A Troubled Life

Amos Lassen

“Making Montgomery Clift” is a new documentary that gives us a unique look beyond the self-destructive and tortured soul that we have come to associate with the late Montgomery Clift. The film focuses on the happier parts of Clift’s life.

The film was produced and directed by Clift’s nephew, Robert Clift, and his wife, Hillary Demmon “I was always aware that there was a disconnect” between the public perception of Clift and the man his loved ones knew, Robert Clift says. “It was just never addressed in any systematic manner. This film gave me an opportunity to explore that.”

Those of us who remember Clift know that he was a contemporary of Marlon Brando and James Dean and starred in such iconic films as “The Misfits”, “From Here To Eternity”, and “A Place in the Sun”. He was rumored to be gay or bisexual and he was plagued by drug and alcohol addiction for much of his life. He suffered poor health and died of a heart attack at age 45.

Probably the reason that Montgomery Clift has been viewed as a tragic case was the publication of Patricia Bosworth’s 1978 biography, where his image became set as an innovative and very beautiful gay or bisexual actor who destroyed himself due to the external pressures of society.

However, his nephew Robert Clift seeks to give a more nuanced portrait of his uncle in “Making Montgomery Clift,” that is based around a collection of audio tapes and other memorabilia kept by Robert’s father Brooks, who was Clift’s older brother. The Clift remembered here is not the doomed victim but a “highly intelligent, mordantly funny man who successfully fought to keep his creative and sexual integrity intact.”

Clift himself might have enjoyed the title “Making Montgomery Clift” because of its double meaning; to “make” someone, in old-fashioned slang, is to sleep with them, but this is also a movie about the making of Clift’s posthumous image, and Robert Clift very carefully separates fact from fiction or misrepresentation here. He moves beyond most of the sub-Freudian interpretation of his uncle’s life that seemed reasonable or fashionable 40 years ago.

We hear audio recordings of Clift’s mother Sunny speaking to Brooks about the first biography of her son and she is angry and upset and urges Brooks to correct the “untruths” in this book, and we also hear her say that anything he could write would be “superior,” a hint of the high opinion she had of herself and her family.

What we learn of Sunny doesn’t necessarily contradict the books that depicted her as a domineering parent, but we do hear a bit of audio between Sunny and Monty that lets us understand the way he dealt with her — with humor. The film makes it apparent that the screen legend was a very funny guy and that people felt lucky to know him.

Clift’s friend and lover Lorenzo James declined to appear on camera, but we hear him saying that “Monty’s personal life didn’t bother him as much as people thought it did.” From the late 1970s to today, the myth of the “tragic gay star” has been used to define him. As early as 1958, Clift was being confronted by interviewers about his supposed urge toward self-destruction, and he deflected this with humor, saying to one of them that he “enjoyed jokes” too much to kill himself. “

The film fleshes out the actor’s creative integrity and we can see just how much of his own dialogue he edited and re-wrote himself for movies like “The Search” and “From Here to Eternity.”

We also see photos he took during his early theater days of stars he worked with, like Tallulah Bankhead and Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne, and a portrait emerges of Clift here as the complete actor as artist. The movie ends at the cemetery where Montgomery Clift is buried (in Prospect Park in Brooklyn, which is not open to the public) and we see that Monty is next to his brother Brooks, who was such a key ally both in life and after his death.

Instead of being a straight-out biography, the film looks at the danger of misconstruing even the smallest of details in someone’s life and behavior. In what feels like a personal, familiar, curious, and compassionate piece, Robert Clift shows us the treatment of a man at the top of his game when gay during the golden years of cinema.

When Montgomery Clift refused to play the studio game in the ’40s and ’50s, it was the only game in town for actors. He wouldn’t sign a contract, he dropped out of Sunset Blvd. just before shooting began, and he turned down many films. His talent was as dazzling as his beauty and Hollywood met him on his exacting terms, and even with a “filmography that numbers fewer than 20 features, his groundbreaking screen performances (four of them Oscar-nominated) are indelible.”

However, the legacy of one of the screen’s greatest actors gave way to tabloid melodrama with his death at 45: Clift became the embodiment of tormented homosexuality, reportedly conflicted over his identity and committing “slow suicide” by booze and pills. Blurring the line between his life and his work, some people were convinced that his anguished performance in “Judgment at Nuremberg” wasn’t acting; it was a nervous breakdown caught on film.

Both Montgomery Clift and his older brother — the filmmaker’s father, Brooks Clift obsessively recorded phone calls, providing a wealth of material for the documentary. The recordings include Brooks’ conversations with Patricia Bosworth, one of the film’s interview subjects and the author of a 1978 biography of Clift that became the mother lode for future chroniclers. Her book, with its questionable conclusions and careless conflation of homosexuality with pederasty, has been the inspiration for many unproduced biopics.

This film unravels the accepted wisdom that Clift’s life was one of inner conflict and painfully guarded truths. In footage of him at leisure, his happiness lights up the screen. He might not have been “out” but his intimates testify that he was anything but closeted. By refusing to sign a studio contract, he was not only maintaining his artistic independence but also protecting his private life from a show marriage, like Rock Hudson’s, that the Hollywood publicity machine insisted on for gay stars.

The directors acknowledge Clift’s problem with alcohol and drugs only slightly and likewise dismiss ideas that he could be difficult to work with. They offer Brooks’ theory that his downward spiral was not a reflection of self-loathing but, in large part, the result of a lawsuit by John Huston over the film “Freud” and a legal bind that essentially prevented a committed artist from doing what he loved for four years. But the filmmakers also let us hear the troubling defensiveness, bordering on incoherence, in Clift’s voice when he discusses the matter on one of those taped calls.

The focus is shifted from Montgomery Clift as a portrait of self-destruction to a serious assessment of his work.

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