Montgomery Clift was a four-time Academy Award-nominated American actor best remembered for his roles in films like Alfred Hitchcock’s I Confess, Fred Zinnemann’s From Here To Eternity, Howard Hawk’s Red River, John Huston’s The Misfits, and Stanley Kramer’s Judgment at Nuremberg.
Along with James Dean and Marlon Brandon, Clift was one of the original method actors in Hollywood. He was also one of the first actors to be invited to study in the Actors Studio with Elia Kazan and Lee Strasberg.
Clift was known for being incredibly attractive but the trajectory of his life was as tragic as that of any of the roles that he played in his films. More often than not, Clift portrayed desperate, drunken, and easily deceived characters that were no stranger to tragedy.
A car crash in the prime of his career left him in constant pain and because of that, he turned to drugs and alcohol to ease his suffering. But it was this form of reckless self-medication that eventually led to his early demise. This image of a man that was gripped by his inner demons and plagued with misery guided the way the world thinks about him to this day.
Clift’s Journey From Omaha To Hollywood
Edward Montgomery Clift was born on October 17, 1920, in Omaha Nebraska. His father, William Brooks Clift was the vice president of Omaha National Trust Company, while his mother, Ethel Fogg ‘Sunny’ Clift was your typical American homemaker.
Clift had a brother named William Brooks Clift Jr. as well as a twin sister named Ethel who ended up surviving him by 48 years. Clift’s father made a lot of money in banking but was quite poor during the great depression. His mother was born out of wedlock and spent most of her life as well as her family’s wealth raising her children as aristocrats while reconnecting with her illustrious southern lineage.
When he was 13, Clift appeared on Broadway in the production ‘Fly Away Home’. For the next ten years, he chose to remain in the New York Theater scene before ultimately succumbing to Hollywood.
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And don’t go anywhere just yet. Stay tuned to find out how Montgomery Clift’s tragic story came to an end.
Clift Was Painted By The Tabloids As A Reclusive Weirdo
Right out of the gate, Clift was framed as being a rebellious individual. When he first showed up in Hollywood, he refused to sign a contract until after the success of his first two films. He then negotiated a three-picture deal with Paramount that gave him absolute discretion over the projects he wanted to be involved in.
It was a deal that was basically unheard of at the time, especially for such a young actor. But if Paramount wanted to have him under their banner, then they had to give him everything that he wanted. This dynamic would set a precedent that would continue to structure the star-studio relationship for the next four decades.
Whenever the press mentioned Clift, they would talk about his talent and beauty, but they would also typically touch on how peculiar, and offbeat of a man he was.
Clift wasn’t your typical movie star. He insisted upon living in New York and spending as little time as possible in Hollywood.
His apartment, which he only paid 10 dollars a month to rent, was described by his friends as ‘beat up’ but he often referred to it as ‘terrific’. Clift’s diet was also quite unique as he only ate two meals a day consisting mostly of steak, eggs, and orange juice.
He couldn’t care less about going out clubbing, instead, he preferred to spend his time reading historical and economic literature as well as the works of Anton Chekov and Aristotle.
When he wasn’t reading or preparing for a part, he enjoyed going to the local night court where he attended high-profile court cases just to observe the humanity that was publicly on display.
He Didn’t Care For The Fancy Things
Clift cared very little about making appearances or wearing the latest fashion trends leading the Los Angeles Times to once refer to him as the ‘Rumpled Movie Idol’. He famously owned just one suit and when he paid a visit to renowned fan-magazine author Elsa Maxwell’s home, she had her help mend the elbow of his jacket.
Clift’s run-down car was 10 years old and his best friends were all folks that had nothing to do with the movie business. It was clear that he was as much as a Hollywood outsider as he was an insider, and in his own words, he described himself as an ‘ordinary, second-class wolf’.
Anecdotes like these would establish Clift, along with Marlon Brando, as the very embodiment of the 1950s youth culture, resisting conformity and all the things that post-World War II Americans were expected to embrace. Even so, Clift would eventually come to despise this image that put him into a little box. He didn’t want to be constrained, nor did he relish in his reputation of being an antisocial slob that despised Hollywood.
After the Saturday Evening Post ran their story about his bare closet, he worked tirelessly to set the record straight, highlighting the many ways that the media likes to take a kernel of truth and inflate it into something like a legend.
He came to understand that the majority of writers didn’t actually have to interview him to write a story about him because, for the most part, all of their stories were written beforehand. Facts didn’t matter nearly as much as sensationalism and Clift knew that all too well.
