The final film in my Monty Clift @ 100 celebration because yes.
Today: Making Montgomery Clift (2018)
I wonder if the day will come when watching this won’t leave me heavy and sad and longing for impossible things. There’s an exquisite agony in watching a deeply personal documentary about a person who has deep personal meaning to you — an agony of pleasure and then the inevitable agony of loss. And in Montgomery’s case, there’s a rage and an indignation that still hasn’t found resolution, that — as Robert says — may never be resolved.
The first time around, I found myself questioning my own complicity in perpetuating those myths about him.
This time around, I found myself thinking about my activity in the fandom. Over the past seventeen days, I’ve made a fuckload of gifs of him. Every time there was a closeup of those eyes, I twitched with the impulse to capture that moment. Which is all very well and good because yes, he has beautiful eyes and they are hugely expressive and a major part of his appeal and presentation.
But then I started to worry that I was focusing on the superficial rather than the moments of actual acting … or Actoring, as I like to say with varying degrees of affectionate teasing, depending on how much I like the actor in question. And in doing that, was I minimising his craft? Or just flat out ignoring it in favour of the visual?
Worse, was I perpetuating that myth that Montgomery Clift was only beautiful pre-accident?
Well, I worried about that latter bit until I got to The Defector. The last movie he made which also happened to be the last movie I had left to watch. I had tried once before to watch an awful grainy copy on YouTube and bailed almost instantly because of the terrible dubbing, incomprehensible plot, and yes because I was so horrified at how changed he looked.
Now that I have watched it all the way through? I might have developed a slight giggly fascination. Because he is beautiful in it, and the copy I have is such unexpectedly good quality that it’s pure pleasure to look at him in clear cool colour that isn’t as muddily colour-graded as Wild River or unrestored as Raintree County. And the essence of him hasn’t changed. All his mannerisms are still there, the way he engages with people, the way he listens is exactly the same. And it’s fascinating to see all he does with this character in an admittedly terrible story.
Now I’m slightly peeved that people are sleeping on just how lovely and stylish and clever he is in The Defector. The only time I see mention of it is in the tragic breath of “Montgomery Clift’s last film.” Yes, but look at what he does in it! May not be the heights of Actoring like Nuremberg or Young Lions but he’s fucken cool!
I suppose, like his actual family, this is something a Montgomery Clift fan has to grapple with over and over again at almost every juncture: how we view his work compared to how it’s configured in popular and film culture. It’s exhausting. And if I allow myself to think about it, it’s emotionally draining too. Literally because it dims the joy that I experience when watching the actual film.
When I’m watching him, I’m fully engaged with all the aspects of his performance — the voice, the emotion, the pauses, the function of his character in the story. Everything that I should be. And I’m delighted, I’m energised, joyful in his craft and the life of him.
Then I step back and make the mistake of looking at what other people say about the movie, either on Letterboxd or even randomly looking up some production detail on the intarwebz. And there’ll be some tragic phrase that instantly reconfigures my whole previously joyous experience.
Most times I roll my eyes and ignore it, arrogant enough in my fannishness to prefer my love over the sentiments of others. And that’s especially been the case over the past seventeen days, in this feat of fannish effort and total immersion in the artistry of him. But the doco has rightly reminded me that the disconnect is pervasive.
I can only reassure myself that the existence of it and my small writing is some effort towards correcting Montgomery Clift’s legacy as a serious artist instead of a tragedy reliving his trauma onscreen, as a warm lovely playful profane joker rather than a tormented cliche, as a bisexual man confident in his own sexuality without the need to proclaim it or hide it or label it.
It’s enough that we exist, isn’t it? The writing and the doco and the gifs exist. We keep his craft alive.
I thought I’d make gifs of this too, possibly the home videos. But I couldn’t bring myself to, after all. Because even though the doco is technically a public document, the home videos and his own photography feel so personal and private that I felt I would be committing some sort of violation, that it’s not my place to put that stuff out there.
After my very detailed bloodthirsty threats against John Huston over the past few reviews, I was somewhat relieved to find my violence and hatred was entirely justified. I had forgotten the detail of what he said my god that vile fucker.
What shocked me to the core this time around was the discovery of a fairly bizarre coincidence. See, the first time I watched it was also the first time I had properly seen into the Quaker cemetery where Montgomery’s buried. I try not to be morbid about these things and mostly I don’t care about the final resting places of Classic Hollywood stars because that’s a little creepy even for me.
But I care about Montgomery like he’s family. When I visited Brooklyn for the first time a few years ago, I really wanted to at least go past the cemetery and send a few thoughts to that spot. Even though I know he’s not there anymore, that he’s out there in the universe and has been for decades now. I was talked out of it once my family realised we couldn’t go into the cemetery itself. And I’ve regretted that ever since.
So that footage made my breath catch in my chest, and of course at the time I only saw Montgomery’s stone and felt the significance of it. We’ve had a lot of death in my family just in my lifetime, I know how important the visual of a stone and a name is.
