Monday, June 30, 2003

Montgomery Clift: A Biography, by Patricia Bosworth

The first time I was aware of Montgomery Clift was seven or eight years ago when my roommate John brought home a rented copy of A Place in the Sun and said "You have to watch this." The movie is a classic in its own right, but in large part it's Clift's performance that makes it so. His portrayal of George Eastman (no relation to the camera inventor) is nuanced, hopeless and thoroughly engrossing. Monty is probably best-known for the role of Prewitt in From Here to Eternity--either that or for The Clash song "The Right Profile"--but his career, while not as prolific as one might have hoped, ranged from stage to all different genres of film.

Bosworth's book provides a glimpse of Monty's approach to acting, of all-night discussions with friends and colleagues on the finest points of character. She makes it clear that he was not always easy to work with; he often rewrote his own dialogue, criticized the performances of his co-stars, and struggled with directors over their approaches. Monty's uncompromising nature, and perhaps his genius as well, may have sprung from his upbringing. His mother Sunny was the illegitimate granddaughter of a Civil War hero, and her mother's sister had married into a wealthy family. But Sunny was raised by a foster family, and despite a lifelong struggle was never acknowledged by her relations. Still, misled by a great aunt into thinking that if she raised her children "properly" that she would eventually gain acceptance, she raised Monty, his twin sister and their older brother as "thoroughbreds," traveling with them to Europe, teaching them several languages, hiring them tutors in music and art. His mother's ideas of what was proper were a weighty influence on Monty in later life, feeding particularly into his internal conflicts over his homosexuality. Whether it was this alone which led to his excessive drinking and drug use is open to debate, but it certainly seems to have been a contributing factor.

Bosworth's portrayal of Clift centers largely on the people who came into his life--once they are introduced many of them fade into the background of the narrative--and on the signposts of his career. Even after his substance abuse became habitual, Monty's work was rarely short of stellar. An automobile accident in 1956 during the filming of Raintree County left him disfigured and necessitated reconstructive surgery, but despite losing much of the mobility on the left side of his face Monty never lost his ability to reach for the heart of a role and make it breathe. Despite this, he developed a reputation for being difficult, and was all but blacklisted by the time of his death at 46. Monty never seems to have been particularly happy, although it seems clear that he drew great satisfaction from his work when all was going well.

Bosworth writes well, and clearly, and drew upon interviews from family and friends for this book. She neither sensationalizes Monty's life nor flinches from his shortcomings, and that makes this an illuminating--if heartbreaking--read.


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