Clift Notes

03.09.10

Left: Howard Hawks, Red River, 1948, still from a black-and-white film in 35 mm, 133 minutes. Matt Garth (Montgomery Clift). Right: Elia Kazan, Wild River, 1960, still from a black-and-white film in 35 mm, 110 minutes. Chuck Glover (Montgomery Clift) and Carol Garth Baldwin (Lee Remick). Images courtesy Photofest/BAMcinématek.


NAMED AFTER A SARCASTICALLY JUBILANT LYRIC from the Clash’s “The Right Profile,” the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Montgomery Clift retrospective—“That’s Montgomery Clift, Honey!”—might have also taken a more somber title from REM’s “Monty Got a Raw Deal.” Defined by tragedy and qualified by what-ifs, Clift’s story is one of Hollywood’s saddest: a preternaturally attractive and talented actor permanently marked, at age thirty-six, by an automobile accident that altered his face, forced him into a crippling drug dependency, and led to his early death ten years later.

Clift made his reputation in prestige pictures like A Place in the Sun (1951) and From Here to Eternity (1953), though other films better demonstrate his infrequent brilliance. Rather than the brooding violence of Brando or the hip dissidence of Dean—to whom he was a Method-esque predecessor—Clift’s handsomeness suggested melancholic introspection, a quality exploited in Howard Hawks’s Red River (1948), where he plays the conscientious cowboy protégé who stands up to John Wayne’s half-mad cattle baron, and later in Alfred Hitchcock’s morality play I Confess (1953), in which he assumes the role of a conflicted, tortured priest. Throughout his career, Clift’s nobility would both hasten his characters to and steel them for sanctifying punishment, as in the former film when he unblinkingly welcomes a beating from Wayne before their climactic showdown and in the latter when he endures public scorn by holding in his confidence a vindicating confession.

Legend has it that Clift’s good looks were ruined by his 1956 accident. The truth is that while his appearance didn’t drastically change, his demeanor did. In pre-accident films like the surprisingly terrific The Big Lift (1950), Clift possesses a natural yet humble confidence; post-accident (cf. the tepid Lonelyhearts [1958]), he’s often painfully self-conscious, shoulders slumping and hands fiddling around his mouth as if guarding against the morbid curiosity of his audience. And yet the second half of his artificially bifurcated oeuvre features some of his best work. The Misfits (1961) remains poignant almost exclusively for its pairing of Clift with similarly doomed contemporary Marilyn Monroe, but the real gem is Wild River (1960), a Tennessee Valley–set drama about environment, politics, race, and heritage that gave Clift a chance to work with Elia Kazan, the spontaneity-friendly director with whom he should have perhaps been working all along.

Michael Joshua Rowin

“That’s Montgomery Clift, Honey!” runs at the Brooklyn Academy of Music March 11–25. For more details, click here.