Scandals of Classic Hollywood: The Long Suicide of Montgomery Clift

by Anne Helen Petersen

Montgomery Clift had the most earnest of faces: big, pleading eyes, a set jaw, and a side part that reminds you of old pictures of your granddad. Onscreen and off, he was what the kids these days would call “an emo” and the least generous of your friends would call a “sad sack.” If he lived in the ’90s, he would have been king of the heartfelt mixtape. Clift played the desperate, the drunken, and the deceived, and along with Brando and Dean, heralded a new direction in cinematic masculinity. But a car crash in the prime of his career left him in constant pain, and he drank himself to an early death. The trajectory of his life was as tragic as any of his films. But for 12 years, he set Hollywood aflame.

Clift grew up pretty standard middle-class in Nebraska, only he had a twin sister — the sort of detail that always just blows my mind. (Brando was also from Omaha — clearly there was something in the water in the early ’20s there that bred hotness. Look at pictures of your Omaha granddads and get back to me.) Clift’s mother had been adopted at an early age, and she fixated on the idea that she was descended from the Southern aristocracy, not to mention all sorts of important presidential advisors. And if she was an aristocrat, then she was going to live like one, no matter her husband’s middling bank salary. Clift, his sister, and his younger brother were all given private tutors and educated in French, Italian, and German, but when the money (or energy) ran out and Clift found himself in Omaha high school, he was woefully underprepared. It was still good training: although the aristocratic connection was never proven, Clift would play a number of roles that pivoted on the notions of adoption, posturing, and class aspiration.

But the awkward high school-ness wouldn’t plague him for long, as he somehow found his way to Broadway at age 15. Five years later, he appeared in the Pulitzer-winning There Shall Be No Night, was turned down for military service (colitis that would plague him for the rest of his life) and spent five or so more years turning heads in New York before finally transplanting to Hollywood after the end of World War II.

Clift was made for success. He refused to sign a studio contract but instead landed himself a role in a little film with the names “John Wayne” and “Howard Hawks” attached. Seriously, that’s some “oh, my first job out of college was with Google” type luck. And the film, Red River, is just stunning. Clift plays the adopted son of Wayne; together, they squabble and drive cattle and blaze the Chisholm Trail. Wayne’s character is a typical Western hard-ass, and he so pisses off the rest of the cowboys that his son leads a rebellion against him, wresting the thousands of cattle away.

(Best line from the Wikipedia capsule: “morale drops because the men are living on nothing but beef and have no coffee to drink.”)

There’s also a lot of hot suede fringe, cowboy stubble, and onscreen romancing of Western ladies…

… but backstage, Clift was purportedly having a hot affair with John Ireland, who played gunslinger Cherry Valance. Which isn’t to say that the tension between the two didn’t manifest onscreen:

That’s a good lookin’ gun indeed, Cherry. [Sidebar: when I was taking a Westerns class in college, there were two dudes who absolutely believed that there was no such thing as a “gay cowboy.” This was pre-Brokeback, of course. We watched this scene. They maintained their position. Defensively straight dudes boggle the mind.]

Red River was shot in 1946, but because it was too similar to The Outlaw (which Howard Hughes had been pimping full-steam), UA pushed it back two years. By the time it hit theaters — and made a tremendous amount of money — Clift had already appeared in The Search, a Holocaust-survivor drama, mostly forgotten today, that won Clift his first nomination for Best Actor. (Clint Eastwood claims that no other performance has had as much influence on his career.) Two monster performances in less than six months, and Clift was suddenly very much in demand.

Paramount cast him in The Heiress, a big-deal big-costume adaptation of Henry James’ Washington Square. He played a suave, debonair man-about-town opposite Olivia de Havilland’s shy, quasi-ugly duckling of an heiress (I say “quasi” because COME ON, we’re talking Olivia de Havilland. It’s like when Charlize Theron played homely in North Country; she just looked fashion-forward with her mullet and jumpsuit).

The film leaves us to wonder whether Clift’s character really was or wasn’t a golddigger trying to skeeze on the rich plain girl. But look at this picture:

He can’t even look her in the eye while face-smooshing! He’s staring into the distance, thinking of all the fine cufflinks he’ll be able to buy with her fortune!

While filming, Clift became obsessed with making the script, the acting, everything, better. He thought De Havilland’s lines were for shit and gave him little to respond to, so he rewrote them. He though De Havilland was too compliant to director William Wyler, and he told her so. Careful there, Monty — you’re about to pull some Shia LaBoeuf/Tom Hardy tomfoolery.

