Brooding Facts About Montgomery Clift, The Original Hollywood Heartthrob

Christine Tran

Sensitive, mysterious, brooding, and suspiciously single. These are just among the many words which have been used to describe Montgomery Clift, the enigmatic heartthrob of the 1950s. To this day, biographers struggle to wrap their heads around the actor’s puzzling personal life, from his suppressed romances to the delusions of his ancestry. Can we ever know a star? Take a bow to these 42 deep facts about Montgomery Cliff.

1. The Full Monty

The man who would be “Montgomery Clift” was actually born Edward Montgomery Clift on October 17, 1920, in Omaha, Nebraska. He was known to his loved ones as “Monty.”

2. Little Orphan Ethel?

On both sides of his family, Clift descended from immense social privilege…or so his mother believed. His father was a vice-president of the Omaha National Trust Company. His mother, Ethel, was adopted and told that her biological family was Yankee elites who were forced to give up their daughter after the “tyrannical will” of her mother tore the family apart. Ethel would devote the rest of her life to impressing these mysterious and allegedly wealthy relatives from afar. Luckily, she had a charming trio of offspring to help…

3. Born to a Certain Class

Clift and his two siblings were raised to be “aristocrats” by their mother, who was obsessed with gaining the attention of her long-lost and allegedly rich biological family. Thanks to his father’s personal wealth, Clift was privately tutored and learned German and French. More importantly, this education sheltered Clift and his family from most of the destruction of World War I as they traveled to Europe to become more “cultured.”

4. From Prince to Pauper

The Great Depression put a damper on Clift’s mother’s plans to reclaim their aristocratic roots. As a stock broker, Clift’s father was intimately hit and lost most of their money. Despite their financial ruin, Clift’s mother insisted that the family keep traveling around Europe to make their children “cultured.”

5. The School of the Stage

Luckily, Clift’s family was able to reclaim most of his father’s wealth after the Great Depression. This meant his mother could continue to give her kids an elite education, sending his brother to Harvard and his sister to Bryn Mawr College. Montgomery was the only black sheep. He never went to college, instead choosing to pursue acting right after high school.

6. Two is the Loneliest Number

Montgomery Clift had a twin sister named Ethel, who was named after their mother. She would outlive her brother by 48 years.

7. Play It Again

Clift joined one of the first television broadcasts in the history of the United States. What was the primordial production? A recreation of Noel Coward’s Hay Fever, which was aired at the 1939 World’s Fair.

8. Sweet 15

Clift made his Broadway debut at the age of 15 as Prince Peter in the Cole Porter musical, Jubilee.

9. Exit Stage Puberty

Clift was only 13 years old when he joined the local theater. Impressed by his talent and commitment to the fine arts, his mother encouraged him to pursue the art of acting.

10. First in His Class

Montgomery Clift was one of the first actors to be invited to study at the Actors Studio, a membership for professional actors founded in 1947 to refine the art of acting. It is most famous for pushing “method acting” as a mainstream pedagogy for our thespians.

11. Off to a Good Start

At the ripe age of 25, Clift made the big move to Hollywood, joining millions of starry-eyed hopefuls who did the same thing. Of course, most of these wannabes didn’t have their first ever movie role opposite John Wayne, who Clift appeared with in Red River (1948).

12. Never Underestimate the Power of an Edit

Although The Search (1948) was only Clift’s second film, he reworked the script himself after being unhappy with its quality. It might have paid off. The film gave Clift his first Best Actor nomination at the Oscars for his role as an American soldier, who looks after a child concentration camp survivor. The film itself was nominated for Best Adapted Screenplay. How good were his notes?

13. Looks Good in Uniform

Remember, Montgomery Clift never served in World War II. Nonetheless, his performance as a soldier in The Search was considered so authentic that director Fred Zinnemann was asked, “Where did you find a soldier who can act so well?”

14. Prince Not-So-Charming

Clift was also unhappy with the script of this third movie, The Heiress (1949). In fact, he was hugely critical of his co-star and love interest, Olivia de Havilland, for being too obedient to the director’s vision and not giving Clift “enough to respond to.”

