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70 years after his screen debut, Montgomery Clift is finally getting his due

A new documentary about Montgomery Clift is shining fresh light on the original Hollywood rebel. Here’s why Monty matters.

A quick search of the name, and a slew of sorry adjectives spill across the screen. “Tragic.” “Tormented.” A “beautiful loser,” even. You’ll read about the beautiful movie god who smashed up his face against a steering wheel. About Elizabeth Taylor shoving her fingers down his throat to save him from choking to death on his own teeth. About his affairs with young men and married women. His arrest for solicitation. A struggle with sexuality. And the addictions that would claim his life, aged 45.

Like his friend and co-star Marilyn Monroe, the name Montgomery Clift has been enshrined in the kind of hyper-sensationalized legend that replaces humanity with headlines. It also buries the lead: Clift was a four-time Academy Award nominee who became one of the finest (and fearless) actors of his generation. Without him, there is no Marlon Brando and no James Dean. His dedication to craft motivated them both to excellence, as it has for generations since—including the likes of Robert DeNiro and Daniel Day Lewis.

A new documentary hopes to set the record straight. On September 23, Making Montgomery Clift premiered at the Los Angeles International Film Festival. Future dates have been announced, including the closing night gala at this year’s NewFest in New York City. (See the film’s Facebook page for full details and dates.) Filmmakers Robert Clift (the late actor’s nephew) and Hillary Demmon Clift have unearthed a menagerie of never-before-seen photos and home movies from the Clift family archives, painting a loving portrait of a man whose life and work is among the most misunderstood in film history:

The film is already receiving rave reviewsMaking Montgomery Clift is the first biographical work to challenge the Clift myth. Instead of a man driven to self-destruction because of his sexuality, they offer an alternative. A man who openly enjoyed his relationships and whose career was a lesson in control. They also ask big questions. At the end of the day, who actually gets to decide the meaning of a man’s life? Who are we, really, to put labels on anyone?

Fittingly, the documentary arrives on the eve of the 70th anniversary of the film that made Monty Clift a star: Howard Hawks’ classic Western, Red River (1948).

Red River was shot in 1946, but thanks to production trouble, and a nuisance lawsuit from producer Howard Hughes, it didn’t hit theaters until September 30, 1948. By that time, Monty had already made his second film. Fred Zinnemann’s The Search, a tear-jerker of a tale about a little boy lost in postwar Germany, was released in March, 1948 and was enthusiastically received by the critics, putting Monty squarely on their radar. (The Academy would agree by giving Clift an Oscar nod.) When Red River was finally released that September, the rest of America sat up and took notice. It was a perfect one-two punch.

It was also a perfect mix of talent and timing. John Wayne may have received top billing, but Monty was every bit the star as Wayne. As Dunson, the cruel cattle driver, Wayne fills every inch of the frame. But the viewer searches out Monty’s sensitive Matt Garth. When he’s not onscreen, his presence still lingers. You want to figure him out. This man of astonishing beauty, intensity and vulnerability seemed to have conjured himself up out of nowhere as an alternative to the John Wayne’s and Humphrey Bogart’s and James Cagney’s and all the other strongmen who had long defined Hollywood masculinity. The late Andrew Sarris put it this way: “You could place Yul Brenner, but you couldn’t place Montgomery Clift. On screen [he] was a chameleon—furtive.”

Daniel Day-Lewis concurs. “He was different. … Clift contained within him, a vision of some kind, which I found absolutely riveting. It separates him from his contemporaries.”

Postwar America was ready for the challenge. The War had changed them; made them cynical. They recognized the moral ambiguity lurking under Clift’s surface. Here was something more real, more human, than they’d seen on screen before and they responded instantly. Red River would be the #3 box office draw of 1948.

Publicity shot, 1948

On paper, Red River reads like a straightforward Western: a hardened cattle baron and his foster son organize an epic cattle drive to Missouri. But the film is at its core a morality play. The cattle drive tests father and son’s love and loyalty for each other, leading to a psychological battle between good (Clift, who believes in mercy) and bad (Wayne, who believes in violence), in which Monty puts personal integrity over family duty to defy his father. The simmering inner tension that would come to define Monty’s style is on full display, acting as the perfect foil to Wayne’s heavy-handedness.

What helps the on-screen tension between The Duke and Monty is that off the screen, the two did not get along. Monty was every ounce his opposite. Slight. Beautiful. Delicate. A sophisticated New Yorker who didn’t know how to handle a gun or throw a punch. Wayne didn’t like anything about the kid and especially resented what he perceived as an air of smug superiority. He was convinced that Hawks had made a mistake. After all, there’s a thin line between casting against type and bad casting. No one, he reasoned, would believe that a kid like that stood a chance against him. It was laughable.

