Timeless: Montgomery Clift

This is part of our continuing Timeless series in which we examine the lives of hunky Hollywood stars who died too young. The faces of their youth are etched in our memories. We take throwback Thursday to a bygone era and offer up delicious tequila for $5 at the bar.

Montgomery Clift had the most earnest of faces: big, pleading eyes, a set jaw, and the sort of immaculate side part we haven’t seen since. He played the desperate, the drunken and the deceived; the trajectory of his life was as tragic as that in any of his films.

A car crash in the prime of his career left him in constant pain, and he drank himself to an early death, creating an aesthetic of suffering that has guided the way we think about him today. But for 12 years, he set Hollywood aflame.

From the start, Monty was framed as a rebel and an individual. When he first arrived in Hollywood, he didn’t sign a contract, waiting until after the success of his first two films to negotiate a three-picture deal with Paramount.

Clift’s private life was boring—so the fan magazines got creative: the August 1949 cover of Movieland, for example, featured a grinning, suited, respectable-looking Clift paired with the tantalizing headline “Making Love the Clift Way.” But when readers looked inside the magazine, all they found was a two-page spread of stills from The Heiress, featuring Clift in various stages of flirtation with Olivia de Havilland, extrapolating that Clift’s kissing style was “soft yet possessively brutal; pleading, but demanding all. . . .”

He kept his personal life private because he was gay. The revelation of his sexuality did not emerge until the 70s, when two high-profile biographers, one endorsed by his close confidants, revealed as much, rendering him a gay icon within the span of two years.

His film debut was Red River with John Wayne quickly followed by his early personal success The Search. Monty was arrested for soliciting a young male hustler shortly after being nominated in 1949 for his performace in the film The Search; his lawyers hushed up the incident. By 1950 he was troubled with allergies and colitis (the army had rejected him in WWII for chronic diarrhea) and, along with pill problems he was alcoholic.

He spent a great deal of time and money on psychiatry. The release of Red River made him an overnight sensation and instant star. He embodied a new type of man on screen, the beautiful, sensual and vulnerable man that seemed to appeal to women and men alike. After A Place in the Sun came out - he was Hollywood's hottest male star and adored by millions. He looked incredible and he was a fine actor, a rare combination. In 1956 during filming of Raintree County he ran his car into a tree after leaving a party at Elizabeth Taylor's; it was she who saved him from choking by pulling out two teeth lodged in his throat.

His smashed face was rebuilt, but he continued bedeviled by dependency on drugs and guilt over homosexuality. The surgery limited his range of expression and hurt his self-esteem. Subsequently, Clift took mostly unglamourous roles, only worsening his damaged public image.

A lawsuit with Universal Pictures and growing addictions forced him into a four-year retirement in 1962. In his final years, Clift plunged more deeply into drug and alcohol abuse and wild sexual behavior. He was considered unreliable by studio bosses.

Monty managed to slowly develop a more sensible lifestyle back in his New York brownstone, and he was set to play in Taylor's Reflections in a Golden Eye, when his companion Lorenzo James found him lying nude on top of his bed, dead from what the autopsy called "occlusive coronary artery disease". It was 1966 he was 45 years old.

Many Hollywood stars have committed versions of the long suicide. Biographies of Montgomery Clift posit that he drank because he couldn’t be his true self, because homosexuality was the shame he had to shelter within. But if you look at his own words, his testimonies about what acting did to him, you’ll see the culprit. His perpetual question to himself, as he once scribbled in his journal, was, “How to remain thin-skinned, vulnerable, and still alive?” For Monty, the task proved impossible. He once said, “The closer we come to the negative, to death, the more we blossom.” He took himself to that precipice, but he fell straight in.

He was never one of Elizabeth Taylor's husbands, but was one of her best friends. She called him the love of her life. An upcoming biopic about Montgomery Clift will star the handsome Matt Bomer in the leading role.

And so Montgomery Clift 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.