Vintage Hunk: Montgomery Clift

By: Mike McCrann

For the past two years that I have avoided showcasing Montgomery Clift as a Vintage Hunk. He never appealed to me as an actor or sex symbol, and he was a gay icon for all the wrong reasons: His life was a train wreck. Not only was there a terrible alcohol and drug problem but an auto accident that helped derail his career. However, the biggest downer to me was Clift's inability to reconcile being gay, and all of that pretty much turned me off.

But I just saw Clift's best film— From Here to Eternity— on the big screen, and since it's Veteran's Day weekend it seems appropriate to honor him by focusing on this one great performance.

Edward Montgomery Clift was born in Omaha, Nebraska in 1920. He had a twin sister, an older brother, and he was home schooled. That said, he was never much of a student. By all accounts Clift was a loner and his desire to be an actor was probably connected to his need to be loved and accepted.

As a child actor on Broadway, Clift was in a number of top productions, then in 1946 he went to Hollywood to make his first film: the epoch western Red River starring John Wayne. This film was not released until 1948, so Clift's second film, The Search, was his first public outing as a movie star. For his role as a soldier trying to find the mother of a displaced child in war-ravaged Europe, Clift received his first Best Actor Academy Award nomination. The director was Fred Zinneman and he would be the prime reason why Clift would get the coveted role of Private Prewitt in From Here to Eternity five years later.

With the release of Red River Cliff was considered a full-fledged movie star and anointed with a Life magazine cover. His 1949 film The Heiress was a critical smash, but his personality problems were already starting to affect his movie career. He dropped out of Sunset Boulevard two weeks before filming was to begin, as he did not warm to being a kept man on screen. Still, in 1951 he and Elizabeth Taylor began their great lifelong friendship when they co-starred in A Place in the Sun, a movie that would earn legendary status. Then came the greatest year in Clift's career. In 1953 he appeared as the priest in Alfred Hitchcock's neglected I Confess and starred in the Oscar winning From Here To Eternity.

From Here To Eternity is one of the greatest American movies ever made. James Jones' sprawling (800 page) novel was considered un-filmable due to its tough portrayal of the U.S. Army and its frank sex scenes, but screenwriter Daniel Taradash turned the story into 118 minutes of perfection. To placate the Army changes were made and the sex scenes sanitized, but the film still packs a wallop almost 60 years later.

Harry Cohn, the dreaded head of Columbia Pictures, wanted contract player Aldo Ray to play the prize role of Robert E. Lee Prewitt but Director Fred Zinneman held out for Clift. He was also responsible for the brilliant casting of Deborah Kerr as the promiscuous Karen Holmes. Tough guy Burt Lancaster was top billed as Sgt. Warden and Frank Sinatra got the part of Maggio when Eli Wallach dropped out. The only Columbia contract player that Cohn forced on Zinneman was Donna Reed, who surprised everyone by not only playing a prostitute but winning an Oscar for it.

But it was Clift as the loner who won't box for the unit and is given "the treatment" by his superiors who is the heart and soul of the film. Clift was brilliant, and his scenes with Donna Reed are tender and touching. Perhaps being a gay man who felt like an outsider made his performance even better opposite the super masculine Lancaster. Either way, Clift and Lancaster were both nominated for Best Actor and the winner that year was William Holden— who probably won this year for not winning Sunset Boulevard years before, and because Clift and Lancaster split the vote.

Now at the summit of his career, the remainder of Clift’s short life was one catastrophe after another. First there were career mistakes, then the ghastly car accident that almost killed him in 1956. Leaving Elizabeth Taylor's home, he smashed his car into a telephone pole. His once beautiful face was now badly disfigured. Plastic surgery would later put him back together but his inner spark as an actor was gone, and his post-accident films are pretty wretched. Clift's nadir was probably his performance in the Taylor/Hepburn Suddenly Last Summer. It’s assumed that pills, liquor and the accident are probably responsible for his poor performance. Playing a doctor who must determine if Taylor should have a lobotomy is a masochistic experience for any Clift fan, as he plays the part as if he himself were lobotomized.

Clift would receive a supporting Oscar nomination for his cameo role in Judgment at Nuremberg, but once again he is pretty embarrassing. He also co-starred with Marilyn Monroe in The Misfits, a wretched film that not only killed Clark Gable but would prove to be Monroe's final film; Monroe was also quoted as saying Clift was, "The only person I know who is in even worse shape than I am."

Montgomery Clift died of a heart attack in 1966. He was only 45 years old. His life and career were in a shambles. A gay man who could just not accept who he was, he tried keeping his demons at bay with drugs and liquor. When I think of Clift, I try not to think of him stumbling around and passing out drunk at parties. I think of the young loner Robert E. Lee Prewitt who always did it his way. If you want to see Montgomery Clift at the peak of his abilities rent or buy From Here to Eternity. Movies don't get much better than this.