15. His Own Worst Critic

Ever hard to please, Clift walked out of the premiere screening for The Heiress (1949). He was that unhappy about his own performance.

16. Fateful Night

Despite the fact that Clift walked out of the premiere, that evening nevertheless had a great impact on his life: it was the night he met Elizabeth Taylor, who was his date for the event. The two would go on to have a long-lasting and life-altering friendship.

17. Sentenced to Soft Time

Clift spent a night in a real state prison to get in character for his role as a prisoner in A Place in the Sun.

18. Don’t Go Screaming into the Night

A Place in the Sun director George Stevens wanted Clift to do “something amazing” for his character’s walk to the electric chair. Ever the method man, Clift outright refused. Instead, he opted for a naturalistic walk with a depressed facial expression.

19. No Country Boys for Old Hollywood

For most of his career, Montgomery Clift and Marlon Brando were pitted against each other as acting rivals. Both men were method actors, and both were even born in Omaha, Nebraska.

20. Gift of the Magi: Oscars Edition

Despite their professional rivalry, Clift and Marlon Brando deeply respected each other as actors. When both men were up for Best Actor at the 1951 Academy Awards, they voted for each other’s performances over their own! Clift voted for Marlon Brando in A Streetcar Named Desire, while Brando voted for Clift in A Place in the Sun and was certain Clift would beat him. For the record, they both lost to Humphrey Bogart in The African Queen.

21. Can’t I Just Be a Gal’s Guy?

Clift was incredibly private about his love life—to the point where some people debated whether a love life even existed. He had close female friendships, including with stage actress Libby Holman, who was 16 years older than him. Tabloids would whisper about engagement or entanglement, but he would insist to the platonic nature of these friendships, and state “those romantic rumors are embarrassing to both of us.”

22. Let’s Not Mix Friendship with Business

Clift famously turned down the male lead in Sunset Boulevard. Why? His good friend Libby Holman was 16 years his senior, and he worried that people might compare her to the desperate Norma Desmond character. Not that he didn’t love her, but he did not love rumors about their romantic relationship. Starring as handsome, younger love object to the delusional character of Norma Desmond would attract more attention to his personal life and Holman than Clift would like.

23. The Rewards of Being Real

Alongside the likes of Marlon Brando and James Dean, Montgomery Clift is considered one of the first Hollywood method actors. A Place in the Sun (1951) is regarded as the best example of Clift in this craft, where the actor approaches their character through psychologically “authentic” rehearsal. It must have paid off: the move nabbed him a second Best Actor nomination at the Oscars.

24. Will You Be My Co-Pilot?

For decades, Clift was also romantically linked to Hollywood legend Elizabeth Taylor. They starred in three films together and were even billed as “the most beautiful couple in Hollywood” by the marketing for A Place in the Sun (1951). Neither, however, ever confirmed a romantic relationship. Clift was picky both in romance and his projects. Elizabeth Taylor once said of her friend, “Monty could have been the biggest star in the world if he did more movies.”

25. What’s in the Closet?

Clift’s thin history with the ladies attracted rumors about his sexuality that would follow him well after the grave. While his brother, Brooks, argued Clift was bisexual, it was Truman Capote’s unpublished novel Answered that heavily encoded Clift as gay at a dinner party with Dorothy Parker and Tallulah Bankhead. Biographers have favored to position Clift as a gay icon—closeted in public but out with his friends. Only Clift himself knows, and he’s no longer around to ask.

26. Takes One to Know One

Familiar with mental and substance abuse problems herself, Marilyn Monroe once described Clift as “the only person I know how is in even worse shape than I am.” In 1961, Clift co-starred in The Misfits with Clark Gable and Marilyn Monroe. It would be the final film for all three stars.

27. Sore Winner

Two years after his accident, Clift nabbed his third Best Actor nomination at the Oscars for his role in From Here to Eternity (1953). The winner of the award—William Holden in Stalag 17—publicly stated that Clift (or Clift’s co-star Burt Lancaster)—should have won instead.

