Lost in Beauty

Michael Newton

  • BuyThe Passion of Montgomery Clift by Amy Lawrence
    California, 333 pp, £16.95, May 2010, ISBN 978 0 520 26047 4

Montgomery Clift was a lush, a loser and a masochist; for more than 15 years he was also one of the finest actors in America – as Clark Gable put it, ‘that faggot is a hell of an actor.’ His beauty, his drinking, his homosexuality, his failure and his unaccountable talent have all re-formed themselves as elements of the icon that stands in for Clift, a potent image of the suffering star. Having seen himself in Howard Hawks’s Red River (1948), Clift, so the story goes, knew that fame was coming to him, and grabbed the opportunity to get drunk anonymously one last time. In the years of his renown, it could seem as though his aim was to hold on to that anonymity while in the throes of stardom. For all that, he clearly loved the limelight, and in some perverse way tried to turn celebrity into concealment. The sad joke of his career was that his fame outlived his success; after Red River, he couldn’t even be anonymous in failure.

The shape of Clift’s career has a tragic symmetry: eight early films, from Red River to Fred Zinnemann’s From Here to Eternity (1953), and then, after Edward Dmytryk’s Raintree County (1957), eight late films from Vincent Donehue’s Lonelyhearts (1958) to Raoul Lévy’s The Defector (1966), the caesura provided by the spectacular car crash that wrecked his face. There are three kinds of classic American crash: the James Dean, Eddie Cochran legend-sealer; the Bob Dylan at Woodstock disaster turned into an opportunity for reinvention; and the sweet Gene Vincent long martyrdom. Clift could have been another James Dean. Instead he was granted the Gene Vincent twilight, doomed to carry on as his own shadow, the ravenous crowd remarking on the difference. What if Clift had died then? For many, he did, the later films better ignored, seen as staining the magical purity of those early performances.

In The Passion of Montgomery Clift, Amy Lawrence idiosyncratically prefers those neglected post-accident films, resistant to their mood of dejection, but alive to Clift’s quieter genius. It’s a preference that fits her method. We all know about Clift; but Lawrence demonstrates that every element in that popular icon is in fact a misconception, in particular the sense of Clift as a male Monroe, Judy Garland as a guy. Although he was one of the founding members of the Actors’ Studio, it turns out that he shouldn’t even be considered a method actor, his style already fully formed by the time the method came along.

His career at first was defined by his personal beauty; he was the bobby-soxers’ dreamboat, a gay guy for the straight eye. Karl Malden declared that ‘he had the face of a saint,’ an especially poignant compliment when we consider that it was spoken by a man with the face of a heavy-drinking Cabbage Patch doll. Clift made relatively few films, but initially at least he chose well, working with most of the best Hollywood directors of the time: Hawks, Zinnemann, William Wyler, George Stevens, Hitchcock. In ten or so of his 17 films, he is, by anybody’s reckoning, flawless. It’s not surprising that John Ford never showed an interest; the ‘manly’ directors with whom Clift did work suspected he was gay, and, in John Huston’s case, tormented him for it. He was neither sardonic nor amused enough for Billy Wilder, but it still rankles that he never had a chance to work with Douglas Sirk, though in Lawrence’s view of things, directors are not the issue, except when they turn into bullies. Her anti-directorial stance is at its strongest when it comes to the admittedly ghastly Huston; if his Freud (1962) is as good as she believes it is, it’s because of what Clift achieved in spite of its director.

When the Beatles arrived in America, one Tin Pan Alley songwriter is said to have lamented: ‘These boys are geniuses; they’re going to ruin everything.’ That’s one way of reading the impact that the triumvirate of Clift, Brando and Dean had on Hollywood. Of course, there had been great actors before, but there had been few among the men who were renowned for intensity, for ‘sincerity’. Passion and performance were for women. For men, effortlessness and dignity were the requirements, a laconic grace, the tragic scenes given stoically, or in quotation marks, driven by a sense that movies were not quite a serious business.

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