Oct 15, 2019

Now Streaming: Making Montgomery Clift

When it comes to public opinion of Montgomery Clift, two images tend to dominate. One is of a celebrated, influential actor who coupled unusual sensitivity with traditionally masculine roles. The other is a Hollywood tragedy, believed to be haunted and destroyed by his homosexuality and a serious car accident during the production of Raintree County (1957) which permanently changed his appearance.

In the documentary Making Montgomery Clift (2018), which is now available to stream, Clift’s nephew Robert Clift and filmmaker Hillary Demmon thoroughly examine the actor’s life and the widely accepted tragic narrative about him. At the core of the film is a critical examination of the claims in two biographies of the actor: one sensational book by Robert LaGuardia and another more complicated bio by Patricia Bosworth.

So what is the truth about Montgomery Clift? Was he a tragic figure? Or was he a devoted craftsman who had an unfortunate end, but essentially thrived in his life? Clift and Demmon make a case for the latter and while it is always wise to tread carefully with documentaries where family are involved; there is good evidence here that they are at least somewhat correct.

Clift’s brother Brooks was obsessed with documenting his life, which extended to recording his phone conversations. While that habit seems unsettling in retrospect, the resulting wealth of information from Montgomery Clift himself is invaluable. In his talks with associates and loved ones, the actor shows himself to be intelligent, funny, and committed to being the best actor he can be. He was clearly fascinated by his profession and the life that his roles reflected.

Clift was also not ashamed of his homosexuality as has often been claimed. While the way the society of the time viewed gay men was upsetting to him and ultimately destructive, he found nothing wrong with his desires or in showing affection towards the men he found attractive. His enjoyment of life and love are evident in the conversations, film footage, and other memorabilia shown in the film. Interviews with friends and associates also reveal a man who found a great deal of contentment in life if not a smooth ride.

The film is not meant to be an exploration of Clift’s work, but as it was so intertwined with his life, there is a fair amount of coverage related to his films. He is shown to be completely fascinated by and devoted to his profession, always making choices that supported the integrity of his craft. Several sequences in which Clift’s notations on his scripts are shown side-by-side with the films he made prove how clear-thinking and perceptive he was when it came to how a role should be played.

This perspective on Clift’s life and career is juxtaposed with input from his own family, which struggled to tell the actor’s true story. From the frustration his mother Ethel Clift experienced being accused of damaging her son by keeping him too close, to the fruitless battle Brooks fought with the publishers of the Bosworth biography to correct significant inaccuracies, there is a definite long-desired determination here to change the narrative where Monty is concerned.

I found those phone conversations, interviews with former associates, and script notes illuminating. Perhaps Clift was touched by tragedy, but his life contained a great deal more happiness and fulfillment than I previously thought and, most notably, was not destroyed by that infamous car wreck which has been said to have ruined him, but in fact came at the start of his most productive and satisfying time as an actor.

Whatever the full truth may be, Montgomery Clift was a fascinating, brilliant man who lived big and Making Montgomery is an interesting exploration of who he was versus how he was portrayed.

Many thanks to Team Click for providing a screener of the film for review.

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