Best remembered for roles in Red River (1948), The Heiress (1949), George Stevens’s A Place in the Sun (1951), and as the self-destructive soldier Prewitt in Fred Zinnemann’s From Here to Eternity (1953)
The Big Lift
Freud: The Secret Passion
He received four Academy Award nominations during his career: three for Best Actor and one for Best Supporting Actor.
1948: Best Actor in a Leading Role—The Search
1951: Best Actor in a Leading Role—A Place in the Sun
1953: Best Actor in a Leading Role—From Here to Eternity
1961: Best Actor in a Supporting Role—Judgment at Nuremberg
If I’m not interested in the movie, the audience is not going to be. How can you interest the audience if you’re not interested yourself? ~ Montgomery Clift
Montgomery Clift was born on October 17, 1920, in Omaha, Nebraska. His father, William Brooks Clift (1886–1964), was a vice-president of Omaha National Trust Company. His mother was the former Ethel Fogg Anderson (1888–1988), mostly called “Sunny”. They had married in 1914. Clift had a twin sister, Ethel, who survived him by 48 years, and a brother, William Brooks Clift, Jr. (1919–1986).
Sunny Clift’s was determined to have her children brought up in the style of true aristocrats. Thus, as long as Bill Clift was able to pay for it, Brooks, Ethel and Montgomery were privately tutored, traveled extensively in America and Europe, became fluent in German and French, and were kept apart from people whom Sunny thought “common.”
The Wall Street Crash of 1929 and the Great Depression of the 1930s ruined Bill Clift financially. Unemployed and broke, Bill Clift was forced to move his family to New York, but Sunny still persisted in her plans, and as her husband’s situation improved, she was able to enroll Brooks at Harvard and Ethel at Bryn Mawr College. Montgomery, however, could not adjust to school and never went to college. Instead, he took to stage acting, beginning in a summer production which led by 1935 to his debut on Broadway. For the next ten years, Clift built a successful stage career.
At the age of 25, Clift moved to Hollywood. His first movie role was opposite John Wayne in Red River, which was shot in 1946 and released in 1948. His second movie was The Search. Clift was unhappy with the quality of the script, and edited it himself. The movie was awarded a screenwriting Academy Award for the credited writers. Clift’s naturalistic performance led to director Fred Zinnemann’s being asked, “Where did you find a soldier who can act so well?” and he was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actor. Clift signed on for his next movie, 1949’s The Heiress, to avoid being typecast. Clift was unhappy with the script and unable to get along with most of the cast.
The studio marketed Clift as a sex symbol prior to the movie’s release in 1949. Clift had a large female following, and Olivia De Havilland was flooded with angry fan letters because her character rejects Clift’s character in the final scene of the movie. Clift ended up unhappy with his performance and left early during the film’s premiere. Clift also starred in The Big Lift which was shot on location in Germany in 1949.
Clift’s performance in 1951’s A Place in the Sun is regarded as one of his signature method acting performances. He worked extensively on his character and was again nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actor. For his character’s scenes in jail, Clift spent a night in a real state prison. He also refused to go along with director George Stevens’ suggestion that he do “something amazing” on his character’s walk to the electric chair. Instead, he walked to his death with a natural, depressed facial expression.
After an almost two-year break, in the summer of 1952 Clift committed himself to three more films: I Confess, to be directed by Alfred Hitchcock, Vittorio De Sica’s Terminal Station, and Fred Zinnemann’s From Here to Eternity, which would earn Clift his third Oscar nomination.
On the evening of May 12, 1956, while filming Raintree County, Clift was involved in a serious auto accident when he apparently fell asleep while driving and smashed his car into a telephone pole minutes after leaving a dinner party at the Beverly Hills home of his close friend and co-star, Elizabeth Taylor, and her second husband, Michael Wilding. Alerted by friend Kevin McCarthy, who witnessed the accident, Taylor raced to Clift’s side, manually pulling a tooth out of his tongue as he had begun to choke on it. He suffered a broken jaw and nose, a fractured sinus, and several facial lacerations which required plastic surgery. In a filmed interview years later in 1963, he described in detail his injuries including how his broken nose could be snapped back into place.
