After World War II, there was a dramatic shift in the type of leading men that were popular in Hollywood. The moral absolutism so prevalent in cinema while the United States was fighting a war (which needed audiences to believe in rigid definitions of right and wrong) began to disappear, and things started to get…murkier. Meanwhile, new method acting techniques emphasizing the actor’s deep emotional connection to their character created a new generation of male stars, ones who were sensitive and vulnerable and completely human. James Dean and Marlon Brando are the two most well-known actors from this movement, but in celebrating them, we ignore the actor who had the biggest influence on the change in acting styles, because he got there first: Montgomery Clift, the man with a beautiful face and a never-ending series of troubles.
During the 1950s, these three actors represented a shift in the landscape of youth culture. Interestingly, all three were either gay or bisexual, and each of them starred in films with some of the most overtly queer subtext since the pre-Code era. Their willingness to break with the hypermasculine image of a leading man seen in traditional World War II combat films, westerns, and film noir dramas created new possibilities for male actors. James Dean was young, fragile, tortured. Marlon Brando was virile, seductive, basically a manifestation of the human id. But Montgomery Clift was something altogether different; complicated and intense, but rarely a tragic figure. His characters often seemed like men simply born under a bad star: they try their best, but are ill-fated, somehow. So why are James Dean and Marlon Brando cinematic icons, while Montgomery Clift remains more of a footnote in Hollywood history? Strangely, it may all come down to a matter of dying at the wrong time.
James Dean died tragically in his mid-20s, forever young and symbolic of lost potential. Marlon Brando lived a long, full life, with enough time to build a legacy for himself, even if its impact was slightly tempered by his eccentricities in later years. Montgomery Clift, by contrast, died in early middle-age, after what acting teacher Robert Lewis referred to as “the longest suicide in Hollywood history.” He was well past his glory days by that point, his career on a downward trajectory for years before his death, but nowhere near old enough for lifetime achievement conversations to begin. In a way, the most tragic part of Clift’s life is that it is remembered as a tragedy (if it’s remembered at all), rather than for his significant role in changing Hollywood and challenging its traditional definitions of masculinity.
Montgomery Clift was born in Nebraska in 1920. His mother was adopted and, after being told that her birth parents were both from wealthy American families, she determined that her own children should have a blue-blooded upbringing as befitted their ancestry. They traveled extensively in Europe, and Clift and his siblings were privately tutored, until the family fortune was lost during the Great Depression. Although his brother and sister both went on to attend prestigious universities, Clift instead pursued the stage, making his Broadway debut in 1935 at the age of 15, performing as Prince Peter in the Cole Porter musical Jubilee.
When he made the transition to films ten years later, he broke with tradition, largely refusing to engage with the studio system’s wholesale domination of the industry. He rejected an exclusivity contract that would tie him to any one studio, then practically a requirement for a young actor hoping to make it big in Hollywood. Instead, he only signed after his first two films were proven successes, thus giving him the upper hand in negotiations. This lack of studio control over his career meant that he was never saddled with a fake heterosexual relationship for publicity’s sake, like those forced upon Rock Hudson, Tab Hunter, and other closeted actors of the same era. There were rumors of him courting older women, and many speculated that his close friendship with Elizabeth Taylor was actually a romantic one.But for the most part, he simply kept his personal life private. It was more easily done for him than other actors: he maintained a residence in New York City (even after becoming massively successful) and developed a reputation as a Hollywood outsider. He chose projects carefully and was extremely conscious of the dangers of being typecast, a serious concern for a handsome young actor who studios would, if left unchecked, slot indiscriminately into romance after romance.
This propensity for maintaining a dynamic approach to his career was evident from the very beginning. Clift’s first three roles see him as a young cowboy at odds with his adoptive father (Red River, 1948), a soldier who bonds with a displaced boy and helps him search for his family in the chaotic ruins of postwar Germany (The Search, 1948), and an opportunistic fortune-hunter who courts a plain and unassuming woman in line to inherit a large sum from her wealthy father (The Heiress, 1949). It’s this last film that highlights the sort of moody sensuality that would define Clift’s most memorable work. He excelled at playing sensitive characters – not tortured, James Dean’s specialty a handful of years later, but emotionally burdened. He captured audience’s attention not just for his striking beauty (although that was certainly a factor; his costar Olivia de Havilland received considerable amounts of hate mail from young fans enraged by her character’s treatment of him in The Heiress), but his ability to struggle against life’s adversities so elegantly.
Regardless of whether his characters were a paragon of virtue (and they frequently were not), he always brought humanity to their tribulations, even when their difficult circumstances were decidedly self-inflicted. In The Heiress, when he abandons his fiancé after learning of her disinheritance, and in A Place in the Sun, when he considers murdering his girlfriend when her unwanted pregnancy stands in the way of his upward social mobility, his actions are contemptible, yet utterly compelling.
His work also frequently pushed the envelope in terms of sexual taboos. A Place in the Sun has him engaging in pre-marital relations and helping his girlfriend try to obtain an abortion – even though the censors refused to allow them any explicit reference to abortion, and even changed one of Shelley Winters’s lines to her doctor from, “You’ve got to help me,” to “Somebody’s got to help me,” in the hopes that it would make it less clear to audiences exactly what kind of help she was requesting. In Hitchcock’s I Confess, he plays a Catholic priest embroiled in a murder investigation that threatens to reveal a romantic relationship between him and a married woman (the specifics of which occurred before he joined the priesthood, but was salacious material nonetheless). Indiscretion of an American Wife sees him again as a man caught up in an affair with a married woman. And Suddenly, Last Summer has him in a fairly benign role of a surgeon (albeit one who carries out experimental and deeply controversial lobotomies), yet the film has explicit, unabashedly queer undertones.
