The first time I saw the name Montgomery Clift was in a game of hangman. I was very young, definitely below ten, and my grandmother used to set me these blank names to guess. Really, it was a way to keep me occupied while she got herself ready for us to go out. And these names were always movie stars she grew up watching on Indian movie screens during the last days of the British Raj. In fact, that’s how she met my grandfather, that’s part of how I came to be. They met at a cinema where he was covering for a friend as a movie usher. The way she told the story — neatly leaving out details of some other engagement or at least ‘understanding’ which I only recently discovered — they took one look at each other and fell in love.
Some forty years later, she’d set out these brisk dashes on a blank page, and practically vanish from my consciousness for those few or many minutes it took me to work out the solution. I’d yell out a letter to her, she’d stop by and fill it in or draw a part of the gallows. And then I’d pore over the paper again, obsessive. This was before we had a television, before we had a video player, I had no way of knowing who these people were aside from her. And usually me solving the game from pure wrangling of letters would be followed by her telling me about this actor’s films or this actress’ interesting life or that fascinating movie. Granny, as I realised later, was the OG Classic Hollywood fangirl. I bet she read and collected fan magazines just like Kathy Selden. Only they weren’t classic to her, they were her glamour icons and her contemporaries.
This one game totally confounded me. I couldn’t understand how someone could have such a long first name and such a short surname. I failed that one. And no doubt the towering frustration is probably why the solution and the name Montgomery Clift was burned into my brain.
A few years later when we did finally get a television and a video player and I promptly signed up to the video store, I began to steadily work my way through every damned shelf and so discovered the classics section. Suddenly the names Granny had told me were fitted with faces. Oddly, I don’t remember watching any of these films with her. She was too busy working to support herself and me and my mum. That was the reality of Mumbai life in the Eighties. It was just me curled up quite literally next to the television, fascinated and probably not understanding any of the very adult stories I was watching.
It was either The Heiress or From Here To Eternity that was my first Montgomery film.
(I can’t bring myself to call him Monty, sorry, it’s too ugly a name for such a beautiful creature, and of course no one will know who I mean if I say Edward.)
Watching Prew die left thirteen year old me in such a state I couldn’t even sit still. I have this distinct memory of walking around the empty bungalow in bright afternoon sunshine, sobbing and practically hyperventilating, utterly overwhelmed. Look, I’m Aquarian with a Virgo moon — the arts allow me a safe space to experience these horrible emoshun things okay.
It still makes me wildly angry when discussions of Eternity focus entirely on that stupid beach scene like Lancaster and Kerr’s storyline is the primary plot of the movie and book. Even more so when Sens8, a show I adore, had Lito and Hernando recreate it but totally failed to even mention Prew. Like Hernando the super nerd wouldn’t have been aware of the significance of Montgomery Clift.
The Heiress is for me a perfect illustration of how age and experience varies your engagement with the same creative work. Thirteen year old me absolutely could not understand how Olivia de Havilland could reject beautiful beautiful Montgomery Clift. But he loved her! Look how he’s banging on the door, he really loves her, she should let him in, she’s an idiot! Thirty-something me rewatched that movie, felt my skin crawl at how he used his beauty to manipulate this plain awkward woman, and practically roared with triumph when Liv began her iconic stairway climb. Fuck yeah, crush that awful opportunistic man, how dare he think he can just charm his way back in, how dare!
Now I wish they had gotten along better as actors because I adore them both for the complexity and inner reality they brought to the screen. I wish he had appreciated her more, damnit. But then the bae did have his impossible standards.
Suddenly Last Summer was definitely a movie that was almost entirely lost on me. All I remember was the dread and the horror and the peculiar chemistry of those three fascinating people together. It was only years later after I got over my terror of Tennessee Williams and saw a flawed but still good Sydney Theatre Company production that I understood and wept for the quandary of artistry and queerness at the centre of that play. By then I was immensely proud of my goddess Kate Hepburn spitting in contempt at the way Montgomery had been bullied during filming. She loved him too! She stood up for him, aww bless! I’m going to assume he loved her back.
