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The Times (25/Jul/1966) - Obituary: Montgomery Clift

(c) The Times (25/Jul/1966)



One of the leading film actors of his generation Montgomery Clift, who died suddenly in New York on Saturday at the age of 45, established himself in relatively few films as one of the leading actors of his generation in Hollywood, even if his talents were of too subtle an order ever to make him a major star in the traditional mould.

He was born in Omaha on February 17, 1921, and appeared in public for the first time when he was 13 in an amateur stage production of As Husbands Go, after which he played in summer stock and a year later had his first Broadway role in Fly Away Home. A number of other roles in notable Broadway shows followed, among them There Shall Be No Night, with Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne, The Skin of Our Teeth, Our Town, The Searching Wind and You Touched Me, one of Tennessee Williams's earliest works.

Though his slim, dark good looks and the highly personal intensity of his acting style soon brought him offers from Hollywood, he held out for some time, until the right part came along — a pattern he was to repeat again and again once he got to Hollywood. The part which finally persuaded him was one of the two leading roles in Howard Hawks's classic Western Red River (1946), in which, as a sensitive juvenile, he was cunningly contrasted with John Wayne as the older, solider cowman who takes the green youngster in hand. This film at once established him as a sought-after Hollywood property, but from the first he went resolutely his own way, avoiding the easy ways to success and playing only parts he considered worth while. This meant that his films were fairly few and far between, but each one had some special quality. Jn 1947 he starred in Fred Zinnemann's The Search, a neo-realistic production made entirely on location in Europe, dramatizing the problem of displaced persons. Two years later the role of the unscrupulous lover in William Wyler's version of The Heiress gave him little scope, but as the fated hero of Dreiser's An American Tragedy, filmed by George Stevens as A Place in the Sun, he found one of his finest roles and gave one of his best performances.


Among the films he made in the next few years were Hitchcock's I Confess, a highly intelligent thriller involving Montgomery Clift as a priest tempted to break the seal of the confessional. Indiscretion, an English language romantic drama directed in Rome by Vittorio de Sica, and From Here to Eternity, directed by Fred Zinnemann, which proved to be one of the biggest commercial successes with which Clift was associated. Some of his later films, such as Elia Kazan's Wild River, miscast him or, like Joseph L. Mankiewicz's Suddenly Last Summer, called on him mainly to sacrifice himself gracefully in what were essentially secondary roles. On the other hand, he was perfectly cast in that underestimated and ill-fated production, John Huston's The Misfits, which proved to be the last film of both Clark Gable and Marilyn Monroe. Not quite Montgomery Clift's however; since then he had played the central role in Huston's Freud, almost unrecognizable behind a thick beard, and recently he had been filming again in Europe.

Though, surprisingly, a recent investigation by Variety showed that on the takings of the films he had appeared in Montgomery Clift came high among the top money-making stars, this reflected more on his intelligence and high standards in his choice of roles than on his personal popularity with filmgoers; unlike most big stars, he always seemed to hold his public at a respectful distance. His presence in a film was a sort of guarantee of quality; but it was the actor rather than the man one paid to see. In private life he was retiring, preferring to live in New York, out of the limelight, when not actually filming. Almost alone among those who have been called at various times a Hollywood nonconformist, he really was, and dedicatedly so, whether it did his career good or harm. There are not so many people of similar talent and independence in the American cinema that it can afford to lose him.