Above all else it was those eyes, those steel blue grey eyes that bore down on you even in black and white.
Montgomery Clift had an obsessive way of approaching his movie roles. He liked long silences, pregnant pauses, subtle facial reactions, and characters that were relatable and perhaps a bit irredeemable. And it showed in his films, whether he was playing the cowboy son of John Wayne in Red River or the working class man in love with two women in A Place in the Sun or the lobotomizing psychiatrist in Suddenly, Last Summer or the self-sacrificing soldier in From Here to Eternity.
The entire country seemed to love him and wanted more movies and more, but Clift was picky and demanding, and, honestly, just as obsessive in his private life. He didn’t just drink, he drank, excessively and often. And he took pills by the handful. He spent months and years exploring the world, falling in and out of love with men and women both, picking just a few friends at a time that he would obsess over.
Internally, Monty was as complex as they come, with a complicated family history and an inner turmoil that he could never quite silence. He felt he should be with women, but he desired men, and he judged himself harshly, and he could never quite relax, not until he fell into absolute exhaustion. Monty had a twin sister (who would outlive him by nearly 50 years), an older brother (a serial monogamist with frequent marriages and divorces), a niece who committed murder, a father who lost everything more than once, and a mother who had a secret past as the secret daughter and heiress of wealthy slave owners and Civil War generals.
And then came the car crash. Monty had been speeding down the hill from the home of his best friend, Elizabeth Taylor, the woman he described as his female self. He was hyped up on drugs and half asleep from alcohol, in between therapy sessions and in between movies and driving way too quickly. Elizabeth herself had climbed into the wreckage of the car and held Monty’s bloody head, clearing his broken teeth from his throat with a finger so that he could breathe, before the ambulance arrived. He lived, but would go on with permanent scarring and chronic pain for the rest of his life forever after. He looked different in his films after that, there was a weight there, and a lack of innocence. Monty had been changed.
He kept up the drug use after that, and the drinking, and he was a little less careful about the men that he dated though no less ashamed. But he kept acting. He played Sigmund Freud, he did stage productions, and he gave his, perhaps, most memorable performance as a mentally feeble concentration camp survivor in Judgment at Nuremberg. He was considered one of Hollywood’s finest, his nearest contemporary Marlon Brando, who is often remembered as the best there has ever been.
Monty died at age 45, decades too early, but he’d aged his body beyond its capacity to survive. He died simply, quietly, naked on his own bed, and the shockwaves of his passing hit the public hard. It was only 1966.
Monty was critical of the Hollywood that he was part of. He put up with the script reviews, the competition for attention and roles, the publicity appearances, the mandated interviews, and the moralistic weight of those in power. “I’m just trying to be an actor; not a movie star, an actor,” he said once, as he turned down scripts, refused deals from major agencies, and sometimes took years off between projects. Whatever might be said about him, whatever vices he may have had, it’s important to realize that he did it on his own terms, and he still made it big, still became a household name.
And those eyes…