It’s always the eyes – beautiful, sad and haunted, even more so after his accident. They wear a particular expression that always makes me want to hug him. Especially during films like From Here to Eternity and The Misfits – just to reassure him that things aren’t about to get any worse, even though I’ve seen the film before and know they will.
It’s always the same response every time I see Montgomery Clift’s face fill the screen. His was one of the gorgeous faces but it was also a face that communicated the very essence of every character he played. If you don’t believe me, just watch A Place in the Sun (George Stevens, 1951).
In this great film, Clift plays George Eastman the poor nephew of rich industrialist Charles Eastman who is offered a chance to grab his piece of the American Dream.
As the credits roll, we see George standing on the highway looking for a ride. His back’s to us and as the music rises he turns and faces the camera – we see that striking face for the first time, as it heads out, hopeful and optimistic, on the road to a new life.
That new life involves a woman – the kind of woman a man would do anything to be with. George first sees Angela Vickers (Elizabeth Taylor) when he is politely invited, for a very brief visit, to his uncle’s home. She floats in, stylish and elegant and bubbling with society news, before heading out for the evening with the Eastman children. She mesmerises George immediately, he practically levitates from his seat to have a better view of her. But she doesn’t even notice he exists. And then she is gone. George’s aunt and uncle also have to leave to attend a dinner engagement, and so he is asked to exit this rarified world before he has had a chance to make even the smallest mark.
Some time passes. One day George’s uncle stops by the factory to check on his nephew’s progress. Surprised to see that George has been placed on the assembly line (that is, there is an Eastman right at the bottom of the food chain) he promotes him and invites him to a party at the house. He arrives, with that hopeful, optimistic expression on his face again, but is ‘welcomed’ by guests who look right through him and walk right past him. Although we, the audience, see the handsomest man in the room, high society has a way of smelling its own, and George carries the wrong scent.
George is an outsider looking in. He escapes alone into a room to smoke and play pool. Angela wanders in. She coyly asks, ‘Why all alone? Being exclusive, being dramatic, being blue?’ She’s happy to watch him, as are we. When she asks him if she makes him nervous, he confesses yes.
George shows that he knows her, tells her he saw her last spring. Angela is surprised, ‘I don’t remember seeing you before.’ She is mesmerised, she sees him now. He knows a lot about her – confesses to reading about her in the papers. We are given a series of point-of-view shots throughout this exchange – George’s point-of-view – and we see her as he does: in close up and through a soft lens. Through George’s eyes, Angela is bathed in the first flush of love. She leads him to the dance floor and by the end of the night they are the last couple standing, unable to let each other go. We see them in close up, their faces pressed together, cheek to cheek.
This configuration is repeated at another party further into the film. By this time, George and Angela are in love. It is forceful and consuming, the way young love is. They sit alone and the camera zooms in close to caress their faces as they fill the screen. As the soundtrack soars, they kiss, the soft lens of the earlier scene repeated so that they seem to dissolve into each other. I always watch this scene open-mouthed – it’s intimate and grand all at the same time, one of those great, iconic Hollywood moments. The most beautiful actor and actress to ever appear on screen, here together, at their most lovely.
In the pantheon of Hollywood greatness, Clift is known for his sensitive portrayals of emotional, troubled men. Along with James Dean and Marlon Brando, he was guided by the Method and brought something to American acting that had previously been missing: sensuality and vulnerability, three-dimensional representations of men unafraid to feel, in complete contrast to the strong, silent types embodied by actors like John Wayne and Gary Cooper. These softer men told stories with their faces – were able to convey an entire emotional history with a glance, to carry their character’s internal life in their eyes and shoulders and smiles.
In his films from the late 40s and early 50s – Red River (1948), The Heiress (1949), I Confess (1951) and From Here to Eternity (1953) – Clift’s beautiful face told many stories. From Here to Eternity is a favourite, Clift’s Private Robert E. Lee Prewitt the narrative’s moral and emotional core. The scene in which he plays ‘taps’ on his bugle for the murdered Maggio (Frank Sinatra) with tears streaming down his face is one of the defining moments in Clift’s distinguished career.
Real life played its part. It’s difficult not to root some part of Clift’s extraordinary emotional range to elements of his personal biography. From all reports, off-screen Clift was deeply troubled. Plagued by health issues as a young man, including colitis (which kept him out of the army), he always drank too much. He had a difficult relationship with his father. His early career was dominated by a series of controlling women, one who steered him from accepting the leads in East of Eden (the role launched James Dean’s career) and Sunset Boulevard (Billy Wilder wrote the role that eventually went to William Holden, especially for Clift). Clift was a homosexual at a time when living openly was problematic. He is said to have absorbed guilt about his sexual identity all his life. This all took its toll but it also made him the astonishing actor he was.
And then came the accident that would change everything.
In May 1956, Clift was in the middle of filming Raintree County, the second film he made with his great platonic love Elizabeth Taylor (a third, Suddenly, Last Summer, was released in 1959). One night Taylor hosted a dinner party to which Clift was invited. Driving home, Clift slammed into a telephone pole. The actor Kevin McCarthy was in a car following him down the road and ran back to Taylor’s house to get help. Taylor ran to the car and made her way in through a back door (much of the front of the car was pushed in) and saved Clift from choking by removing his two front teeth lodged at the back of his throat.
Clift was lucky to be alive. The accident had broken his jaw and fractured his sinus. He endured reconstructive surgery to fix this. He had several deep facial lacerations that required plastic surgery. His nose was snapped back into place.
Monty’s face was never the same again.
The accident left him scarred and in enormous pain, increasing his dependence on alcohol and pills for relief. And so began what some have called ‘the longest suicide in Hollywood history.’
Yet Clift’s career continued. Two months after the accident, he returned to the set of Raintree County to complete the film. Despite studio concerns about the delayed release date he joked that audiences would flock to the film just to see his new face. Other important films followed, including The Young Lions (1958) with Marlon Brando, Wild River (1960), Judgment at Nuremberg (1961) and his lead role in Freud (1962).
By the time Clift shot John Huston’s The Misfits (released in 1961) the fine lines of his face, the elegance of his cheekbones, and the gentle curve of his mouth were ravaged by surgery and the pain (physical and psychic) that was a feature of everyday life.
And yet, I remember watching this film the first time and still being captivated by him. I knew it was an important film – Clark Gable’s final and finest, and that the screenplay was written by Arthur Miller for Marilyn Monroe (her final film too) as part of a last attempt to salvage their crumbling marriage – but it was Clift who was the magnet for me.
There are parallels between Clift and his Misfits character, the damaged rodeo driver, Perce Howland. Perce is repeatedly thrown from bucking horses but gets back up and tries again. His career leads to physical pain and injuries that have a lasting effect. He feels abandoned by family, but finds a refuge in the kindness shown to him by a gentle woman (Monroe’s Roslyn). Perce is a character you can’t help feel enormous empathy towards, although contemporary audiences may see him as pathetic and weak.
You can see the changes in Clift’s face in close up – his expression is a little coarser, but the eyes are even deeper than before, softer and more expressive. It’s the eyes all over again. Every time.