But when it came to casting, Howard Hawks had a sixth sense. Famous for sniffing out talent, Hawks’ discoveries included the likes of Lauren Bacall, Carole Lombard and Paul Muni. After he’d seen Monty on Broadway, in Tennessee Williams’ You Touched Me! (1945), he knew he had to have him. And he moved mountains to get him.

He hadn’t been the first to try and lure the Broadway darling West.

Monty had practically grown up on the stage. His arresting good looks made him easy to cast, and he made his Broadway debut at age 13. It was love at first sight Monty would remain on the stage until well into his 20s, creating what would become his hallmark: the sensitive but troubled protagonist.

His teenage years were spent in the company of Broadway’s elite, working with stage luminaries like Tallulah Bankhead, Fredric March and the great Alfred Lunt who became Monty’s mentor. By the time he was 25, he was one of the brightest young actors on Broadway. It wasn’t long before Hollywood came calling.

Agents on the coast kept hearing about this handsome, talented young actor and scripts began arriving steadily. Along with the scripts came supposedly lucrative offers and, of course, the standard seven-year studio contract.

Monty refused. “Hollywood is waiving its fairly ugly finger at me,” he said. The studio’s contract system was thinly veiled slavery as far as he was concerned—something he told, in so many words, to Louis B. Mayer’s face. In 1945, MGM was hungry for new blood. Monty had agreed to meet with them, but flat-out refused to consider a contract. He came a bit closer to a deal with Warner Bros, doing a screen test and discussing more flexible “options,” but at the end, he opted out. The freedom to direct his own career was not something he was willing to sign away.

Monty also made no secret of his utter disdain for Hollywood. He once flew to meet with his agent and, after dinner, turned around and flew right back home to New York, refusing to even stay the night. One letter he penned from Hollywood is signed as being sent from “Vomit, California.”

But then Monty read the script for Red River. It was a plum role, he knew it, and he wanted it. Badly. He also needed the money. (Badly.)

After much back and forth with Hawks, he agreed to do the picture on the condition it was to be a one picture deal. Monty was to be a free agent, or back to Broadway he went. The stars really aligned here, because at the time Hawks happened to be an independent—not a studio man. Like Monty, Hawks had fought to maintain complete artistic control over his work. They spoke each other’s language and Hawks gave Clift his freedom.

In 1946, this was unheard of. But Hawks didn’t care. He got his man.

This is really what makes Monty Clift such an important figure. He was the first movie star who had the guts to openly eschew the Hollywood studio system, shun movie stardom, and refuse point blank to play by Hollywood’s rules. For him, it was craft over contract. And, for the rest of his life, perfecting his craft would define his very existence. “I’m trying to be an actor,” Monty would say. “Not a movie star. An actor.”

Needless to say, Howard Hawks’ instincts proved right. After a few days of filming, John Wayne had to admit that Monty Clift was good. Damn good. Monty’s reaction to the rushes is a bit more complex. He was highly critical of his performance, thinking it mediocre, but at the same time understood this film was going to change his life forever. “I watched myself in Red River and I knew I was going to be famous, so I decided I would get drunk anonymously one last time,” he said. And he did.

Monty at home, photographed by Stanley Kubrick. 1949.

There’s a photo shoot from around this time period that captures the essence of Monty as Hollywood outsider. Look magazine’s photo essay “Glamour Boy in Baggy Pants” (July, 1949) was shot by a young Stanley Kubrick—still a few years off from his own film career—in Clift’s small $45 apartment on East 55th Street. Looking at Kubrick’s shots, you see a young man who looks nothing at all like the hottest new actor in Hollywood.

His apartment has peeling paper. The walls are spare. He’s dressed in plain trousers in need of pressing. He refuses to engage with the camera, forcing Kubrick to work with him like a film director. In spite of his physical beauty, this is not a Hollywood glamour boy. This is someone who is uninterested in the trappings of stardom. This is a man who’d rather drink black coffee and listen to the undulating sidewalks of New York City from his fire escape than bask in the California sun and bathe in celebrity.

Hollywood didn’t know what to make of him.

The passage of time hasn’t either.

Making Montgomery Clift just might.

Red River is available on Blu-ray/DVD from the Criterion Collection and is currently streaming on Amazon Prime. For more information on Making Montgomery Clift, follow the film’s Facebook page.

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