Flight From Fear
Where does flight begin—in the heart or in the head?
At thirty-six, Montgomery Clift is extraordinarily talented, strikingly handsome and, before his recent and latest breakdown, without doubt one of the finest actors in Hollywood. His ability to concentrate, to lose himself in a part and yet maintain an individualism which pervades his acting, is the envy of every performer who has ever worked with him. The intensity he brings to each role is, at times, terrifying to his colleagues, some of whom feel that each part he plays takes a severe toll of his nervous system. He has a rare charm; men and women alike are attracted to him in large numbers. The films he has been in, including “Red River,” “The Search,” “A Place in the Sun,” and “From Here to Eternity” have mainly made money. Moreover, Clift is one of those people who seem able to relate their actual experience to their Creative activity. And despite the fact that some of his roles have had a certain sameness, he appears to be growing. He ought to be approaching the peak of his powers as an actor, and enjoying some of the finest days of his life as a human being.
Yet, for all of that, Montgomery Clift today appears to be a floundering, confused, insecure actor whose inner torment could easily prevail over his talent. He has just finished “Raintree County,” M-G-M’s extravagantly-produced version of the late Ross Lockridge’s best-selling novel, which may well turn out to be the most successful movie in which he has appeared to date. He is soon to begin work on “The Devil’s Disciple” for Hecht-Lancaster. But after I interviewed him in Hollywood, and talked to some of the people who worked with him on “Raintree County,” and to people who knew him in New York, I came to the inescapable conclusion that Montgomery Clift is a man in danger of losing everything he had worked so hard to attain. He reminded me of a friend of mine, a talented writer who for the past five years, for secret reasons of his own, has hurled himself hellbent down a road that can only lead to self destruction.
That impression was borne out by some of the conversations I had with people close to him. “The guy acts as though he’s trying to hurt himself,” said an acquaintance who worked closely with Clift in “Raintree County.” “Somehow, he’s convinced that everybody hates him—and I think he hates himself. He appears to be doing all sorts of self-destructive things all the time. I don’t like to talk about him; I don’t even like to think about him. You wouldn’t believe the things he does.”
An actress, an extremely sensitive and perceptive girl who is a good friend and great admirer of Monty, agreed to discuss him only because she and I have been friends for years. She told me that his behavior on location for “Raintree County” in Kentucky was “unbelievable.”
M-G-M had flown a small squadron of New York writers down to Kentucky; about the time they got there, Clift broke his toe. He said he could not speak to the press (one of the few instances in medical history in which a broken toe had a paralyzing effect upon one’s vocal cords).
once, she said, they were riding out to the site of a day’s shooting in a limousine; for no reason she could fathom, Clift suddenly loosed a stream of unprintable curses.
Some mornings, Clift would appear in excellent humor, and it would be a fine experience to work with him. But at lunch time a depression would appear to grip him, and in the afternoons he could not seem to keep himself from trembling.
“Was he drinking?” I asked.
“I could never smell anything on his breath,” she said.
“What was he doing, then?”
“I don’t know,” she said. “I think he was in great pain, pain that was almost too much for him.” She put her hands to her face, as though trying to erase the memory. She was sorry for him, she said.
“Believe me,” she added, “this is a sick, sick boy. I’m not saying that lightly. If I had my way, he would be in a sanitarium where he could get some help. Oh, I wish he would go to one. I wish there were some way he could get help.”
I said substantially the same thing to Clift myself one afternoon at his house. He looked at me indignantly. He said, “I don’t know what you mean.” And for a moment I felt as some of the people on the lot felt during those moments when he had control of himself and was functioning as the superb actor he can be. Perhaps, I thought, I am wrong; perhaps the appearance of this man, his nervous mannerisms and his sudden movements, come only from the great strain he deliberately puts himself under in order to do a part the best way it can be done. And at one point I even had the wild notion that perhaps a perverted sense of humor was leading him to play a part in real life, in order to hide his actual bitter feelings toward the world. Hollywood offers great rewards for a fine actor, but life in Hollywood can be disturbing at times.
