Montgomery Clift: A Biography by Patricia BosworthIf you read any biography of Montgomery Clift, read this one. The rest dont matter.
I spent half of this book wanting to cry. For the sheer pain and loss of it, of watching this car crash happen for ten years and even for years before then, of yearning for him to make good, for him to be the hero you always sensed in the movies that he wanted to be even if the movie journeys ended in tragedy themselves.
Its such an accomplishment of a book, how it manages to work so much detail and so much intimacy into a perfectly organic narrative without any sense of enforced structure or laboured pace. Im used to reading Donald Spotos meticulously footnoted and referenced biographies. Ive read a lot of biographies. And this is a style Ive never encountered before --- at once effortless and deceptively skilful.
What did astonish me though was the curious anonymity given to so many people, so many lovers of both male and female persuasions, partners not just one night stands. Im so used to people being specifically identified and sourced. Here it took me ages to realise that ah, this was published a mere twelve years after Montgomerys death, wasnt it? So all those people would still be alive at the time of publication and be affected by having their names mentioned in specifically sexual or homosexual or otherwise incriminating contexts. What a strange notion that was for me, so used to reading biographies written some twenty, forty years after the death of the person in question.
Its one thing to know objectively and intellectually that the Fifties and Sixties was a time of homophobia and pervasive stigmatised silence. Its entirely another thing to be immersed in a book that lays out the hideous reality of living in those times. The utter casualness and matter-of-factness of the homophobia made me sick to my stomach, things that were said and done by huge big film legends, accumulated and accumulated until I wanted to throw up, nearly in tears because my god, I am so lucky to be living in this day and age and Montgomery Clift was so horrifically unlucky to be living in that day and age that he could say and no doubt believe that there is a deep-seated prejudice against homosexuality ... While there may be tolerance for it privately, it will never be accepted in even the most liberated circles.
That upset me very very badly. Fifty years later, yes, were still fighting to legalise gay marriage but at least now there is at least the semblance and the expectation of social acceptance. If he had just lived those fifty years more, if he could at least have lived to see the anti-discrimination laws come in. My god.
The increasing sordidness was hard to read. And I am so grateful to Patricia Bosworth for not flinching from the reality but still giving me enough detail without being gross or salacious about it. Yes, a few times I had to actually re-read a phrase to make sure I had actually seen what I thought I saw, to check the appalling image in my head against the word image on the page. And yeah, I hadnt read wrong.
Its a remarkably lucid portrait of a man who was apparently anything but lucid about his own psychology. Who could turn it outwards and project an immense sensitivity and psychological awareness in his craft but apparently never ever revealed how he may have turned the same light to bear on his own workings. If he did at all. And that, god, hurts me all over again. All that could have been if he had just ... tried differently, if he had just been given the right coping mechanisms and had the sense to recognise and implement them.
The portrayal of addiction was equally unflinching and, as hard as it was for me to watch that decades-long car crash, I am so grateful to Bosworth for setting it out on the page, for never shortcutting and never turning this man I adore into a cariacature. She wrote about him and his life with a very discreet sympathy. I like that so much. It would have been so easy to demonise him, to ridicule him. But I never got that sense and Im very glad for that.
My copy is quite old and battered and has a rather startling amount of missed words, misspellings and general typos. That didnt diminish the power of the narrative at all. And I liked very much the cast of thousands that is so real to a human life, the excellent handling of individual biographical information, the setting of place and evocation of mood, the utter seamlessness of quotes and anecdotes. Perhaps the academic nerd in me would have liked to know exactly when that person said that and to whom but I soon forgot that in the sheer ease of the style.
Most of all, I loved the ending. Because rather unconsciously I was bracing myself for some soppy summation of his legacy and his character and the tragedy of his life, oh noes oh woes oh great and glorious grandeur of everlasting influence, etc. As if I needed still to be convinced how important this man was and is to cinema and to artistry. So imagine my surprise when the book ended with a precise shut after the funeral. Bosworth doesnt need to repeat how hugely influential or how important Montgomery Clift was and is as an actor and a talent. She has the wisdom and the elegance and the class to realise its all been said in the preceding four hundred pages.
And in a way, I kind of feel like ending it as abruptly as that, on such a poignant image, showed me how she felt the loss of him too. It consoles me somewhat. Now like I feel Ive lost him all over again.
But as Maya Angelou said about another great talent who let drugs and dependency take his life, We had him. Beloveds, we had him. And that is precious, the gift of a talent realised so fiercely.
2018 update: Everyone who reads this biography needs to watch Making Montgomery Clift. I’ll certainly be rereading this with a different more critical perspective once I get to see the documentary.
From the Archives: Montgomery Clift, 45, Dies of Heart Attack in New York
A four time Academy Award nominee, The New York Times said he was known for his portrayal of "moody, sensitive young men". This was described as "a power differential that would go on to structure the star-studio relationship for the next 40 years". They had married in His mother was an adopted child who, at the age of 18, had been told that her birth parents were members of prominent Yankee families who were forced to part by the tyrannical will of the girl's mother. She spent the rest of her life trying to gain the recognition of her alleged relations. Part of Clift's mother's effort was her determination that her children should be brought up in the style of true aristocrats. Thus, as long as Clift's father was able to pay for it, he and his siblings were privately tutored, travelled extensively in America and Europe, became fluent in German and French, and led a protected life, sheltered from the destitution and communicable diseases which became legion following the First World War.
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A near-fatal auto accident in changed his looks and sent him into drug and alcohol addiction. Clift died in Clift's early life was shaped by privilege. While his father was away on work, which was often, Ethel led her family on jaunts to Europe or Bermuda, where the Clifts had a second home. In the wake of the stock market crash, however, the family's situation greatly changed. The Clifts, which included Monty's twin sister, Roberta, and a brother, Brooks, settled into a new, more modest life in Sarasota, Florida.