Montgomery Clift starred in 18 movies and was nominated for four Oscars, but his short but brilliant film career ended prematurely at 45 when he died from a heart attack in 1966.
With contemporaries Marlon Brando and James Dean, Clift was a trailblazer in bringing a new style of acting to Hollywood, known as “method” and made famous by the Actors Studio.
But while Brando and Dean became legends, Clift’s contributions have often been ignored according to his nephew Robert Clift, whose documentary “Making Montgomery Clift,” debuts Sunday, Sept. 23, at the Los Angeles Film Festival. The film festival opens Thursday, Sept. 20 with the screening of “Echo in the Canyon,” a documentary about the music scene that developed out of Laurel Canyon in the 1960s.
“There’s a way that a movie star’s life is told and this film is very much dealing with the way in which Monty’s life story has been told,” said Robert, who never knew his uncle. “I would say that story has been entertaining on level of spectacle, but not one that would necessarily give the same type of stature that I think it should.”
Clift and filmmaking partner Hillary Demmon used family archives, various interviews and research gathered from a cross country trip to dispel some of the mythology of the life of “Monty” that has been propagating from biographies and documentaries that have been “very unfair to him,” Robert said. Clift has been portrayed by many as a tortured soul because of his homosexuality.
Clift said the idea for a documentary had existed since he was young.
“There’s a gap between what people said about Monty in the public and what people said about Monty in private realm,” Clift said.
The filmmakers had a wealth of material when they started researching included taped phone conversations recorded by his father, Brooks, and by the actor. They then took a cross country trip with their dog finding family members, friends, loved ones and others who had information about real Montgomery Clift.
“We picked up archival material from people’s basements along the way, which ended up being a real treasure trove,” Demmon said.
But the audio recordings Robert found gave an insight that no taped interview on YouTube could give.
“To be able to sit down and listen him talk on the phone with my father, my grandmother or people in the industry, an agent, a director, these kind of conversations that... we didn’t know we had, we didn’t now existed,” Robert said. “To be able to listen to him in these conversations, especially ones with family, are not only about his career or things that people would find interesting in the public sphere... it's about going to the dentist.”
Demmon said the tapes also shed light on the actor’s sense of humor.
“He is very funny and humor is not something that has been very emphasized when people talk about Monty,” Demmon said. “Getting to see him be that well rounded person was really cool. The other thing, how often do you get to hear these classic movie stars talk like themselves, talk outside of a performance?”
Clift's early years
Clift made his stage debut at 13 in 1933, but did not make his film debut until 1948 when he starred in “The Search,” which earned him his first best actor nomination and “Red River,” opposite John Wayne. Other Oscar nominations came in 1951 for his leading role in “A Place in the Sun” with Elizabeth Taylor, and again in 1953 for “From Here to Eternity,” also starring Burt Lancaster and Frank Sinatra.
Clift broke the mold for actors in the 1950s when he did not sign a longterm contract early in his career. He was also known for rewriting scripts.
The actor suffered serious injuries and was nearly killed in a car accident in 1956 after leaving a party at Taylor’s house. According to Clift historians, he never fully recovered physically or emotionally from the accident, but he did return to acting and starred in films like “Suddenly, Last Summer,” “Wild River” and his last nominated role, “Judgment at Nuremberg,” a role which earned him a best supporting acting Oscar nomination.
Montgomery didn't have the lengthy career that Brando did, nor did he die tragically young like Dean. Other careers like those of Marilyn Monroe, who also died young, have been scrutinized since her death. Years after the biographies of Montgomery Clift came out, there have not been many deviations about his life and career, the filmmakers hope the documentary will change that.
“We’re trying to remind people that there are other readings that you can have of his life,” Demmon said. “You can look at it different ways and get different things out of it. It's not closed.”
For more information about the numerous films playing at the film festival, which runs through Friday, Sept. 28, visit filmindependent.org.