Then I saw him abruptly start forward in his chair, and I knew that I was in the presence of a man sorely troubled by problems he evidently was not yet able, or willing, to solve.
That deepened the mystery of Montgomery Clift—for, without exaggeration, Clift is an enigma. Some of his close friends pretend to understand him. Others behave as though he is a normal, well-adjusted actor. A director I spoke to was part of this protective coterie. “What’s the matter with Monty Clift?” I asked.
“Matter?” the director said, blandly. “Is there anything the matter with him?” It was pointless to attempt to pursue the issue. I thanked the director and left.
Shortly thereafter I had a brief conversation with Rod Taylor, the handsome Australian who plays a newspaper editor in “Raintree County.” Taylor is a tall, broad-shouldered man, with a thick mane of hair and the slightly pompous manner of the old-school actor. “Monty,” he said, “is the most exciting man I’ve ever worked with. He’s vibrant—he lifts you up, gives you a sense of excitement which is very important in bringing out your best performance.” Every sentence he uttered was overloaded with praise.
Taylor had just come out of Clift’s dressing room. I glanced back over my shoulder and had a clear view of the object of all his adulation.
Clift was slouched over the table, staring at his reflection in the mirror. His eyes were deep and brooding; his expression was one of what I interpreted as agonized disgust. His face was that of a man carrying a monumental emotional burden. It was pouched and baggy, full of shadows and blotches; not even makeup could hide the trouble it exhibited to the world.
When Clift emerged from the dressing room to rehearse a two-minute take, he lurched toward an assistant director and leaned on the man’s shoulder. He threw his left arm around the a.d.’s back and slouched his full weight against him, letting his head roll over to one side so that it bumped the other’s head. Thus supported, he half-dragged himself the thirty-odd feet to the set. “That’s Monty’s way of expressing affection,” an M-G-M press agent said at my elbow. “When he likes somebody, he shows him.”
Another man had a different version. “It’s his way of expressing affection, all right,” this man said. “But he doesn’t do it in the ordinary way—he leans his whole body on people, falls all over them. In a way, that’s symbolic. Monty throws himself into everything he does, but especially into his dependence on other human beings. He needs people so desperately he can’t let up in the demands he has to make on them. But he gives nothing in return. He doesn’t know how.”
For nearly an hour I stood around and watched the proceedings. The scene was to run less than two minutes on the screen. Rod Taylor, as the newspaper editor, was dictating an editorial. Clift was to come into the office and register surprise as Taylor uttered a certain sentence. Taylor, too, was to register surprise at seeing him there—and was to break off in the middle of a sentence and ask Clift to sit down, telling him he would be with him in a minute. Then he was to send his secretary out of the office.
The simple little scene would have presented no problems to two mediocre members of a college dramatic society. It presented no problems to either Taylor of his secretary. But it did to Clift.
When he started to rehearse this bit he grabbed at the doorknob and immediately pulled his hand away as though some prop man had charged the knob with electricity. “Something’s wrong with the catch or the lock,” he mumbled. On the set, when addressing his fellow workers, he rarely spoke in an audible voice; when asked to speak up, he would apologize and shout across the sound stage.
“What’s the matter with the knob?” Edward Dmytryk, the director, demanded.
Clift shrugged. “Doesn’t work.”
Two men in work clothes hastened to the door and began examining the lock and the knob and the catch. They produced tools, worked rapidly, then opened and shut the door several times to make certain that it was working the way they wanted it to. Clift paced nearby.
One of the men working on the set said wearily, “Whenever Clift gets a prop in his hands, he tries to break it. It isn’t deliberate. I don’t think he’s aware of it. But it’s happened so many times, I know that he unconsciously wants to break it. Don’t ask me why, because I couldn’t tell you. I don’t understand the guy.”