28. He’s Trying His Best

Clift earned his final Academy Award nomination—this time for Best Supporting Actor—by playing a developmentally disabled man who survived the Nazi sterilization programs in Judgement at Nuremberg (1961). According to the film’s director, Stanley Kramer, Clift was still rattled from the accident and struggled to remember his lines.

29. The High Cost of Bad Attendance

In the last years of his life, Clift’s substance abuse was beginning to affect both his health and his professional reputation. Universal Studios even sued the actor for frequently going AWOL on the set of Freud: The Secret Passion (1962).

30. Showing Up to the No-Show

Being sued by Universal Studios forever ruined Clift’s good name. While the case was settled out of court, he gained a reputation as an actor who made films go over-budget with his absences made it hard for him to find work.

31. So No to the Voicebox

Exiled from feature films, Clift made ends meet by returning to radio work. He had done a few broadcasts back in the 1950s—but unfortunately, he hated the medium of broadcast.

32. The Comeback That Never Was

By 1966, things were looking up for Montgomery Clift. He had been exiled from film work for four years. However, his friend Elizabeth Taylor helped him get a lead role in the film Reflections in a Golden Eye. Unfortunately, he passed away before production even began.

33. Sick of His Own Face, Much?

Fittingly for a notoriously choosy actor, Montgomery Clift used his last conversation on earth to snub his own filmography. His nurse, Lorenzo James, asked Clift if he cared to watch his old film, The Misfits, on TV. Clift firmly replied, “Absolutely not!”

34. Not a Clean Getaway

On July 22, 1966, Montgomery Clift was found dead in his bathtub. He was dressed in nothing but his glasses, with both fists clenched at his sides. He was 45 years old.

35. Death Comes for You Eventually

While a drug overdose or suicide has often been whispered as the real cause of Montgomery Clift’s death, the truth is more banal. The autopsy cited his cause of death as a heart attack onset by “occlusive coronary artery disease.” Moreover, that decades-long struggle with dysentery and an underactive thyroid had come back with a vengeance.

36. Doesn’t Have the Stomach for Service

Were it not for a bad case of dysentery, we might not even know the name of Montgomery Clift today. When Clift came down with a bad case of the illness in 1942, it saved him from serving in World War II. As a result of his poor health, he was given 4-F status and denied entry into the US army.

37. You Better Love Him

Don’t mess with Clift’s female fans. Olivia de Havilland learned this the hard way when her character in The Heiress (1949)—not de Havilland herself!—rejected the sex symbol at the end of her movie. Clift’s female legion absolutely flooded the poor actress with hate mail.

38. Elizabeth Taylor, Impromptu DDS

On May 12, 1956, Clift survived a near-fatal car accident on the way home from Elizabeth Taylor’s house. He was rescued from his car partially by Taylor herself, who rushed to his side. She also helped him extract a tooth from his mouth before he could choke to death on it.

39. Facing the Serious Times Ahead

While Clift survived his 1956 car accident, he suffered injuries to his famous face, including a broken jaw and nose. The actor also incurred injuries to his sinus and several lacerations. Clift required plastic surgery and needed two months to heal.

40. You Gotta See to Believe

In the wake of his car accident, Clift insisted on returning to finish the production of Raintree County. The studios had concerns; would people still flock to Clift’s damaged face? Clift told them not to worry. As it turns out, he was right. Ticket-buyers lined up just to see what Clift’s face would look like, post-accident.

41. Can Only Do Things Halfway

For the technology available at the time, the reconstruction of Clift’s face was remarkable. While plastic surgery helped fix Clift’s face aesthetically, however, it forever impaired his acting ability. Post-accident, the left side of his face was left almost completely immobile.

42. Slow Violence

After his accident and reconstructive surgery, Clift fell into a deep depression. He turned heavily to alcohol to cope. As a result, his health and physical appearance continued to deteriorate. Acting teacher Robert Lewis described his decline as “the longest suicide in Hollywood history.”

Sources: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6

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