Making Montgomery Clift – A fresh perspective on the life of a Hollywood giant

8 mins read

On the 23rd July, 1966 Montgomery Clift died of heart failure at his New York apartment aged 45. Leaving behind a legacy of world-class film and theatre that pushed the boundaries of masculinity on screen. In the years following Clift’s death, a picture was painted of a man struggling with his sexuality, drink and drugs; a tragic character who never fit the mould of the Hollywood system. However, with his 2019 documentary Clift’s own nephew brought light to the darkness. Dispelling rumours and whispers with a beautiful and honest exploration of Montgomery’s life and career. 

Montgomery Clift began his career in theatre as a child actor, building a diverse portfolio of roles by the time he reached his late teens. His passion for theatre, leading him to turn down many early offers from Hollywood. With his first foray into a film not coming until the age of 25 in the western Red River,movie that would ultimately ensure his position as a potential leading man. His gentle and emotive performance as a young Matt Garth, pushing the 1940s trademark masculinity of John Wayne into the shade. As Montgomery’s experience in theatre outshone a man who embodied everything he railed against in Hollywood. 

Clift’s trademark ability to cut through masculine stereotypes of the period would become a defining trait of his career on screen. His theatrical background not only endearing him to a new generation of film fans. But also challenging the age-old boundaries of Hollywood masculinity, with performances that offered both emotion and sensitivity. His pioneering approach combining with that of both Marlon Brando and James Dean in creating a new vision of the Hollywood leading man. One born out of a need to represent the nuance and reality of the male experience in a post-war society.

Red River (1948)

However, merely challenging masculine stereotypes on screen was not enough for Clift, as he took square aim at the studio system that encouraged them. His passion for change and evolution, leading him to refuse the option of single studio contracts. Something unheard of in a Hollywood culture where studios reigned supreme. His rebellion leading to individual film contracts, a move that would ultimately rewrite the relationship between actors and studios. At the same time, marking the first steps in our modern system of movie production.

Equally, Clift believed in an actors involvement in the screenwriting process, both challenging dialogue and meaning. Allowing actors to mould their characters based on their own performances. A move that while uncomfortable for screenwriters and directors would embolden actors ushering in a more liberated approach to character development.

Montgomery Clift pioneered a fresh approach to film, while in turn providing us with an enviable body of work. So why is he remembered more for personal tragedy rather than his artistic excellence? The answer to this question may well lay in a studio system that found change uncomfortable and unnecessary. A system ultimately built of institutional oppression and control, leading many of it leading men and women to secretive and nervous lives.

Using an extensive collection of tapes, home video and written materials collected by Clift’s brother. Making Montgomery Clift offers a personal and frank exploration of the challenges faced by those actors who did not fit the mould they were assigned. Celebrating the bravery of those who refused to become victims of this system. Of which Montgomery Clift was one, his passions both challenging and defying the oppression surrounding him.

Dispelling more extensive speculation, Making Montgomery Clift portrays a man comfortable in his sexual orientation, who chose to sit outside the Hollywood entrapments of fame and celebrity. Challenging the system and its structures, while remaining unconcerned by rumour and speculation. Never attempting to cover up the relationships he had with both men and women, unlike many of his contemporaries whose image was owned by influential studios. While perceptions of his demanding nature on set where perpetuated by his creative force in challenging the filmmaking process. Something many directors struggled to accept alongside his open challenge of the male archetype in film.

However, we, the viewers, are not free from critical analysis as we explore an actors relationship with the public. From glowing adoration and respect to sudden isolation and speculation. Creating fascinating parallels to modern contemporary figures such as River Phoenix. A young man who also challenged the stereotypes of masculinity on screen. His life and career subject to rumour, speculation and intrusive analysis of ‘what went so wrong’ after his death. Ultimately demonstrating a public desire to write internal conflict into the figures they idolise on their death. While equally raising them up, only to knock them back down when trends change and someone new comes along. 

Making Montgomery Clift does not attempt to sweep away the previous analysis of Clift’s life. Freely exploring the effects of a near-fatal car accident on his drinking and use of prescription drugs. While never shying away from the darkness stardom can bring and stress it places on family, friends and lovers. But this is a documentary that balances the darkness with the light of a man who helped change Hollywood. His whole life dedicated to furthering diversity, art and performance. While equally battling a system that restricted and controlled many of its stars; the ghost of this still relevant in why so many leading men and women struggle too ‘come out’ in today’s Hollywood.

Making Montgomery Clift provides us with a beautiful exploration of a true Hollywood giant. Offering a fresh perspective on a life full of passion, drive and determination in a film industry fighting change.

Director: Robert Anderson CliftHillary Demmon

Stars: Judy BalabanPatricia BosworthBrooks CliftEdward CliftEleanor CliftMontgomery CliftWoodbury CliftLorenzo JamesMollie Gregory

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