Montgomery Clift: The Right Profile | Film reviews, news & interviews
Montgomery Clift: The Right Profile
To mark a new BFI season of his films, we reflect on the legacy of a troubled screen icon
Both on screen and off, Montgomery Clift was sensitive, hesitant, introspective, self-destructive and often tortured. A personality that expressed itself on film as if afraid of what the camera would reveal. There were at least three faces of Clift. The early public one of the dark, romantic, handsome star of the fan magazines; the face of extraordinary beauty marred after a car accident in 1956, and the private face of drink, drugs and a series of unloving homosexual encounters. Although the accident itself had not really disfigured him too seriously, it seems to have scarred his character much more and his narcotics intake increased.
Clift emerged at the time when a new generation of actors betokened a new masculinity, unafraid to expose their most naked emotions. This was unconnected with sexual predilection, because gay actors like Rock Hudson, Tab Hunter and George Nader displayed traditional “masculine” images, while heterosexuals like Marlon Brando, Paul Newman and Warren Beatty exhibited “feminine” qualities. However, there is some likelihood that homosexuals like Clift, Tony Perkins and Sal Mineo, and the bisexual James Dean, might have found it easier to get in touch with their feelings.
Director Edward Dmytryk went out of his way to make sure that Clift was never seen in full face
As Private Prewitt in Fred Zinnemann’s From Here to Eternity (1953), Clift refuses to box for his platoon and is therefore beaten up and humiliated. In Alfred Hitchcock’s I Confess (1953), he is a priest alone with the knowledge of a murderer’s confession, refusing to betray the secrets of the confessional although he himself is accused of the crime. As George Eastman in George Stevens’ A Place In The Sun (1951), he lives with the guilt of having let his pregnant girlfriend drown, and in Lonelyhearts (1959), he is racked with guilt as the agony columnist dashing out advice to the lonely and unhappy, until he tries to get involved with the pain of the world. All are doomed heroes, loners or, like the title of one of his last films, misfits.
The motor crash occurred during the filming of Raintree County (1957), one of three pictures he made with his friend and confidante Elizabeth Taylor. A macabre game can be played by audiences while watching this sub-Gone with the Wind to try to spot the difference between those scenes shot before the crash and after. Director Edward Dmytryk went out of his way to make sure that Clift was never seen in full face.
Clift’s first screen role was as John Wayne’s adopted son in Howard Hawks’ Red River (1948, pictured right). Hawks exploited the Freudian subtext of the script, a dual character study in which Clift’s edgy angularity was set off against Wayne’s macho security, thus creating a tension that gives this western a depth it might not otherwise have had.
The release of Red River was delayed, so the public’s first glimpse of the 28-year-old Clift was in Zinnemann’s The Search (1948), a moving tale of a war orphan in a ravaged Berlin. Bosley Crowther in The New York Times wrote that "as the American officer who 'adopts' him, the young actor Montgomery Clift gets precisely the right combination of intensity and casualness in the role". Clift was nominated for the Best Actor Oscar, and in the year of the release of his first two movies, he was featured in a Life magazine cover story; Look magazine presented him with its Achievement Award, naming him the "most promising star on the Hollywood horizon"; and The Motion Picture Herald pronounced him "the star of tomorrow".
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