Montgomery Clift and the Press

Here’s the paper I presented at the National Popular Culture and American Culture Associaiton. I think it’s one of the more interesting papers I have written. I got to look at archives at the NYPL Performing Arts Library and it was such a treasure trove. Touching artifacts is an amazing thing. If any of you ever get a chance to do that kind of research, please do. It’s amazing. Now, on to the paper.

When he first arrived in Hollywood in 1948 with his first major role in the film Red River, Montgomery Clift had already been acting since he was 14 years old. But, as his star rose, his oddness or “queerness” became a challenge to his coverage within the press and critical communities. Much speculation about his sexuality has appeared in both legitimate academic texts and in gossipy biographies, but even during his life, the way he chose acting working, his peculiar personal habits, and his general “queerness” made him a hard subject for the writers of the time. “In The fifties and sixties these knowledges (Clift’s queerness) circulated primarily through the discursive networks of gay gossip in which they functioned as privileged modes of subcultural capital” (Farmer, 225). These discursive networks were mainly found in the gossip columns of the time and in the screen magazines that populated grocery check outs and magazine stands. Clift’s framing in both the legitimate and tabloid publications create a portrait as ambiguous as the actor himself.

            Because of Clift’s oddness and reticence to sit for interviews, articles written about him during his life were many times contradictory. A modern reader looking at articles about Clift or his acting will pick up on his oddness because our society is much more media saturated and many more people consider themselves savvy to understanding or “reading” someone’s sexuality or otherness. With Clift, a modern reader begins to unravel his otherness and place on him their ideas of “queer”. But, can a reader look at him and those who wrote about him without adding a modern textual reading that looks for queerness?  What can one deduce about that those who were writing about Clift during his acting life? During the time of his biggest success (1948-1962), Clift was written about numerous times by critics, magazine article writers, and gossip columnists. The writers wrote what they saw in person or the information provided them by studios, agents, and managers. The modern reader looking at magazine features or gossip column notes about Montgomery Clift add their perception to the proceedings, but knowledge of the author’s true intent is impossible. The writers of the articles are dead and the only criteria a reader has to judge is the articles they published. The leap to deciding the level of knowledge the writer had is something that must be done by the reader, and there is a very good chance that they are wrong.

            Beyond trying to decode the hidden messages in any of the articles written about Clift, the discussion of his acting is part of the package as well. Clift’s reign as a lead actor was the bridge between the studio and classically trained actors of the 1930’s and 1940’s to the more modern method stylings of James Dean and Marlon Brando. In a film like 1948’s Red River, Clift appears to be in a different movie than co-star John Wayne because of each actor’s opposing styles of acting. Critics of both the film and stage try to address the radical approach to acting in their reviews of Clift’s work on stage and screen. Unlike the gossip columnists and feature writers of the magazines, the critics approach Clift differently. By focusing on his acting and leaving out personal things, they appear to not editorialize about Clift. But, because of the difference of his acting style compared to those around him, the critics give the reader another way to look at Clift’s oddness. Unlike the columnists, however, it is more about him professionally than personally. In both cases, the writers give readers things to think about, their intent is the part that can be difficult to interpret.

Montgomery Clift began his theater career at age 14 and worked steadily for many years on the stage. Until he was cast in the films The Search and Red River in 1948, his acting career had been solely on the stage. As Clift became a bigger “star” he did less work on the stage and began focusing more on film. He continued to do stage sporadically, but the number of plays decreased as the number of films increased. The amount of films he acted in was about one a year during the duration of his cinematic career. Clift was always quite selective as an actor, especially for his time period. During his career he made about one movie per year which was considered a small amount during the studio period. That number seems quite prolific in the modern film era. Most of our bigger stars (George Clooney, Angelina Jolie, Tom Cruise) release one film a year or every other year and there it is not seen as odd by the press or the public. But, during his time Clift’s more personal choice and less studio imposed work schedule placed him outside of other popular actors of the time.

When one looks at some of the reviews of his films and his plays, the critics usually take a more formal look at his career and spend very little time discussing his personal quirks. But, as time passed and Clift’s personal life (diet, drugs, and rumors of sexuality) began to overtake much of his work, the critics began commenting on his personal being, but in very oblique ways. Clift’s performances and role choices made him appear out of norm and just a bit out of step with the acting styles of his peers. Many critics found this part of him intriguing. A playbill for the play “Foxhole in the Parlor” seems to allude to the importance of Clift’s acting style and the affect it had on both viewers and critics. “There was no longer any doubt in even the most skeptical minds that a young man had arrived definitely on the theatrical scene who was doomed to linger long and mightily in the memories of theatre-goers” (Playbill, 12). The word choice of doomed here is interesting when looked at through the lens of Montgomery Clift’s life. Many biographers and others use the term “doomed” when discussing Clift, along with the fact that many times he would also play “doomed” characters including his murderous husband in the film A Place in the Sun which is probably the most obvious example of this. Clift seemed drawn to characters with sadness or hopelessness attached to them.

