Lost in Beauty

Michael Newton

  • The 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.

Clift was the forerunner of a new generation, in an industry dominated by older stars. In his early films such as Red River, Wyler’s The Heiress (1949) and Stevens’s A Place in the Sun (1951), he is someone the older men doubt. In the latter two films, it’s a class suspicion, a closing of ranks against the interloper, but it’s also a generational matter, an effect of style. Among other things Clift represented the men who had passed through the war. Although he was unfit for active service (due to the lingering effects of amoebic dysentery), in several films – Zinnemann’s The Search (1948), George Seaton’s The Big Lift (1950), Hitchcock’s I Confess (1953) – Clift is or has been a soldier, the movies themselves engaging with the aftermath of the European war. In I Confess, the war appears to suggest a reason why Clift’s character, Michael Logan, should become a Roman Catholic priest. The war had made these characters, giving them confidence, troubling them with memories.

So it was perhaps that the 1950s were the decade of neurosis. For all their resistance to the ‘torn T-shirt brigade’, even older stars such as John Wayne and Jimmy Stewart succumbed, putting the dark side of their personae on screen. Clift embodied the new unease. It’s there in his combination of earnestness and charm, and it’s a matter of posture and expression: Clift habitually hunched his shoulders, with the air of a man who expects to get hit. His apartness beguiles us; he comes across as easily hurt, a fascinating loner at a time when loneliness was cool. He brandishes his solitude like a badge, the solitary bar-room pool-player as existential hero. He played orphans, or, as in A Place in the Sun, a son getting away from what little family he has. He had an orphan’s sensitivity too, his thin skin evident in the way he gave himself to the roles; but he could also claim the Keatsian orphan’s righteous pugnacity, the willingness to take punches. He gets into fights, but holds himself back, pummelled and humiliated, before he throws back the jab that avenges the indignity. This was the 1950s beau idéal, the lonely youth as a desirable alternative to the organisation man. It was also a long-standing American paradigm, from Natty Bumppo to the Ringo Kid, from Captain Ahab to Marlowe; in this sense, Clift’s type was just the latest variant on a character already dear to Hollywood. Indeed, as Lawrence remarks, in the first half of his career Clift’s generational struggle was as much about fitting in as rebelling; he was a defiant conformist, cosying up to the father figures he challenged, shadowing the outlaw stances that they themselves embodied. In From Here to Eternity, Prewitt, Clift’s character, loves the army; he stands apart from and yet embodies the ethos of the institution. He’s a hell of a good soldier.

Lawrence’s book is not a biography of Clift, but an extended meditation on his work and his place in postwar American culture. It aims not just at elucidating Clift himself, but also at illuminating what moves us in a film, in an actor’s performance. Its real subject is cinephilia, that antiquated ardour. Her study is not so much about the actor as auteur, as it is concerned with our relationship with the actor as the source of our fondness for film. She understands what it means to fall in love with a movie, with a movie star, and is sympathetic to the meanings such devotion creates. She wishes to describe the indescribable, the strange ecstasy of watching and sees this in religious terms, with Clift as a saint, his holiness constructed from his fans’ responses to his performances. The book discusses the relationship between ‘the star’ and ‘the fan’, the critic being a self-conscious version of the latter. Lawrence considers how we read a performance, a face, but more how we respond to it. Clift is the test case for her arguments, and given the complexities of his career and fame, he proves to be a very good one.

In his first films Clift’s attraction is clear. In Red River, he moves with such grace we notice the lightness in the leap with which he mounts a horse, the ease with which he takes a step, or the concentration as he lights a cigarette. In fact, he’s so good in Red River, you wonder why he only made one western – unless Huston’s The Misfits (1961) counts. His secret was to act like it was happening in reality, simulating the emotion by feeling it, which is why his ‘real’ self can be read into his performances, even though that self is now just an image, interpretable, fantasised, but unknowable. The famous ‘Taps’ scene in From Here to Eternity is as manipulative and as affecting as anything in The Best Years of Our Lives, a test case for the younger Clift’s power to move us. Responding to an act of arbitrary unfairness, Prewitt has given up a place in a bugle company in order to become a simple infantryman. His best friend, Maggio, played by an impishly wiry Frank Sinatra, has just died as a consequence of the beatings meted out by a thuggish fellow soldier. Now, Prewitt plays the bugle again, offering up a personal military requiem for Maggio, a faintly bluesy lights out. The music fills the camp, and the other soldiers pause to listen. For all the stoicism, Prewitt’s feelings are on show; he’s heartbroken, but performs superbly, saturating the notes with sadness. In part we are so moved because Clift restrains himself, his face filling the screen, inscrutable for all the tears that run down his face.