Or maybe he was just a perfectionist, totally obsessed with improving anything he touched? I mean, those guys are usually assholes, but sometimes they’re also very good:

Just look at Clift scrutinizing his Heiress performance. Maybe I can understand. Things I can’t understand = when guys cross their legs like that and are okay with the strip of hairy leg emerging between argyle sock and pant cuff.

At the end of the film [SPOILER ALERT, ALL YE WHO HAVE NOT READ ALL OF HENRY JAMES ONE SUMMER WHEN YOU WERE FEELING VERY WASP-ASPIRING] de Havilland’s character pulls a fast one on Clift: he left her, went to Cali to make it big, did not in fact make it big, returned to Boston, saw that she’d inherited all her dad’s money, and is like heeeeeeeey ugly duckling, I really do love you, let’s go elope even though I totally ditched you last time I made that exact same promise.

De Havilland says hey, okay, I like your quasi-pompadour and Cali-moustache, let’s do this, I’m just gonna go back up a few dozen dresses … and then STANDS HIM UP. He comes and yells at her window, full-on Lloyd Dobler style, and she just asks the maid to bolt the door and goes up the staircase. Girl is my hero.

But de Havilland had it coming. Clift had amassed a teeming flock of breathless, strong-jaw-loving fans, and when they saw de Havilland reject their boy, they were PISSED. As in mountains of fan mail pissed. Overarching theme: how dare your character rightfully reject vaguely creepy former suitor played by slightly feminine-looking star?

Does this sound familiar? Like very recently familiar? Like Bella how-dare-you-look-at-Jacob-and-his-CGI-werewolf-abs-that-way familiar? Young girls (and ladies) like beautiful young men with strong jaws. Some things never change.

Clift next appeared in The Big Lift, one of many middling films that tried to exploit returned soliders’ desire to see something like their former lives onscreen. He pulled out of Sunset Boulevard — a role that Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett had written specifically for him — at the eleventh hour, claiming the role was too close to his own life (in which he also hung out with a lot of older ladies). I wonder if he realized that that was the point … and I will now spend the next 10 minutes imagining Gloria Swanson dragging Clift, instead of William Holden, across the dancefloor.

But Clift had nothing to worry about. After his experiences with The Heiress and The Big Lift, he knew he needed to be much pickier in choosing his projects. He wrongfully rejected Boulevard, but he accepted a place in A Place in the Sun — an adaptation of Theodore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy with Elizabeth Taylor, hot off Father of the Bride, in the female lead.

It’s almost too much beauty. I’m overwhelmed just looking at stills, and realizing that even those don’t do justice to what these two look like onscreen. Perfection orbiting perfection.

And this film, this film is SO SMOKIN’ HOT-SAD. I describe the plot in full-AHP-detail in the Liz Taylor post from way back when, but what really matters is that A) it established Taylor as a sex siren, and B) added texture to Clift’s image. He wasn’t just a heartthrob, he was a tortured, emotive, working-class heartthrob — an archetype that would become even more salient when Brando tore through A Streetcar Named Desire, released just a month after A Place in the Sun.

His performance in Sun is pure Method: Clift didn’t just hang out in the jail to get a sense of what it would be like, he slept there. And his face at the end of the film, it just ruins me. It ruined Brando too: when both he and Clift were nominated for Best Actor, Brando insisted on voting for Clift. (Even better: Clift insisted on voting for Brando.) Charlie Chaplin, he of faint and sporadic praise, called Sun “the greatest movie made about America.” Shit was hot.

Brando and Clift lost Best Actor to Humphrey Bogart, nominated for The African Queen — just in case you need a reminder that the Academy’s selections are conservative and favor the aging star. Those two virile, angry boys were just too much.

But bygones, because Clift had started a lifelong friendship with Taylor — a relationship that would structure the remainder of his career in ways surprising and tragic. Everyone thought that he and Taylor were totally on each other — rumors that MGM, Taylor’s studio, did little to suppress following the disaster of her marriage to Nicky Hilton.

I mean look at them —

They are obviously the best platonic friends that everyone wants to get together in the history of movie stars and Taylor Swift songs. He called her “Bessie Mae”; she called him “Monty.”

Clift played a priest who makes out with ladies in Hitchcock’s I Confess, only all the Catholics were up in arms and no one went to see it. No big, Clift was all about making movies no one went to see, so long as he could do weird method stuff like sleeping in convents.

Plus he was busy filming From Here to Eternity, only the best post-war-about-war film of the entire period. Today, everyone associates the film with the image of Burt Lancaster and Deborah Kerr’s beachy make-out.

(Don’t worry, Lancaster fans, I’m coming for him and his boy shorts soon.)

But this film has so much more to recommend it, including:

1) Donna Reed as a prostitute (so good).

2) The only film performance by Frank Sinatra that I actually enjoy (he’s perfect).