But this second time, I looked at the whole image and realised that was Brooks beside him. At first I was like “Aww, that’s so lovely. They’re together…” And then dear god, I noticed the dates of Brooks’ life. Brooks who has been so instrumental in the decades after his brother’s death, Brooks who is such a fascinating figure in his own right, Brooks without whom we wouldn’t have Robert and the documentary, Brooks who offers this eerie image of how Montgomery would have aged.
His birthday is my birthday.
His death anniversary is my grandmother’s anniversary. The same grandmother who introduced me to Classic Hollywood and Montgomery Clift.
My brain is still reeling from this ridiculous unthinkable coincidence who’s writing this shit I demand to speak to the author.
I’m five years younger than Montgomery was when he died. Forty-five years doesn’t seem so old now that I’m close enough to it.
Still I’m reminded of a slightly strange but wonderful thought from about a week ago: I would love to be in the parallel dimension where Montgomery Clift drove home safely that night and eventually overcame his substance issues.
But no, that’s buying into the tragic narrative too, isn’t it? Fuck that.
A parallel dimension where he woke on the morning of 23 July 1966 and went down to have breakfast with Lorenzo. Where he lived through the Seventies, saw the Stonewall riots, maybe even became an activist — though I seriously doubt he would have been that much of a joiner — and totally been recruited by Liz and Rock Hudson into the AIDS awareness and fundraising campaigns. Maybe he would have written novels, definitely held photography exhibitions. Went back to the theatre for insanely sold out runs and done all the great American classics on Broadway.
Made more and more interesting movies that would have changed the cultural landscape so much more in terms of masculinity and sexuality onscreen. He would have made movies with Sidney Poitier and Jack Lemmon and Henry Fonda and Paul Newman and Dirk Bogarde and IDA LUPINO — thorny family drama, quirky roadtrip comedies, and tense political thrillers — and then with the younger generations like Jane Fonda and Anne Bancroft and Ellen Burstyn.
There’d be the inevitable De Niro/Pacino collab in a Scorsese flick that would gain the nostalgic favour of all the old white males of the Academy and win him enough Oscars to finally fucking eclipse that egregious fucker as the greatest actor of his and several generations. (Why no, I’m not bitter at all.)
I like to think he would have grown even more progressive with age and not retreated into bigoted conservatism like so many of our erstwhile icons. And if Olivia de Havilland could live past the age of 100, so could he!
In that other dimension, he’s still alive and prolly crochety as all hell. He would have seen marriage equality become a reality in America, voted for and seen the first Black president. Gotten married, either to Lorenzo after fifty years, or god forbid to a woman decades ago, and had kids in either scenario.
I feel like he would have written pieces about Hollywood and acting and jazz and the blues but not memoirs as such, more like popular journalism like James Baldwin and Dirk Bogarde. Maybe he’d have gone into total reclusion and moved to somewhere else in the world — Paris or somewhere inscrutable from where we’d hear publicly from him every now and then. He wouldn’t be on Twitter like Carl Reiner was … or at least not officially. But like Jane Fonda would totally recruit him to her New Green Deal movement and get him to do at least one Fire Drill Friday. Or at least try. He’d prolly refuse to come out of reclusion, the contrarian.
I picture him older just like Brooks — white-haired and dapper af and still beautiful and eloquent and so charismatic. Refusing to work for decades until some very persistent talented young person persuades him to appear in their film. And then doing the publicity to help out, either having to be persuaded into it or doing it because he believes so hard in this film and wants it to succeed.
And oh lord, imagine that: swearing effortlessly in print interviews and on television, judging at Cannes, presenting awards at the Oscars, appearing grudgingly at classic film festivals or refusing outright, flirting with everyone and confusing them about their sexuality, smoking in gorgeous stylish photoshoots — can’t you just see it? — spilling tea about costars and directors, spouting off opinions that no doubt will make me laugh and groan cos fucken Librans. (I don’t know why I said that, I tend to agree with all the Librans I know but yes, we air signs are mouthy bastards. No, really?)
Maybe Robert and Hillary would have made an entirely different documentary: following his legendary dork of an uncle through this third act journey, filming backstage and around sets, hanging out in hotel rooms and poolside. Montgomery bitching about not being able to smoke and smoking anyway, being super ironic about the state of music these days and television and god forbid Netflix. Does he like The Crown? Did he watch Feud? Imagine Ryan Murphy imploring him to be in a show or writing a whole thing for him, bahaha.
I like to think he would have been embraced as a queer icon of Classic Hollywood and subsequent generations, that he would have in his turn — either with reluctance or enthusiasm — embraced that status as mentor and role model for young queer kids and actors. That yes, he is living proof that you can be queer and successful without any accompanying tragedy.
I like to think that as times changed and technology and cultural conversations evolved, he would have engaged more and more in the public sphere, being as sarcastic and sweet and as honest as ever. That Hy Gardner interview in a thousand different forms, talking about masculinity and sexuality and relationships and managing addiction, about film and family and generational differences, talking and listening to the kids too.
In some other dimension, all of that is totally happening.
In this dimension, I’m gunna go make some more gifs of the Defector black turtleneck lewk and refuse to feel fucking dismal.
Because I don’t want to be sad today. I want to be grateful and love that we’ve had a whole hundred years of Edward Montgomery Clift, beautiful serious artist and lovable dork.