The Year of Living Beautifully

May 2011


Montgomery Clift worked in New York theater from the age of 14, after modeling for print ads during his pre-puberty years. Monty’s first taste of stardom came in 1938 during his performance in the play Dame Nature, when he began to have well-known actors and producers visit him in his dressing room. As Clift’s stage career soared, he was trying to come to terms with his sexuality. Fellow stage actor Morgan James described Clift as “a very lonely, confused person inside a sleek, well-groomed exterior.” Clift would become a closet bisexual, working throughout his career alongside homophobes, and feeling conflicted by the need for secrecy to avoid scandal and blackmail.


In 1946, Hollywood was in great need of young male leading actors. MGM offered Clift a contract to appear alongside John Wayne in Red River. Clift’s striking good looks and emotional vulnerability immediately brought more offers and Clift’s film career was launched. He played soldier roles in The Search and The Big Lift, then transitioned to play the romantic lead with Olivia de Havilland in The Heiress and with Elizabeth Taylor in A Place in the Sun.


With five major films under his belt, Clift embarked on his most beautiful year, 1953. Clift was now a megastar, appearing as Robert E. Lee Prewitt in From Here to Eternity, as a priest in Hitchcock’s I Confess, and as an Italian schoolteacher involved in an intense affair with Jennifer Jones in Terminal Station (AKA Indiscretion of an American Wife). Aged 33, Monty was at the peak of his beauty, fame, and acting ability. He submerged himself so fully into his roles, that he lived in a Catholic church to study priests before filming I Confess, and learned to play the bugle for Eternity. After Eternity, Clift continued wearing Hawaiian shirts everywhere and still carried his bugle around.


In 1956, during the filming of Raintree County, Clift’s career came to a crashing halt. Driving home after attending a party at the home of close friend and co-star Elizabeth Taylor, Clift crashed his car into a telephone pole. Clift broke his jaw and nose and had several facial lacerations. After a lengthy recovery, Clift returned to complete Raintree County. Viewers of the film can easily spot which scenes were filmed pre- or post-accident.


Clift became increasingly reliant on prescription drugs and alcohol for chronic pain resulting from his accident. He starred in only eight more films during the next 10 years, including acclaimed performances in The Misfilts and Judgment at Nuremberg. These last 10 years of Clift’s life have been referred to the “longest suicide in Hollywood history.”


Montgomery Clift died July 23, 1966, at age 45, locked in his room, lying naked in bed.