For lovers of classic Hollywood, the trajectory of Montgomery Clift is an archetypal example of a meteoric rise followed by a stratospheric fall. Originally propositioned by agents for years in the hope he’d sign on to become a child star, Clift instead waited until his late twenties to make his screen debut, and did so against the system. At a time when actors were required to sign on for seven year contracts with a given studio and forced to do whichever screenplay the bosses wished, Clift maintained independence, and had final say on the script and director for each project – his status as a heartthrob seemingly overnight helped him get his wishes.
Then, in 1956, he was badly injured in a car accident, and his career up until his death in 1965 was commonly referred to as “the longest suicide in Hollywood history”. The deterioration of his mental health became a source of tabloid gossip, alongside speculations about his sexuality, while his self destructive behaviour on set eventually made him a pariah in the industry. He was a talent in the same mould as Brando or Dean, who ended up becoming a typical A-list cautionary tale.
Robert Anderson Clift, the nephew of the late actor, was born the decade following his uncle’s death, but his legacy has reigned over his life. He grew up learning about his uncle via a best selling biography that didn’t tell the whole truth about the man – and it’s in exploring his family history, and how this intersects with the fame trajectory of Montgomery Clift, that we get a richer, less sensationalised portrait of the icon. Not to mention one that complicates any simplistic reading of him. Making Montgomery Clift may be co-directed and narrated by a member of the Clift family, but nothing feels sanitised; in digging deeper to find the true man behind the cautionary tale, Clift and Hillary Demmon have crafted something far richer than any fan made biography.
The film’s success lies within how it refrains from ever becoming mere hagiography, examining news reports that stretched the truth to damaging proportions, without ever toning down the worst implications of these. The majority of the film plays out as archive footage, closer resembling an essay than a conventional documentary, as the first person narration aims to find deeper meaning in the family archives – pouring over years of letters and recorded phone conversations to find the man behind the tragic backstory. One of the few talking head interviews conducted outside of the family and their friend circle is biographer Patricia Bosworth, who repeated claims in her 1976 tome that the family still believe have harmful consequences, even if they are just minor turns of phrase.
Robert Anderson Clift uses an extended sequence to examine the harmful, disingenuous reporting of his uncle’s sexuality (it was never confirmed whether Clift was gay or bisexual, but he’d had public relationships with women, and numerous documented sexual encounters with men). With homosexuality illegal for Montgomery’s entire life, gossip columnists weren’t exactly politically correct with how they covered the topic, although this wasn’t the primary problem. No, one report suggested that Clift was arrested for trying to pick up a “young boy”, and even when it was claimed elsewhere that this was in fact another man, the claim still managed to be briefly mentioned in the biography years later, affecting how he’d be viewed for generations to come. Analysing the social climate at the time, when gay men were viewed as sexual predators, makes it apparent with a gossip columnist with a grudge would make such a claim.
Clift’s sexuality is more open for discussion within the documentary than the decade long “longest suicide in Hollywood” at the end of his career. Robert and his brother discuss how they’d be obsessed with whether their uncle had slept with Marilyn Monroe, while various interviewees offer different perspectives on his sexuality – depending on who you ask, he was either proudly, openly gay and living as far from the media spotlight as possible to maintain that, or he was self-loathing about the fact he loved women, but only wished to have sex with men. The documentary offers no conclusive answers to this multifaceted personality, portraying a man far more complicated than any of the acclaimed roles he’d ever played.
Making Montgomery Clift is more than just a run of the mill Hollywood documentary. It’s a personal essay that examines how a man related to a mysterious icon has had his own identity defined by that connection – and how a search for deeper truth within the family history only complicates this.