Edward Dmytryk, the director, later confirmed this. “On the days when Monty wasn’t feeling well, we could always depend on some kind of delay,” Dmytryk had to admit. “Finally we got used to it. It took patience—that’s a director’s first requirement, over and above all other qualities—but the patience was worth it. When he’s good, feeling good, he’s the greatest. I personally like him. He’s too valuable as a human being. You can’t in conscience lose patience with him, no matter what he does.”
When the repair men finally had the door fixed to their satisfaction, Clift lifted himself from the a.d.’s shoulder and slouched over to try the latch. He opened it and closed it four or five times.
“Let’s run through it, Monty,” Dmytryk called, gently.
Clift stepped outside the door and stood stiffly while a makeup man came over and touched at his eyebrows with a pencil. His body was now erect and rigid, like a guardsman’s, as though he were tensing himself to plunge into character. The a.d. gave the signal, and the all-quiet bell clanged. Clift opened the door and Rod Taylor began dictating. Clift entered the room. Taylor greeted him and went on dictating. Clift sat down, and then Taylor dismissed the secretary. As the scene ended, Clift jumped to his feet, waving , his arms. “I did only everything wrong,” he said, loudly and hoarsely. “That’s all I did—everything.”
“Let’s do it again,” Dmytryk said, softly.
Clift whirled upon him. “Yes, sir, Mr. Dmytryk,” he shouted, “yes, sir!”
They did it at least seven times, and then they did it three or four more times for the cameras. At the end of each take , Clift would either fail into the chair, heavily, or seek out the leaning-post a.d. and drape himself over the obliging man. When lunch time came he seemed exhausted, physically and mentally. He loped over to his dressing room, fell across the threshold, and slammed the door.
I was reminded, then, of something Burt Lancaster had said to me a day or two before: “Without exception, Monty Clift is the hardest-working actor I’ve ever known—perhaps the hardest worker in | the business. Let me give you an example. When he was signed for ‘From Here to Eternity,’ he went down to see the author, James Jones, in Illinois months before we were ready to shoot. He spent days with Jones, talking about the character of Prewitt, trying to fix him in his mind. That kind of sincerity of purpose is a rarity out here. Nuts, it’s a rarity anywhere.
“Monty had to learn to play the bugle for ‘Eternity’—he studied for weeks. He had to learn to box—he worked out three months with an ex-pug named Callahan.”
Fred Zinnemann, who directed “From Here to Eternity,” elaborated on Lancaster’s remarks. “I’ve never known an actor more devoted to his work,” he said. “He thinks of the picture as a whole—in that way, he’s like a director. It’s never his part alone, as it is with most actors. He is constantly searching for the best overall effect.” Zinnemann smiled. “Here is how he throws himself into his work. After we made ‘The Search,’ someone said to me, ‘Where on earth did you ever find a soldier who could act so well?’ What a compliment, eh? In ‘Eternity,’ he wore himself out preparing and getting in mental shape for his role.
“ ‘Fred, I’m a snafu,’ he said to me one day—meaning he was deliberately trying to be the kind of hard-luck character he played. The bugle—he would blow it out the window at the Hollywood Roosevelt until all hours of the morning. He had no tone, but he mastered the physical movements necessary for playing. And he drilled like mad, like any soldier—so he would get all the steps exactly right. The only other actor I ever knew who was comparable was Brando, who, when he was preparing for ‘The Men,’ actually went into a paraplegic ward and lived with the patients.”
David Lewis, producer of “Raintree County,” has said, “I’m very high on him as an actor—he’s the best there is. Eva Marie Saint told me that working with him was one of the most illuminating experiences of her life—‘One week with Monty,’ she said, ‘has made working in pictures worth it.’ He takes direction beautifully—he will argue points, but only for the good of the whole picture. In acting instinct, intuition and intensity he is the equal of some of the great female stars.”
Thinking of these conversations, I began to wonder about Clift and his habit of breaking props, or of getting “hung up”—as his friends refer to it—by small, relatively insignificant details. When I met Clift, I asked him about it bluntly. He bit his lip, he extended his long lingers and interlaced them, and he moved about restlessly in his chair.