3) Obstinate, honorable, self-loathing Monty Clift playing the bugle with tears streaming down his face.

4) Profusion of early ’40s Hawaiian shirts.

Extra bonus: Reed’s black halter dress, because everyone who knows anything about classic Hollywood cinema knows that only prostitutes and “exotic women” wear black. Plus, one of my favorite on-set anecdotes in Hollywood history: Burt Lancaster was apparently so scared of being “out-acted” by Clift that he couldn’t stop shaking during their entire first scene together.

Clift earned yet another Best Actor nomination, and when he lost — this time to William Holden in Stalag 17, a movie even this film Ph.D. has never heard of — Clift’s position in Hollywood seemed clear. Like Brando, he was an outsider, refusing to submit to any attempt to craft a “star” image, and the rest of the trade disliked him for it. Hollywood shunned Clift, Brando, and their tagalong little brother James Dean because they saw how good they were, saw how clearly they threatened the way that Hollywood had operated — and conceived of acting — for the past 30 years. These boys were the future of American film, and they scared the shit out of everyone still clinging to the past.

According to legend, this loss hit Clift hard. Or maybe it didn’t, and people just love the story of the film’s producers sending him the bugle mouthpiece from the film (a crucial prop) and him cherishing it for the rest of his life. Either way, he wasted no time, agreeing to star in Terminal Station with the highly regarded Italian Neo-Realist director Vittorio De Sica, all the (high art) rage after Bicycle Thieves and Umberto D (don’t get me started on that film, I might drown in my own tears).

Terminal Station should have been good. It had Truman Capote on the script, De Sica behind the camera, and master promoter/producer David O. Selznick orchestrating the whole thing. But this was in Selznick’s waning days as a producer (think foaming-at-the-mouth Harvey Weinstein) and what he really wanted was a star vehicle for his new (young) (somewhat talented) star wife, Jennifer Jones. (They met on the set of Duel in the Sun, which is another story for another scandal piece.) Selznick had always been exacting and controlling, but he was all over this film — he hired Carson McCullers (The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter), then fired her, subbing in Capote and a host of other pinch-hitting script doctors. De Sica wanted to do a broken love story; Selznick wanted a happy one. At one point, Selznick was writing massive tomes of instructions and complaints to De Sica on a daily basis, even though the director couldn’t read English.

Selznick complained, De Sica ignored, and Clift predictably sided with De Sica. The film was a disaster. Selznick tried to recut the film for American audiences, but it just got stinkier. Clift publicly distanced himself from the end product, declaring it a “big fat failure.” Again, very Shia LeBoeuf of him — only The Beef was trying to distance himself from Transformers, not a botched Neo-Realist project. As you can imagine, this did very little to mend Clift’s relations with Hollywood.

Clift passed on East of Eden, but James Dean was eager to snatch up a role intended for his idol: he so loved Clift that he’d supposedly call him “just to hear his voice.” Beautiful boy love, I can’t get enough of you. Instead, Clift agreed to Raintree Country, playing a role that would put him between the beautiful Eva Marie Saint and best-flirt-friend Liz Taylor.

I don’t know what they’re doing here, but I wanna go do it with them.

Taylor had married British film star Michael Wilding in 1952 — in my mind, she was trying to get over Clift — but by 1956, their marriage was in decline. During the filming of Raintree County, Clift and Taylor seemed to have rekindled their is-it/isn’t-it relationship — according to one of Clift’s biographers, “some days he would threaten to stop seeing Elizabeth Taylor — then, the thought would make him burst into tears.” Other apocryphal legend has Taylor sending Clift piles of love letters, which he then read aloud to his male companion at the time. My best guess is that they tortured each other the way people who love each other but can’t be together always do, and it was returning from a party at Taylor’s house, mid-filming for Raintree County, that he smashed his car into a telephone pole.

But this was no drunken fender-bender. Actor Kevin McCarthy, driving in front of Clift, ran back to check on him, seeing that “his face was torn away — a bloody pulp. I thought he was dead.”

McCarthy ran to fetch Taylor, who raced to the site of the accident. The doors were smashed in; she climbed in through the back, cradling him in her arms. He started choking and motioning to his throat, where, it soon became clear, two of his teeth had lodged themselves after coming loose during the accident. Taylor opened his mouth, put her hand down his throat, and pulled out the teeth. Other things about their friendship have been fabricated or exaggerated, but this story, told and retold by those who were there, seems to have actually been true.

When the paparazzi arrived (they weren’t quite paparazzi yet; more like a few eager photographers), Taylor announced that she knew each and every one of them personally — and if they took pictures of Clift, she’d make sure they never worked in Hollywood again. Back then, that sort of strategy worked. There’s not a single picture of Clift’s broken face.