Clift’s versatility – in 1948-49 he could be seen in the contemporary drama The Search, the western Red River and William Wyler’s costume drama The Heiress, an adaptation of Washington Square – is as impressive as his readiness to take risks in his choice of parts. The male leads of The Heiress and A Place in the Sun both risk losing the audience’s goodwill. In fact, Lawrence says that in A Place in the Sun Clift hoped to alienate the audience even further by having a more sympathetic actor than Shelley Winters cast in the role of the fiancée whom he lets die. In later films such as Joseph Mankiewicz’s overheated version of Suddenly, Last Summer (1959), Clift lets the women take centre-stage; it’s Elizabeth Taylor’s film, then Katharine Hepburn’s. Here, as in Freud, he’s a ‘listener’. Of all the early films, it’s in the last, Vittorio De Sica’s excellent (though butchered) Indiscretion of an American Wife (1953) that Clift takes the greatest risks. Here he plays an American-Italian trying to continue his romance with Jennifer Jones, an American wife and mother, while she tries to end it by catching a train out of Rome. For all his beauty, Clift comes across as spoilt and unappealing, sabotaging our compassion. It’s a charmingly decentred film, the camera drifting towards other people in the railway station, as though losing interest in the passionate affair it purports to be about. Other lives intrude and our gaze shifts outwards to the crowd, the passers-by, the woman’s nephew, the poor, the policemen; all of them standing in the way of the romance. The producer, David O. Selznick, did his best to ruin the movie, anxious that Jennifer Jones, his wife, might appear morally compromised by the passion and moral complexity of Cesare Zavattini’s scenario. Even so, it’s one of Clift’s most impressive films – Terminal Station (1983), the attempt to reconstruct a director’s cut, especially.

It’s true that Clift had his limitations: a master at conveying angst, he rarely expresses joy. Yet it’s his intelligent approach to the roles he plays that seems most striking now. Lawrence provides plenty of evidence that he consistently sought to render the characters he played more ambiguous, more morally unsympathetic. The notes he made on his scripts show what a smart and attentive actor he was. He needed that intelligence above all when considering how to use or circumvent the facts of his private life in his screen persona. Yet in the glare of later revelations, it can at times seem as though all his work can be explained by his concealed passion for men.

Clift could be seen as the American Dirk Bogarde, both 1950s poster boys with something to hide. There’s the beguiling possibility that, had he lived, Clift might have taken on roles that drew more directly on his sexual identity, as Bogarde did. In fact in the film version of Carson McCullers’s Reflections in a Golden Eye he was due to play the part of the married Captain Penderton, sadistically in love with one of his soldiers. But Clift died before filming began, and Marlon Brando took the part. On the other hand, there was a constant gay subtext in his mainstream Hollywood films. In retrospect, the homosexual innuendos in Red River seem obvious. Similarly, in I Confess the notion that Clift’s priest and the murderer played by O.E. Hasse are doubled in guilt (the German actor was also gay) is central to an understanding of the film. While in his life he was busy passing as straight, in his films he played characters who tried to mislead. In The Heiress, Olivia de Havilland’s character is so gauche that he’s forced into being both heterosexual and predatory; in this instance the unconvincing quality of the pitch is the point.