In my twenties, now in Australia, I came back to Classic Hollywood, realising I had this wealth of love and knowledge that had gone unacknowledged for so long, never mind that I had no one around me in real life who shared this. And that’s when I found my own personal icons. That’s when I realised no one moved me like Montgomery Clift. No one was as real and complex and yet still a little unknowable onscreen. No one floored me with sheer skill like he did.
The teenage obsession I had developed with James Dean, a fellow February Aquarian, utterly imploded the moment I rewatched a Clift film and realised, “Jesus bloody Christ, all these mannerisms — Jimmy got all this from him!” (Brando never appealed to me so he didn’t figure.)
It must have been around this time with ready access to the intarwebz that I discovered the particulars of his life. My learned wariness of shoddy biographies, a legacy of that Dean crush, meant I did enough careful research before making a choice. There were two. One began with the details of his death, a salacious narrative technique that enraged and disgusted me so much I read no further than that first paragraph.
The other became a book I practically lived within. Even though the first read hurt so much, the coherence of the myth Patricia Bosworth created around Montgomery was so convincing, so beguiling in its tragedy that yeah, I believed fully. Because she was a fangirl too, she loved him too. I went back to that book repeatedly, like a friend. The ease of her narrative, the details of so many people, the so neat explanation of his parental issues and strangulated psychological discourse of the time that made for such torment, the messiness and the complexity of his relationships, the strange anonymity she drew over his partners and lovers. The combination of watching him be so real onscreen and then reading about the painful joyful exacting reality of him made that book feel like home to me.
Was it the tragedy that fastened me to the idea of him? I once gleefully declared to a friend, “None of Montgomery Clift’s movies have a happy ending.” See, at that point I hadn’t watched any of his post-accident films aside from Suddenly Last Summer and Lonelyhearts. Now I know that’s not true. That in fact two films of that era — Wild River and The Young Lions — end in beauty and hope, possibly even three if you count Raintree County.
But it took me about fifteen years to come around to those films. Call it sheer cowardice … or the pain in his eyes during Lonelyhearts. When I described him to my friends, it was his beauty, his authenticity, the power of his performances. More often than not, I used that pithy tagline from the Bosworth bio: “Before there was Brando, before there was Dean, there was Clift.”
As I made my way through all of his films, the details of his artistry delighted me. How he practically rewrote all his dialogue for The Search. His disdain for Liv even though I adore her, his horrified anguish at Judy’s performance in Judgment At Nuremberg. How he pretty much taught Sinatra to act — like another of my faves taught Sinatra to dance — and boy, am I still furious that Sinatra got the Oscar but bae didn’t. His infamous choosiness which means that we have only — only! — seventeen films to watch and rewatch. As opposed to say Henry Fonda’s hundred plus. As a not particularly prolific writer with extremely high standards for my own and other literature, of course this speaks to me.
But also I can’t escape corporeality. The fact that he was a beautiful white man, and I am none of those things. Being a Classic Hollywood fan and a person of colour is forever a series of curious negotiations between superficiality and deep awareness, between love and a very personal politics. Nothing is simple. As an Indian, it feels like you have two choices: parochialism or Westernisation. My grandmother was definitely the latter, she spoke beautiful English which my entire family inherited, and she’d tell anyone that she was Cambridge-educated. Never set foot in England you realise; the papers were sent to India and then sent back to be marked.
And I’ve inherited enough of her Anglophilia to recognise it in myself. I adore Noël Coward and Leslie Howard, I prefer English novels to American (except for Stephen King who rules), I’d rather visit London that slum than New York that other slum. But as a Classic Hollywood fan and a devourer of mostly American films and television, I’m caught in a constant tension. You’ll never hear me say I was born in the wrong time, that I wish I could have been alive in the Golden Age. With the spectres of Snowball and Anna May Wong, I’m well aware that I would be nowhere as a short brown girl with glasses in Hollywood then. Too physically unremarkable to be fetishised, I would be utterly invisible and used that way. Merle Oberon I am not.
So I watch these films populated almost entirely by white people or people of colour passing for white, and I wonder at myself. Sure, the academic nerd in me loves the analysis to be gotten out of these cultural artifacts, to see how race and gender and sexuality and capitalism are configured in these texts, how subversion creeps in to push back against the Hays Code and patriarchy and the Murrican Dream, how Ida Lupino slays it all. But also am I seeking validation here? Am I trying to prove that I know so much of white cultural history, constantly trying to catch up, amass enough cultural capital to have worth?
