraid as an actor was that first scene with Clift,” said Burt Lancaster. “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 with Clift’s power before; I was afraid he was going to blow me right off the screen.”

Frank Sinatra was coached by Monty on From Here to Eternity, working every night on his character, before the two inevitably went out to drink themselves silly. “I learned more about acting from him than anyone else,” Sinatra said. The work paid off: he won an Oscar for his role.

Ernest Borgnine recalled one night after filming when he and Monty “went up to his room at The Roosevelt. We sat there waiting for Frank [Sinatra] who was supposed to show up with booze and broads, but he never made it … so Monty and me, we sat there talking … and watching the sunrise. It was the most interesting, inspiring, fun talk I’ve ever had with a man in my life. He was a wonderful, loyal, quiet, self-effacing young man with more talent than anyone I’d ever met.”

So who was Montgomery Clift?

Perhaps it’s a question even Montgomery Clift didn’t know the answer to.

A Hollywood rebel, an outsider, an enigma, a contradiction, a rare talent and a tortured soul, Monty was many different things to many different people. But what can be said, without question, is that Clift is one of the finest, most introspective actors that the cinema has ever known and the Black Maria is proud to celebrate his tragic, tormented brilliance.

Montgomery Clift
“Nobody ever lies about being lonely.” – Montgomery Clift

Works Cited:

Montgomery Clift: A Biography, by Patricia Bosworth (1978, Harcourt Brace)
Who the Hell’s in It: Conversations with Hollywood’s Legendary Actors, by Peter Bogdanovich. (2005, Ballantine Books)
How to Be a Movie Star: Elizabeth Taylor in Hollywood, by William J. Mann (2010, Mariner Books)
A Method to Their Madness: The History of the Actors Studio, by Foster Hirsch (2001, DeCapo Press)
Somebody: The Reckless Life and Remarkable Career of Marlon Brando, by Stefan Kanfer (2009, Vintage Books)
Truman Capote: Conversations, Edited by M. Thomas Inge(1987, University Press of Mississippi)
Answered Prayers: The Unfinished Novel, by Truman Capote (1994, Vintage Books)
Clark Gable: A Biography, by Warren G. Harris (2005, Three Rivers Press)
Elia Kazan: A Biography, by Richard Schickel (2006, Harper Perennial)
An Open Book, by John Huston (1994, De Capo Press)
Ernest Borgnine: The Autobiography, by Ernest Borgnine (2009, Citadel)
James Dean: The Mutant King by David Dalton (2001, Chicago Review Press)


  1. Nice writeup. Monty actually lived next to Karl Malden on 55th Street, just off Lex. You shed a unique persepctive on his life and what went downhill. Great job.

  2. Monty was not falling apart in that 7 minutes of brilliant acting…if you had seen his script with his notes on it in the New York Public Library, you would know he knew exactly how he was going to play the role in Judgment

  3. how can label Monty’s performance in Judgment at Nuremberg as an “unraveling” … this is just an uninformed dramatic statement….it is also bull shit!…the author should have done his the New York Public Library, there is Monty’s copy of the script for Judgment and every move and gesture is calculated….he did not remember his lines but he did remember exactly how he intended to execute the role….to say he performed so brilliantly was par hazard is to minimize his enormous talent as an actor…shame on you with such a blatant erroneous statement.

    • duh Davina, that’s what the writer meant, a brilliant performance of unravelling- he was playing a neutered Jew…used as a woman for the black SS.

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