Montgomery Clift

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 17)

1977 and 1978 have been boon years for biographies of Montgomery Clift. In 1977, the reading public was introduced to Robert LaGuardia’s interpretation of the actor’s public and private torments through Freudian eyes in his book Monty: A Biography of Montgomery Clift. The analysis is both daring and bitchy, and oftentimes dangerous. Montgomery Clift—the man as well as the actor—gets lost in LaGuardia’s base appraisal and probed until he has been picked clean of all respectability. It is truly a shame, because Montgomery Clift is worth reflecting on, if for no other reason than to be introduced to the remarkable character studies he gave the theater and moviegoer alike. Patricia Bosworth’s Montgomery Clift: A Biography brings this complex and tragic man into focus in an evenhanded fashion, disregarding fanfare and steering away from unnecessary speculation.

On a five-year quest, Patricia Bosworth researched, interviewed family and colleagues, and deftly pieced together with the competence of a compatriot and the courage of an artist the kaleidoscopic existence of Montgomery Clift, which never ceases to amaze and trouble both the author and the reader. Her background more than amply qualifies her for the undertaking: she has been a professional actress, an editor at McCalls and Harper’s, and a regular contributor to such publications as New York and Esquire. Since the great majority of Hollywood biographies tend to blow up and distort the lives of stars and near-stars to the point of absurdity, it is no wonder that the discerning reader is skeptical. Under the most scrupulous examination, though, Patricia Bosworth’s Montgomery Clift: A Biography is not found wanting; the rewards are precisely maximized.

A Prologue reconstructs the events of Clift’s near-fatal accident: after leaving a party at Elizabeth Taylor’s house in Coldwater Canyon, escorted down the winding road by his friend and fellow actor Kevin McCarthy, Clift crashed the car he was driving into a telephone pole. He did not make it down to Sunset Boulevard that night, and the author points out that Montgomery’s “real death” took place on May 12, 1956, in the arms of Elizabeth Taylor, who had come down to the scene of the accident after having been made aware of it by Kevin McCarthy. Monty’s face and spirit would never be the same again. The persona he had preened was now plucked from him just at the peak of his career, as he was preparing to star in a great extravaganza opposite Elizabeth Taylor—Raintree County.

Bosworth sets the emotional tone for the volume with this fleeting glimpse of the tragedy that was to befall Clift; then she proceeds to escort the reader through his life, beginning with his birth on October 17, 1920, in the mid-American town of Omaha, Nebraska. There was already another child, Brooks, when Ethel “Sunny” Clift presented her husband, Bill Clift, with twins. Montgomery Clift was known to comment as an adult that he was unsure whether it was his sister, Ethel, or himself who was really the girl. This sexual ambivalence was to haunt him unceasingly and can be cited as one of the factors that led to his eventual collapse.

The one personality who was to overshadow Montgomery’s life was his mother, Sunny Clift. Her own emotional instability and her insatiable quest to be recognized by her rightful blood relations weighed heavily on all family members, but especially on Montgomery. Sunny had been adopted by a working-class family residing in Germantown, Pennsylvania. Though it was natural to be curious about her biological parents, Sunny’s search for them—which ended at the age of eighteen—and the fight thereafter to be accepted by them approached madness. She discovered that she was the offspring of aristocratic star-crossed lovers. Upon learning this, she set about to get the families of the lovers to acknowledge her as a legitimate relation. Bill Clift, financier and salesman, managed to provide Sunny with the necessary funds to rear their children in the manner befitting what she considered their rightful station in life. The upbringing included almost constant isolation from other children, excursions to the Continent, and private tutors. Sunny wished to instill in the children the sense of being different—superior in style and origin. The effects of this unusual training on Clift are carefully detailed in Patricia Bosworth’s work. The aloneness and disenfranchisement he exhibited as an actor can be traced to his childhood and the influence his mother had on him.

Nietzsche once stated that “no artist tolerates reality.” This is most likely true, but only after reality has been defined, labeled, and wrestled with on a daily basis. The artist takes it upon himself to mold together a style and create a unity that has been sorely lacking in his reality previously. Montgomery Clift attempted to do this, with a touch of genius, in various roles on stage and screen; acting allowed him a chance to lose himself, to...

(The entire section is 2071 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 17)

Best Sellers. XXXVIII, May, 1978, p. 45.

Library Journal. CIII, March 1, 1978, p. 583.

National Review. XXX, June 9, 1978, p. 732.

New York Times Book Review. March 5, 1978, p. 13.

Newsweek. XCI, February 27, 1978, p. 76.

Saturday Review. V, April 1, 1978, p. 37.