When I was in India, all I wanted was to get out of there, to go live in a Western country where people would appreciate my uniqueness instead of ridiculing me, where I’d dazzle with my knowledge and my talent.
But it wasn’t like that. Living in a Western society meant different far more subtle ridicule for the same things, meant a gradual hideous awareness of my otherness as brown and female and odd, meant a sudden awful recognition that all the terms of my existence have been constructed by centuries of white people making their own rules and spreading them all over the world. My language, my self-esteem —
So of course I look at Montgomery Clift, this beautiful white man, and I think: Do I want to be with him? Or do I want to be him?
There was a quote in the Bosworth bio that reverberated through me when I first read it. Such brilliant painful recognition, a quote by himself: “I have sex with men but I fall in love with women.”
I had never seen my own inclinations set out so perfectly on the page. My god, there was someone else like me. I had barely begun to articulate my queerness to myself, and of course the overwhelming conceit of the Bosworth bio is that Montgomery Clift was a gay man utterly hating himself for it.
But there was his relationship with Libby Holman, and his more mysterious relationship with Eiizabeth Taylor. And some wife he had an affair with? And some woman he impregnated? It took me years and a few bewildered conversations with friends to realise that bisexuality was a concept I could apply to myself. Which meant if I was, then he was too! He may not have cared for labels but frankly, I find them quite comforting, to know that there’s a name for me, other people like me, that I am not some unnameable unknowable freak. And I don’t have to stick to one label, thank you very much, I could be like a well-stickered piece of luggage. Or a swirl of changing cosmic colours.
But of course the tragic gay narrative was out there, fixed by the Bosworth bio. And though I never said it, I always remembered that phrase “longest suicide in Hollywood history.” I saw the labels in film history pieces, Tumblr posts and tags, tweets. Long before social media, another book I happened upon was a novel. Letters To Montgomery Clift by a Filipino-American gay writer Noel Alumit. That was a strange experience of faint recognition and disappointment. Here was someone who connected with the same vivid person I loved. But the detail was lacking, this was not the story I wanted or would have told. I didn’t know yet what the narrative I wanted was, what story I would have told. But I knew this wasn’t enough, this didn’t do the richness of him justice. Still I was grateful someone else had made the creative effort, a writer who was and wasn’t like me, a person of colour. And though I hadn’t articulated it about myself yet, queer too.
Which is why, much later when I was much clearer about myself and the refraction of him, I flipped out when some biopic was announced, and again when the Matt Bomer casting was announced. I rather like Matt Bomer but hell fucking no, fuck OFF! A two hour fictional film is never going to fully illustrate the multifaceted nature of one person, let alone the complexity of this man. Which is why I automatically got my back up when some Twitter account replied to me one day last August saying they had home videos of him in colour. Ever wary, ever protective, I replied with a fairly smug, “Yes, I know, I’ve seen them.”
And then I realised it was Robert Clift and Hillary Demmon. I very quietly Squeed The Fuck Out and got very emotional.
Valentine’s Day this year happened to be right in the middle of QueerScreen, the film festival that occurs as part of the Sydney Gay And Lesbian Mardi Gras. A mere fourteen months ago, Australia had finally — after a vicious and hurtful postal survey — made marriage equality legal. I had been so angered by the debate that I crocheted myself a pride scarf tie, and got the word Queer tattooed on my forearm, a whole three months earlier than I had planned. It was originally supposed to be a quiet declaration of my own identity and my love of academic queer theory, but my fury and sense of betrayal had finally sparked me into an act of political defiance. So on this Valentine’s Day, I had the pride scarf in my hair, aware of my ink, and a ticket to see Making Montgomery Clift.
I had been following the reviews enough to know it was going to be a very personal family document, that it was going to overturn the Bosworth bio, and that I was probably going to be a fucken mess by the time it was done.
What I didn’t expect was how my otherness suddenly became apparent in the cinema. Because it was Mardi Gras time, the audience was ostensibly men. There was one other girl who came to sit beside me and whose Classic Hollywood faves turned out to be quite opposite to mine. As if the gender disparity wasn’t unsettling enough, then I realised I was the only person of colour in sight. By the time the documentary began, there were four others. Which I have to admit is slightly impressive — usually I’m the only damned person of colour at a Classic Hollywood screening, and frequently the youngest.