After a two-month recovery, Clift returned to the set to finish the film. Despite the studio’s concerns over profits, Clift correctly predicted the film would do well, if only because moviegoers would flock to see the difference in his facial appearance before and after the accident. Although the results of Clift’s plastic surgeries were remarkable for the time, there were noticeable differences in his facial appearance, particularly the left side of his face, which was nearly immobile. The pain of the accident led him to rely on alcohol and pills for relief, as he had done after an earlier bout with dysentery left him with chronic intestinal problems. As a result, Clift’s health and physical appearance deteriorated considerably from then until his death.
Clift never physically or emotionally recovered from his car accident. His post-accident career has been referred to as the “longest suicide in Hollywood history” by famed acting teacher Robert Lewis because of Clift’s alleged subsequent abuse of painkillers and alcohol. He began to behave erratically in public, which embarrassed his friends. Nevertheless, Clift continued to work over the next ten years. His next three films were The Young Lions (1958), Lonelyhearts (1958), and Suddenly, Last Summer (1959). Clift next starred with Lee Remick in Elia Kazan’s Wild River in 1960. He played a Tennessee Valley Authority agent sent to do the impossible task of convincing Jo Ann Fleet to leave her land, and ends up marrying her widowed granddaughter, played by Lee Remick.
Clift then co-starred in John Huston’s The Misfits (1961), which was the final film of both Marilyn Monroe and Clark Gable. Monroe, who was also having emotional and substance abuse problems at the time, famously described Clift in a 1961 interview as “the only person I know who is in even worse shape than I am.”
Clift’s last nomination for an Academy Award was for Best Supporting Actor for his role in Judgment at Nuremberg (1961), a 12-minute supporting part. He played a developmentally disabled man who had been a victim of the Nazi sterilization program testifying at the Nuremberg trials.
By the time Clift was making John Huston’s Freud: The Secret Passion (1962), his self-destructive lifestyle and behavior were affecting his health. Universal sued him for his frequent absences that caused the film to go over budget. The case was later settled out of court, but the damage to Clift’s reputation as unreliable and troublesome endured. As a consequence, he was unable to find film work for four years. The film’s success at the box office brought numerous awards for screenwriting and directing, but none for Clift himself. On January 13, 1963, a few weeks after the initial release of Freud, Clift appeared on the live TV discussion program The Hy Gardner Show, where he spoke at length about the release of his current film, his film career, and treatment by the press. He also talked publicly for the first time about his 1956 car accident, the injuries he received and its after-effects on his appearance. During the interview, Gardner jokingly mentioned that it is “the first and last appearance on a television interview program for Montgomery Clift.”
Barred from feature films, Clift turned to voice work. Early in his career Clift had participated in radio broadcasts, though, according to one critic, he hated the medium.
After four years of failed attempts to secure a film part, finally in 1966, thanks to Elizabeth Taylor putting her salary for the film on the line as insurance, in order to have Clift cast as her co-star in Reflections in a Golden Eye. Still, shooting kept being postponed, until Clift agreed to star in the mediocre The Defector so as to prove himself fit for work. He insisted on performing his stunts himself, including swimming in the river Elbe in March. The schedule for Reflections in a Golden Eye was then set for August 1966, but Clift died before the movie was set to shoot. He was replaced by Marlon Brando.
On July 23, 1966, Clift’s private nurse found him dead in his bedroom. He was 45 years old.
The autopsy report cited the cause of death as a heart attack brought on by “occlusive coronary artery disease”. No evidence was found that suggested foul play or suicide. It is commonly believed that drug addiction was responsible for Clift’s many health problems and his death. In addition to lingering effects of dysentery and chronic colitis, an under-active thyroid was later revealed during the autopsy. The condition (among other things) lowers blood pressure; it may have caused Clift to appear drunk or drugged when he was sober, and also raises cholesterol, which may have contributed to his heart disease.
Following a 15-minute funeral at St. James’ Church attended by 150 guests, including Lauren Bacall, Frank Sinatra and Nancy Walker, Clift was buried in the Friends [Quaker] Cemetery, Prospect Park, Brooklyn, New York City. Elizabeth Taylor, who was in Rome, sent flowers, as did Roddy McDowall, Myrna Loy and Lew Wasserman.