The World Wanted To Know Who The Real Montgomery Clift Was
Clift’s private life wasn’t all that exciting. He didn’t date, nor did he flirt, and he was rarely ever seen hanging out in public. His image was perplexing and didn’t fit into any of Tinseltown’s established star categories. But he was handsome and charismatic on-screen, which only fueled the public’s desire to figure him out.
Cliff’s seemingly ambiguous sexually had inspired much speculation within the film and theatrical community for years. His closeted homosexuality would in turn become the primary source of his deepest pain throughout his life.
In 1949, Clift signed on for the film The Heiress alongside actress Olvia de Haviland. The studio tried to market Clift as a sex symbol before the film’s release but when de Havilland’s character rejected Clift’s character in the movie’s final scene, she was flooded with angry fan letters. Clift ended up being pretty unhappy with his performance in that film as well and left early during the film’s premiere.
Russian-born actress Mira Rostova was initially rumored to be his romantic interest but later she was known to be his confidant, advisor, and acting coach. After meeting Clift while performing together on stage in ‘Mexican Mural’, Rostova took Clift under her wing and coached him throughout the remainder of his Broadway career. And upon his insistence, she later followed him out to Hollywood.
Another one of Clift’s closest female friends was Elizabeth Taylor. Clift and Taylor’s friendship blossomed during the filming of 1951s ‘A Place In The Sun’. The two stars had such undeniable chemistry in that film that the rumor started going around that he and Taylor were romantically involved, but of course, they weren’t.
The Car Accident That Changed Everything
On May 12, 1956, while he was filming Raintree County, Clift was involved in a serious car accident when he fell asleep at the wheel and crashed his vehicle into a telephone pole just minutes after leaving a dinner party at the Beverly Hills home of his friend, Elizabeth Taylor and her husband, Michael Wilding.
Taylor rushed to Clift’s side immediately after hearing about the collision from her friend Kevin McCarthy who had witnessed it. Clift ended up suffering a broken jaw and nose, a fractured sinus, and several facial lacerations that required plastic surgery.
After spending two months in recovery, Clift returned to the set to finish shooting the film. As he had correctly predicted, the film ended up doing quite well as moviegoers flocked to theaters to see the difference in his facial appearance after the accident.
Clift was left with constant pain after the crash. And besides that, he was still languishing in his guilt over his homosexuality. All of this eventually led him to turn to alcohol and pills for relief. As a result, his health and physical appearance deteriorated until his death.
With his Hollywood career in an irreversible freefall despite giving an occasional powerful performance such as he did in Stanley Kramer’s Judgment in Nuremberg in 1951, Clift returned to New York where he attempted to develop a somewhat more ‘normal’ lifestyle in his brownstone row house on East 61st Street in Manhattan.
Montgomery Clift’s Death
On July 22, 1966, Clift spent the majority of the day in his bedroom. He and his private nurse, Lorenzo James, hadn’t spoken much all day, but around 1:00 am, James went up to say goodnight to Clift who was still awake and sitting up in his bed.
James inquired if Clift needed anything but he politely refused before telling James that he planned on staying up for while either reading a book or watching some TV.
The Misfits was on TV and James asked Clift if he wanted to watch it with him. Clift replied with a firm and resolute no.
That was the last time that Clift spoke to anyone.
James went to his own bedroom to sleep without saying anything else to Clift, and at 6:30 AM, he woke up and went to wake Clift, but found that his bedroom door was locked. James knocked on his door but became even more concerned when Clift did not respond.
James ran down to the back garden and climbed up a ladder so he could enter through the second-floor bedroom window. Once inside, he found Clift dead. He was naked, lying in his bathtub with his glasses still on and both fists clenched by his side.
The ensuing autopsy report cited the cause of his death as a heart attack brought on by occlusive coronary artery disease, but it’s also fairly likely that his drug alcohol abuse played a part in his physical decline He was 45 years old at the time of his death.
What a tragic end to such an incredibly compelling actor. Montgomery Clift cared very little about what Hollywood wanted him to be. He was his own man and wasn’t afraid to let his freak flag fly. But even though, he regularly went against the grain, Clift was never quite able to be true to himself when it came to his sexuality. And when he got into that car accident, he never managed to stage a full recovery either physically, mentally, or professionally.
Anyway, before we wrap this video up, we’ve got one question for you. What was your favorite Montgomery Clift film between Red River and A Place in the Sun? Let us know in the comments section below.
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