Reviewers looking at Clift’s film and theater work focus much on his difference from those around him within the films. Clift’s first released film was Howard Hawks’ Red River. In Red River, Clift spends much of his screen time with the iconic John Wayne. Hawks uses the actors’ differing styles of acting to comment on generational divides. Their tense relationship on screen is made more visible to the viewer by their different acting choices. In Bosley Crowther’s review of the film he comments on the friction at the core of the film. “And it’s the story of a desperate contention between two men, a hard-bitten veteran and a youngster- or Mr. Wayne and Montgomery Clift” (Crowther, film review). This contention is not just within the script of the film, but the contention between two very different styles of acting. In the book Spectacular Passions: Cinema, Fantasy, and Gay Male Spectatorships the author Brett Farmer devotes a chapter to looking at Clift’s films and many of the accompanying reviews of those films. He describes Clift’s acting as such; “In many ways the difference or non-conformity of the Clift persona is expressed precisely through a rejection of those conveniences of social behavior like action, aggression, and physical prowess” (127). Farmer’s description explains the contention that Crowther sees in the film and that a viewer can see in the different acting style of the two lead actors.

            Beyond this early review a common thread in reviews of Clift’s film and stage work are words like “lonely” and “brooding”. In fact, both words come up in the sentence Brooks Atkinson uses to describe Clift’s performance in The Seagull on Broadway. When describing his role in Red River, both Crowther and a Life Magazine short piece refer to the actor as “unusual”. So many of these signifiers try to quantify an actor working stylistically much differently than those around him. Because of his proto-Method style of acting, the descriptors used are usually used to discuss someone more inner-focused. When Clift began acting, most actors focused outward so that audiences could easily “read” their emotions and behaviors. Clift’s acting style was described in a manner that most people would use to describe someone that might be less verbal, more serious, and less demonstrative of emotion. Like his personal life, Clift’s acting style created a feeling of otherness about himself.

After a pretty long career in theater, Montgomery Clift started working in film. When he came onto the scene his intense style of acting and dark good looks propelled him to stardom quite quickly. Beyond what people thought about his sexual preferences, he had many traits that were out of the mainstream. His general oddness when combined with his ambiguous sexuality along with his matinee idol looks almost immediately made him fodder for gossip columnists and staff writers. Many of the articles use similar descriptors when describing Clift (i.e. “brooding”, “private”, “reticent”) and the tone of many of the articles is kind of anthropological in nature as the writer’s try to uncover this odd creature to their audience. But, what did the authors actually know and understand about Clift? It is hard to determine what the writers truly knew and what the audience understood in relation to a reader in the 21st Century looking at Clift and seeing only clues about his queerness because of the way media is read. But, by looking several articles from gossip columns, magazines, and tabloids there are patterns that emerge. But, what exactly those patterns are can remain mysterious.

When not talking about Clift’s acting and freed to speak about the actual person, the articles about Clift dig much deeper into his what film and theater critics termed his “brooding” and “doomed” manner. His oddness is quite out of the standards of his time. How different authors and magazines handle Clift’s non-normative masculinity becomes a look also at the writers and readers of the time. Clift’s reticence to sit for an interview and his withholding nature are the key points of several articles about Clift.

“Although he is thoroughly cooperative in all other requests, he will not allow interviewers to see his parents. Requests to see his family for the purpose of filling in his background meet with a polite but firm refusal.” (Frank, Saturday Evening Post)

“An M-G-M press agent assured me that Montgomery was a swell young fellow, kind to his mother, affable, intelligent, and sensitive. The only flaw in the shining armor was his dislike of interviews.” (Hyams, Herald Tribune)

“The combination leaves Hollywood somewhat breathless and a little non-plussed. As one of filmdom’s most soft-spoken performers, and a man who dislikes being interviewed, a myriad of myths have grown up about the man who likes nothing better than to be left alone.” (Nathanson, United Artists “Personality Feature”)

Some writers key into this reticence beyond just interviews and look at his personality and personal life. In most cases, these deeper looks come from the gossip columns and screen magazines of the day. For the modern reader, these texts are hard to read without forming an opinion about Clift and his personal life.