The documentary was overwhelming in ways I didn’t expect. At times I felt like an intruder, some prurient weirdo spying on a family’s private journey of rediscovery. I was unnerved into remembering that the man who was so dear to me was also very much cherished by actual blood relations which I was not. That he belonged to them more than he belonged to me.
Seeing the Bosworth bio deconstructed as a piece of myth-making thrilled me no end. Probably because I’m contrary like that, and also because I had been prepped for it by the reviews. And of course it was a complete joy to be told that all the anguish I had been told of and imagined never existed. That Montgomery Clift was unabashed about his loves and his sexuality the way I am. That he wasn’t smothered by the psychologists and psychiatrists of the era, that he lived bravely and openly (with all the privilege of an educated white man) in a sort of private utopia.
I wondered what Granny would have thought of the doco. She never discussed his sexuality with me, I don’t even know if she knew about the gay narrative. But I distinctly remember the first time we watched Mardi Gras on television back in the late Nineties, all those gorgeous gay men parading down Oxford Street in feathers and on grand decorated floats. She turned to my aunt and asked in total bewilderment, “They’re all eunuchs?”
My aunt nearly fainted with mortification. I had no idea what they were talking about, too rapt by the glitter and the pretty and all that skin. Much later when I came to queer theory, I realised Granny had inherited that fucked up notion from the English who had brought their fucked up Victorian misconceptions of sexuality to India. Ahh, colonisation.
I like to think given the chance, I would have discussed the Bosworth bio with my grandmother, probably yelled at her about bisexuality, and then gotten sidetracked talking about Liz’s perfumes, Granny’s fave.
As it was, the documentary’s careful dismantling of the tragic narrative left me rather stricken. Had I been complicit in this? Did I repeat that narrative to my friends when I talked about him? In my tweets and Tumblr tags? I know I bought into it fully and completely because it made perfect sense as to the internalised homophobia and bi-erasure of the times, but did I spread it too?
Hearing Lorenzo James was so wonderful. Actually seeing Patricia Bosworth was lovely too. Discovering that my favourite line in the Nuremberg performance was entirely crafted by Montgomery himself. The early pictures, especially of the plays. Seeing his own photography and the gorgeous haunting use of space and perspective. All delights I could not have anticipated.
Hearing him say “fuck” made me practically levitate. I mean, yeah, you know intellectually these classic film stars swore just as much as you — okay, I, I — do. But actually hearing it? Hearing your own beloved bae of baes drop your favourite swear word? Pure ecstasy.
Just to hear his voice on those recordings moved me so much, the intimacy and artlessness of him, the sarcasm and quickness. Something no film performance could replicate, no matter how naturalistic for the era. Equally, the anguish of his voice on the Freud discussions broke me. If anything, it calcified the animosity I already held towards John Huston into absolute hatred.
The documentary did so much on so many levels, from personal to familial to cultural. The home videos I hadn’t seen before were precious indeed. It was a challenge and a rediscovery for me too, so powerful and so personally meaningful that this is the first time, some eight months later, that I’ve written about it. I came out of that screening feeling shaken and somehow reaffirmed too, like he had been taken away from me but then given back in deeper richer detail.
I have exactly one Montgomery Clift film left to watch. The Defector. I’m putting it off partly because I’ve seen enough bits to know the craft of it will frustrate me. But mostly because then I’ll have no more performances to discover of his. Still I’m so grateful for what we do have. That I can rewatch him opening that door in A Place In The Sun over and over again. Rewatch him tilt his head to talk to the little girl in Wild River. Him and John Ireland fondle their guns and flirt in Red River. Have his sweet beautiful face clasped and kissed by Hope Lange in The Young Lions. Be that perfect subtle foil to the flamboyance of Liz and Kate (my fave) in Suddenly Last Summer. Pound on the door at the end of The Heiress. Sway bloodied and defiant on his feet in From Here To Eternity.
It’s now 1.17am on 17 October here in Sydney. Today is his birthday. It’s also my parents’ wedding anniversary. I like that coincidence, and how they and he have formed me.