“It has to do with the concentration, I imagine,” he said. “You get yourself tuned up to such a degree that anything—any little thing—will break into it, break the feeling, the mood, the thing you’re trying to do. I can’t help it. But if the concentration improves the character, and it must—improve the interpretation, that is—what does it matter?” I have put some of the preceding words into italics because that was the way Clift said them—he would emphasize certain words with a shouting exaggeration, as though he had to make sure his listener understood.
Up close, that first day I met him, Clift’s physical appearance confirmed my original estimate. He appeared to be suffering from great tension and lack of sleep. “It was my birthday last night,” he said when we met at three in the afternoon. “Jean Simmons came over, Fred Zinnemann and his wife, and we were up until all hours.” His hands were shaking. His voice was husky. There was a small cut just beneath his left eyebrow, and the backs of his hands were dotted here and there with red-rimmed scabs, as though he had clumsily cut or burned himself.
Clift’s lack of coordination is legendary in Hollywood. It is attributed to his profound immersion of himself in his roles; he cannot coordinate physically the way most of us manage to do because he is so engrossed in pretending to be someone else. He even finds it difficult to eat in ordinary ways, one close friend says; he scorns utensils and uses his fingers, even for mashed potatoes. One night, at a dinner party, the man on his right was raising a glass of wine to his mouth just as Clift reached down to his plate for a handful of potatoes. As he was raising his hand, some of the potatoes flew off and landed in his companion’s wine. Clift did not apologize. He seemed, the friend said, unaware that he had committed any breach of etiquette.
It quickly became apparent, during our first meeting, that the whole idea of the interview was repugnant to Clift. He feels strongly that his private life is the business of nobody but Montgomery Clift, and, aside from acting, he steadfastly refuses to discuss his current interests, his relationships with women, or his family. “Why should my family’s privacy be invaded just because I’m a movie star?” he demanded of me.
Yet at the same time I sensed a fundamental decency about him, a desire to cooperate as much as he could . . . not because he thought it was his responsibility as a nationally-famous actor, but because somewhere in him, under the fears and anxieties and aggressions and burdens, there is a very human being who is trying as best he can to adjust to the human condition. “Monty,” one of his friends said to me in New York, “can be one of the kindest, most generous, thoughtful, considerate, loving human beings on the face of the earth. There isn’t anything mean or petty about him.”
But it is also true, as this friend hastened to add, that Clift’s outer personality frequently seems to get in the way of his inner goodness. An actress who has worked closely with him has said, “Every time I go to work in a picture I get a kind of ‘crush’ on my leading man. It’s hard to explain to somebody outside the business. It isn’t demonstrably sexual, but there is a feeling that exists between the two of you that lasts until the job is done—and then you are left with a pleasant, bitter-sweet feeling, as though you actually had been in love with the person a long time before, perhaps even in some other life. I worked with Monty for several months. But I never got that feeling about him—I couldn’t get it because I could never get close enough to him. The real Monty Clift is hidden from sight and he has no intention of permitting himself to be seen. You know what? I sometimes think Monty himself is afraid to look. He uses his acting as an excuse for living.”
After my first meeting in Hollywood with Clift I could not help contrasting it with the first time I met him, five or six years ago, in the Greenwich Village apartment of Vance Bourjaily, the editor and novelist. Clift appears to prefer the company of writers to that of actors and actresses. (“I think,” one acquaintance says, “he actually wants to be a writer himself, and that sooner or later he will devote much of his time to writing.”) Bourjaily had given the party for James Jones, whose book had been published a short time before. Norman Mailer (who wrote “The Naked and the Dead”) arrived and brought Clift with him. At that time Clift was more in demand than any other young actor in Hollywood, and was turning down properties by the dozen. My first thought when I met him was that he looked and behaved less like a movie star than any movie star I ever had met. He was bright, animated, witty—not especially talkative, but keenly alert to the frenetic conversations, all very literary, going on about him. He was dressed in a dark tweed jacket and odd pants, and he had shaved. He was having a fine time.