But if any of this was offensive to American audiences, it wasn’t evident in box office numbers or the critical acclaim of his films. In fact, Clift was on a meteoric rise during the late 1940s and early 1950s. He was nominated for three Academy Awards over the course of five years (for The Search, The Heiress, and From Here to Eternity, respectively), a feat made even more impressive by the fact that he was notoriously limiting in the number of films he would take on, even turning down roles in classics like East of Eden and Sunset Boulevard. But unfortunately, things were about to change.
In the middle of filming Raintree County, a Southern epic that would see him act alongside Elizabeth Taylor for the first time after A Place in the Sun, Clift lost control of his car and drove directly into a telephone pole. He suffered debilitating injuries, including a broken jaw, fractured sinus, and facial lacerations that required extensive plastic surgery. This accident changed the course of his career in two major respects. One, although the surgery he received was state of the art and in many ways remarkably successful, the difference in his facial features was notable, especially considering how well-known he was for his physical attributes. (At the time, he and Elizabeth Taylor were widely considered to be the most beautiful on-screen couple in the world.) Secondly, his recovery process was long and excruciating, which led him to develop an increasingly debilitating addiction to alcohol and painkillers that would define the final, agonizingly self-destructive years of his life.
After the car accident, it was evident that Clift would need to adjust to his new limitations. He finished Raintree County, although the segments of the film that were shot after his accident are painfully noticeable, with the left side of Clift’s face almost entirely paralyzed and his injuries still only partially recovered, giving him a visible limp. Although the film has aged poorly for today’s viewers, it was well-received at the time – Clift at one point noted wryly that he was sure it would be a success, if only because audiences would want to see the results of his injuries out of a morbid sense of curiosity.
Even though he eventually made a full recovery, Clift would nonetheless need to reevaluate what his career in Hollywood would look like. The young, moody characters he had played in the past were somewhat out of reach for him: although he hadn’t entirely lost his good looks, the effects of both plastic surgery and a burgeoning drug addiction made him look as though he had aged a decade in just a few short years. So the late 1950s and early 1960s saw him turn to more mature roles. Still charming and achingly vulnerable, he would bring to life a series of men in emotional crisis In Wild River, he played a representative of the Tennessee Valley Authority tasked with convincing an elderly woman to move off her ancestral land to aid in the building of a dam, only to get caught up in the plight of her and her family. In The Misfits, he was a drunken, emotionally unstable rodeo cowboy who could give co-star Marilyn Monroe a run for her money. (In fact, Monroe famously said that Clift was “the only person I know who’s in worse shape than I am.”) The film would later take on a melancholy aura, shrouded as it was in the shadow of death: Clark Gable died of a heart attack a mere twelve days after filming ended, Monroe herself would be dead a year later of an apparent overdose, and Clift would only survive them both by a handful of years.
His work in Judgment at Nuremberg would show two things: one, that his opportunities for massive leading roles were rapidly dwindling as he became less reliable on set, and two, that in spite of how generally incapacitated he was, he was still capable of an incredibly moving, empathetic performance. His role is small but vital; as an intellectually disabled witness on the stand testifying about his forced sterilization, he takes your breath away with the power of his anguish and shame. He would be rewarded with his fourth and final Oscar nomination for the film.
But as the 1960s carried on, Clift fell deeper into addiction. Studios generally considered him uninsurable, and it became incredibly difficult for him to find work. By the time of his last on-screen performance in 1966, he was a shell of his former self. His final film was The Defector, a middling Cold War spy thriller notable only for how shockingly unwell he looks. Production wrapped in June 1966. A month later, Clift would be found dead in his New York City apartment, having succumbed to a heart attack officially caused by “occlusive coronary heart disease” but almost certainly exacerbated by both his drug addiction and myriad other health problems. He was 45 years old.
Montgomery Clift’s legacy is perhaps an unfair one. When he pops back into the public consciousness every now and then, there is a tendency to focus on the health issues he faced in later years and extrapolate from that a sad, tortured life, one full of sexual repression and tragedy that would lead to his struggles with addiction. But that does Clift a serious disservice, undermining both his actual personality as a fun-loving, intensely loyal man devoted to his craft, and his complete re-invention of the leading man archetype.
He showed Hollywood that there was space in their world for male characters who weren’t just stoic, emotionally stunted tough guys;you could have men on screen who were vulnerable and sensitive. He created a path for not just James Dean and Marlon Brando, but for generations of male actors who didn’t reflect traditional definitions of masculinity. Without Montgomery Clift, there wouldn’t have been such a substantial space in Hollywood for River Phoenix, Heath Ledger, Jake Gyllenhaal, Timothee Chalamet, and countless other actors willing to tackle deep emotions even though they’re complicated and messy. So every time you see a fragile guy on screen just trying to keep his turbulent feelings in check, say a quick thank you to Montgomery Clift, the man who made an art form out of the emotional struggle.