Months of surgeries, rebuilding, and physical therapy followed. If you’ve ever had a facial injury or surgery, you know the pain is profound. Production resumed on Raintree County, which the studio feared would tank following Clift’s accident. Obviously they were fools — and Clift knew it, predicting it would be a smash, if only because audiences would want to compare his face from before and after the accident.

With the facial reconstruction, heavy painkiller use, and rampant alcohol abuse that took place following the accident, Clift looked like he’d aged a decade in the span of a year.

And thus began what has been called “the longest suicide in Hollywood history.” In The Young Lions, released just two years after the accident, the pain seems almost visible. It’d be his only film with Brando, even though the two of them never shared the actual screen. Taylor, at last free from her long-standing contract with MGM, used her power as the biggest star in Hollywood to insist that Clift be cast in her new project, Suddenly, Last Summer. It was a huge wager: since everyone knew how much pills and booze Clift was on, he was virtually uninsurable on-set. But the producer, Sam Siegel, said screw it — let’s just do it.

It wasn’t pretty. Clift couldn’t get through longer scenes, having to split them up into two or three chunks. The subject matter, which involved Clift assisting in the cover-up of a dead man’s apparent homosexuality, must have resulted in so. many. feelings. Director Joseph Mankiewicz tried to replace Clift, but Taylor and my hero Katharine Hepburn defended and supported him. Hepburn was apparently so incensed by Mankiewicz’s treatment of Clift that when the film officially wrapped, she found the director and spat in his face. Oh Kate, you’ll always be my favorite unruly woman.

The decline continued. Clift appeared in The Misfits, best known as the benedictory film of Marilyn Monroe and Clark Gable. Monroe even reported that Clift was “the only person I know who is in even worse shape than I am.”

And the pictures from on-set are just so poignant and heartbreaking and amazing:

It’s like all three are meditating on their respective declines, and there’s a sad, peaceful resignation at the difference between what their bodies and faces could do and how people want to remember them. And the plot! THIS FILM! The mustangs, they just want to be free, just like Marilyn! It tramples all audience members in its path.

But 1961 audiences and critics were too close to see clearly. It bombed, in part because it was shot in gorgeous black-and-white when everyone else was reveling in gaudy Technicolor. Gable died of a heart attack 10 days after filming; Monroe was only able to attend the film’s premiere with a pass from her stay at a psychiatric ward. She wouldn’t die for another year and a half, but Misfits would be her last completed film.

And Clift drank on. He was such a mess on the set of Freud: The Secret Passion that Universal sued him. And while filming a 15-minute supporting role as a mentally handicapped victim of the Holocaust in Judgement at Nuremberg, he had to ad-lib all his lines. That’s how gone he was. But something was still there — enough to earn him a Best Supporting Actor nomination.

Clift would appear in one last film, The Defector, before dying, apparently in his sleep, in 1966, at the age of 45 — a culmination of years of drug and alcohol abuse. The Misfits ran on television that night.

Liz, caught up in filming and Richard Burton in Paris, sent flowers to the funeral. The long suicide was complete.

Many Hollywood stars have committed versions of the long suicide, only theirs weren’t as explicit, or as clearly motivated by physical tragedy and transformation. Don’t mistake me: I don’t think Clift drank because he was suddenly no longer handsome. He drank because he was in pain, and because, I can only imagine, that pain made it impossible for him to do the thing in which he excelled. It wasn’t that he was no longer who we thought he was; it was that he was no longer who he thought he was. This was a man obsessed with conveying the real, the authentic on the screen. He hated manipulated lines, he hated things that weren’t true. Like his contemporary Beats, he was mad for the real, only his real was on the screen.

But to be such a conduit — you burn so brightly, then you burn to the ground. Who knows what would’ve happened if Clift had never pummelled himself, wildly, madly, into that light pole. Chances are that he would’ve found another pole, literal or figurative, to beat himself against. The other bright, beautiful men of his generation did the same. Dean did it. Brando did it, too, only he didn’t die — he simply turned his disgust with his inability to do so inward.

These men, they were literally something else. I wish I could’ve seen Dean at 50, or Clift living as long, and as fully, as Newman. Clift once told someone that the closer we come to death, the more we blossom. He took himself to that precipice, but he fell straight in. And so he remains, frozen in the popular imagination, circa From Here to Eternity — those high cheekbones, that set jaw, the firm stare: a magnificent, proud, tragically broken thing to behold.

Previously: Warren Beatty Thinks This Song Is About Him.

Anne Helen Petersen is a Doctor of Celebrity Gossip. No, really. You can find evidence (and other writings) here.