There’s a scene in David Lynch’s Blue Velvet (1986) where over the phone the high-school heroine tearfully forgives Jeffrey Beaumont, her erring boyfriend. Above her bed is a poster of Montgomery Clift, a double for Jeffrey, dreamy with the charm of chaste desire, a sanitised wild one, a complex, divided man to nourish and coddle. Lawrence understands the ironies of this moment well, since Clift is for her a romantic hero who appears uncomfortable with conventional Hollywood romance. For this reason, he was arguably at his best when freed from the Romeo role. In Suddenly, Last Summer, love is out of the question for him, which makes the transgression of the doctor’s professional distance in his few kisses with Elizabeth Taylor doubly uncomfortable, as bad as the possible stain on his priestliness in I Confess. Hitchcock’s film plays with Clift’s double image as matinée idol and serious actor, presenting him both as the soft-focus lover in the romantic glimmer of Anne Baxter’s flashback and as the alert sufferer shown in the rest of the film.

Despite, or perhaps because of his tentative approaches to heterosexual passion, he was often paired with dark, sensual women: Jennifer Jones, Elizabeth Taylor or Joanne Dru in Red River. He was paired too with the most macho Hollywood actors: John Wayne in Red River, Burt Lancaster in From Here to Eternity and Clark Gable in The Misfits. In Red River, Clift’s self-consciousness prompted Wayne to become a little self-conscious too and to investigate his screen image; it was after seeing Red River that John Ford said to Howard Hawks: ‘I didn’t know that son of a bitch could act.’

There were always other factors besides Clift’s gayness obscuring or illuminating his films. Most especially there was that car crash. At first, Clift’s beauty obscured his acting; later his supposed grotesqueness stole the attention. I haven’t seen Clift’s first three post-accident films, in part because they’re hard to track down and in part because I know it would be hard to distinguish genuine interest from ghoulishness. His face did change: a thyroid condition supposedly made his eyes bulge; his eyebrows thickened, giving him a Thunderbirds look. He can almost seem a different man. And then there are the effects of the car crash itself. The temptation to moralise Clift’s accident is palpable: he put it down to exhaustion; others have claimed he was drunk or stoned, or both. It’s as though the smash cannot simply be a matter of chance, but must be a punishment, the payback for all that ability, all that beauty. Even setting aside the crash, there are other ways to moralise Clift’s physical decline. In his diary entry for 24 September 1956, a few months after the accident, Christopher Isherwood lamented Clift’s lost looks, but blamed the ravages of self-indulgence. Indeed what with the booze, the chain-smoking, the prescription pills, the years, it’s a wonder he still looked so good.

It seems crass to admit it, but despite the achievement of those later films, the loss of Clift’s good looks matters. It’s of a piece with the palpable melancholy of his last years. His rare appearances on television chat-shows exemplify the problem, the lucid self-knowledge punctuated by moments of concealment about drink, about love affairs, that leave the viewer feeling dismal, embarrassed at the lack of connection, the chain-smoking unease. Clift comes across as too bored to bother to conceal his own defeat. And yet he was giving performances as great as any he’d done. He was becoming a brilliant character actor, but one who didn’t live to make his Godfather.

While I was reading Lawrence’s book, I was also reading Zuleika Dobson and H.G. Wells’s The Invisible Man. It was hard to avoid making comparisons with Clift, a man burdened by beauty and bound by others’ expectations, and yet committed to a very public vanishing act. Clift disappeared twice, once in those washed-up years between Freud and The Defector, but first in his three-year sabbatical from film at the height of his commercial success. He ended that sabbatical with Raintree County; his first line, spoken of himself off-screen, and written by himself, was: ‘He’s not there.’

Clift was given to cutting his lines from the script – he knew that in cinema less really is more. In I Confess, the premise of the film – a priest’s vows forbid him from divulging what he has learned in the confessional – forces him to adopt ‘I can’t say’ as his mantra. Deprived of verbal expression, inwardness can only be displayed through the close-up, that treacherous opportunity to read the mind’s construction in the face. Some criticised him for his restraint, though this vow of actorly abnegation is the entire point of the film, and even of Clift’s work as a whole. He was an actor who’d made a speciality of turning his back on the camera. If he sought privacy in the glare of publicity, hiding his sexuality, concealing his drinking, then he was only fooling himself.