Around that time Clift’s name was being linked with that of Elizabeth Taylor, who recently had separated from Nicky Hilton. She and Monty went out together frequently in New York. They generally chose small, out-of-the-way places seldom patronized by celebrities. One night they went for dinner to a place called Camillo’s. They stayed until long after all the rest of the guests had disappeared and most of the waiters had gone home. They were not drinking; they were talking quietly in a dark corner. Lawton Carver, who was then a co-owner of Camillo’s, suddenly got an urge to paint part of the front dining room that night. “You kids can sit there if you want,” he said, “but I got some paintin’ to do.” To his surprise, Clift and Miss Taylor took off their shoes, picked up brushes, pitched in and helped paint the wall. “They stayed until two a.m.,” Carver recalls. “We had a good time—we just talked and painted up a storm. I think Clift is a good joe.”
Other people have agreed with Carver. Hedda Hopper, the columnist, has said that the first time she went to dinner with Clift he struck her as a simple, unassuming boy, totally unaffected by his position or by Hollywood. Once, when they were at Lucey’s, a famous old Hollywood restaurant, he calmly removed his coat and tie and rolled up his sleeves before eating. Another time she asked him to meet her at the Brown Derby. “Where is that?” Clift inquired. Miss Hopper was astonished that he did not know the location of this old movie colony landmark. But he seemed to ha re little regard for, or concern with, Hollywood in those days. once he said to her, “Hedda, why don’t you leave this place and move to the United States?” His quoted remarks when he first went to Hollywood frequently were tinged with the same wry humor. once a columnist asked him if Elizabeth Taylor, who had not done many romantic parts, had found playing love scenes difficult in “A Place in the Sun.” Clift said he didn’t believe she had, and added, “Don’t forget, Liz began in the movies by throwing her arms around a horse in ‘National Velvet’—maybe that’s why she was at ease with me.”
The Montgomery Clift of today is a different man. He not only avoids interviews whenever possible, he seems to go out of his way to make them difficult both for himself and the reporter. When he goes to a party, he seldom joins in the fun. He will sit by himself at one end of the room, apparently preoccupied with some problem he is not willing to share. He is seldom seen in public. In New York, he will not even permit the mailman to deliver mail directly to his apartment in the East Sixties; he picks it up at a nearby liquor store. He avoids many of his old friends. Even his attorney and advisor in Hollywood, Laurence Beilenson, says that he does not completely understand him. Nor do the people who work with him.
There are various theories for the change in Montgomery Clift. The most popular one is that he is bitterly disappointed over his inability to make any kind of permanent relationship with Elizabeth Taylor. Clift will not discuss Miss Taylor, except to say that he admires her acting ability, and she will not discuss Clift.
Another theory is that Clift is in love with Libby Holman, the torch singer, who was his constant companion in Hollywood and New York for several years, and that he is unable to make any sort of sensible unity out of their attraction for each other.
Yet another theory is that Clift has never been quite the same since the automobile accident he had last May 13, when the car he was driving hit a power pole on the road down from Elizabeth Taylor and Michael Wilding’s house. Clift suffered a concussion, a broken nose, and various cuts, and lost several teeth. “Monty has been in terrific pain ever since,” says Millard Kauffman, who wrote the script for “Raintree County.”
There may be elements of truth in these stories. Clift was involved with Elizabeth Taylor, and with Holman, and with a number of other women. Certainly he has been in bad physical shape since the accident. But none of these things quite accounts for his present mixed-up state. There are other factors in his life which are equally important, some of which I will recount in the next installment Whether or not I can explain this brilliant, unhappy man is something else again. As a Hollywood writer friend of mine said when I was researching this fascinating story, “If you find out what makes Monty Clift tick, the first person you ought to tell is Monty Clift. Unless he finds out, he may destroy himself.”
It is a quote. PHOTOPLAY MAGAZINE MARCH 1957