How Montgomery Clift Changed the Course of Hollywood Dramas

The history of drama in film is one inextricably intertwined with the leading actors of an era. The image of the dramatic movie star took a big hit with the arrival of Method Actors in the 1950’s. While Marlon Brando is the performer most closely identified with the change wrought upon dramatic film in the 1950’s, it is worth noting that Montgomery Clift was in the movies before Brando or James Dean.

Clift was saved from an early grave and probably denied legendary status when Elizabeth Taylor reached down into his throat and retrieved some dislodged teeth that were making it impossible for him to breathe after a car accident. The result was a hardening of his impossibly handsome face and an addiction to booze and pills that impacted his career. Nevertheless, the history of dramatic film is written with Montgomery Clift in large bold letters.

“A Place In the Sun”

“A Place in the Sun” was the first of three pairings of Clift and Liz Taylor. Based on Theodore Dreiser’s novel “An American Tragedy,” “A Place in the Sun” is a drama about the American dream and the seamy underbelly that deserves to be called the American Reality. Clift paints the portrait of an individual beset from all sides with damaging influences who is putting up an aching struggle to locate his place in the sun. Girlfriend Shelley Winters is pregnant, a harridan, and an obstacle, and maybe Clift’s character didn’t really murder her, but maybe he doesn’t really save her from drowning either. Clift’s power as a dramatic actor is that you can believe either possibility.

“From Here to Eternity”

Robert E. Lee Prewitt is the best bugler in Hawaii and a man with a motto: A man don’t go his own way, he’s nothing. Clift endows Prewitt with a straightforward nobility that gives “From Here to Eternity” a character verging on that of something from a Greek tragedy. Burt Lancaster is a big, burly presence and he once admitted that the only actor who ever intimidated him was Montgomery Clift. Watch “From Here to Eternity” and see why the smaller, slender, and hardly physically intimidating Clift could daunt a sheer force of nature Burt Lancaster.

“Judgment at Nuremberg”

You want drama in your movie? “Judgment at Nuremberg” is about the Nazi war criminal trials. Montgomery Clift only appears in about 10 minutes of this movie, which at times seems like it is going to last as long as World War II. Clift plays a mentally challenged man who was castrated by the Nazis as part of their grand plot to preserve their own purity. Hollywood actors can’t wait to latch onto the part of a mentally challenged character so they can turn in a lazy performance and cop an Oscar. Clift’s performance is anything but lazy, as he makes the decision to not focus on his character’s mental shortcomings, but rather his strength of character. If you only have time to watch one segment of “Judgement at Nuremberg,” you need only watch Monty Clift’s performance.

“The Young Lions”

Brando and Clift only made one movie together and they only share about a minute of screen time together at the end of the flick. Only in Hollywood would you get the two biggest actors of their generation together in a movie and then not give them the chance for an acting showdown. Once again, Montgomery Clift plays a soldier and once again he’s victimized by his own kind. Only in “The Young Lions” instead of getting beatings because he sticks to his principles, it’s simply because he’s Jewish.

Haunted by the Ghost of Montgomery Clift

Craig Chester and I are spiritual twins. I have never met the man and likely never will and I also have very little in common with him. Chester is openly gay and underwent extensive reconstructive surgery in order to deal with his childhood diagnosis of Long Face Syndrome. What I do have in common with Craig Chester is that we both seem to be haunted by the ghost of Montgomery Clift.

Montgomery Clift is more than just my favorite actor of all time although I cannot adequately explain the extent of his influence on my life. Chester is haunted in a much more literal sense.

Craig Chester claims Montgomery Clift has actually been haunting him in the sense of speaking to him through psychic mediums. The connection between Chester and Clift has led Craig to seek a way to make a film about Montgomery Clift. That a great movie has not been made about this great talent is one of the weirder aspect of the genre of the biopic.

I am not very familiar with Craig Chester and don’t know if he is the guy to bring Monty’s story to the screen. I know that Montgomery Clift was much more than a gay or bisexual actor, but I also recognize that his torturous route to an earlier death may have had much to do with feelings of ambivalence over his conflicted sexuality. So many a gay actor is just the guy to do justice to Monty’s story.

Or maybe Chester would be too tempted to turn what is really a much more universal story of a tortured psyche into a more simplistic story of being gay in 1950’s Hollywood. One thing I do know is that I cannot think of a single famous actor in Hollywood today who I think would be capable of doing justice to the role. A few attempts have been made to portray Montgomery Clift as a supporting role in stories about Liz Taylor and Marilyn Monroe. None of those actors were capable of making the electrical physical impression of the real thing and certainly none penetrated into the elusive psychology of Clift’s bizarre mind. A mind capable of creating performances like Prewitt in “From Here to Eternity” and George in “A Place of the Sun” and then turn around and acting downright schizophrenic.

A biographic portrait of Montgomery Clift that does justice to his talent and his mad sort of genius would by definition stand alongside such premier examples of the genre as “Raging Bull.” If Montgomery Clift really is haunting Craig Chester in a more concrete way than he has haunted me most of my life, then I think there is a good chance we could see just that very kind of film.