“There is more. He is unmarried and afraid of girls.” (Rosenfield, The Dallas Morning News)

“To Monty Clift there is nothing offbeat about his behavior, and he cannot understand why so many people find it unusual that he doesn’t follow the pattern of most successful, talented young men. He feels that it is his own business that he doesn’t marry, that he feels he must spend a great deal of time alone and that when he does seek the companionship of women, it is usually with older ones.” (Elliot, Screen Parade)

“When you meet in the flesh, the lean, tormented face of Montgomery Clift seems rather like a painting of some medieval martyr, possessed by demons. This description may sound florid. But, there’s a great deal of truth in it. Clift indeed has a demon- the strange, compulsive force inside him that drives the most acutely sensitive acting talent onto the screen.” (Hinxman, The National Enquirer)

In these articles his lack of romantic heterosexual love gets mentioned and becomes intertwined with his reticence and quietness. The National Enquirer is the closest to actually implying torture from the actor who gives tortured performances.

Of all the articles and features written about Clift, the one that muddles things the most is an interview with Hedda Hopper. Hopper was America’s leading gossip columnist for decades and went out of her way to “out” numerous actors on a variety of fronts. She testified at HuAC and also created what gossip columnists today call the “blind item” (salacious gossip, no names). The article itself is called “Monty’s Just Himself” and the tone of the article is adoring and Hopper definitely aligns herself with Clift and takes a sympathetic tone to her article. The way her article is written about Montgomery Clift, it is hard to know if she truly believes the stance she is taking or if there was something going on behind the scenes.

“The boy frankly has the town baffled. While working here he rarely appeared in public, he never visited night clubs, and he turned a cold shoulder, romantically speaking toward our screen lovelies.”

“Cynics began to think that Monty’s way of life was a strict pose, and some hinted that it was all for publicity purposes. His crying sin was his refusal to ‘go Hollywood’. “

“I glanced at the mystery woman, Miss Letts. She’s a small, quiet, sensitive woman who seems several years Clift’s senior. ‘What goes on between you two?’ asked I. ‘I’ve heard a lot of stories about you.’ ’For a frank question, a frank answer,’ Monty said. ‘Myra’s simply a dear friend whom I’ve known ten years. She’s helped me enormously with my work.’”

Hedda Hopper’s influence in Hollywood and the modern reader collide in this article. It becomes very hard to not think most of the writers were using code and that Hopper is working with the studio or Clift’s publicists to explain much of the behavior others found odd in him. But, like most of the articles about Clift, the answer cannot be completely understood. The modern reader is ultimately left unsure of the “real” Montgomery Clift.

Reading so many different articles about Clift, there are many different phrases and words that the writers use over and over again to describe the actor. Within the context of Clift, the modern reader cannot help but feel they are reading coded language. But, understanding the public’s response to these articles and even the author’s intent about the work are much harder to do. After looking at many articles and reviews, the only answer one can come up with is an ambiguous one. What did the authors know? How much of it was code? How much did the reader know? How did the reader interpret the code? The answer is, “Who knows?” With only modern scholarship on Clift and Queer Theory, the reader is left to make their own meaning and that meaning comes from their own experience and bias. The modern reader of this material is performing what Stuart Hall calls “producing meaning”. “Producing meaning depends on the practice of interpretation, and is sustained by us actively using the code- encoding, putting  things into the code- and by the person at the other end interpreting or decoding the meaning” (62). So, with only modern life and the reader’s own experience the decoding happens with an incomplete text and it is up to the modern reader to decide how much the writers or the audience really knew and understood.

When Montgomery Clift died the New York Post titled his obituary “Montgomery Clift, the Movie Maverick”. The obituary works to look at the duality of Montgomery Clift as a person and a performer that so much of the media about him covers. The obituary quotes him as saying, “I’m not odd. I’m trying to be an actor. Not a movie star- just an actor.”  Beyond his own quote the obituary has two paragraphs that in total seem to be a summation of Clift’s life in the public eye. The obituary states, “The privacy Clift guarded so carefully after reaching stardom as the lonely GI in ‘The Search’ (1948) and as an adult young cowboy in ‘Red River’- that privacy is still being observed.”  Almost immediately following this comes the sentence, “Lorenzo James, Clift’s secretary, found him dead in bed in his town house at 227 E. 61st St.” (New York Post, 7/25/1966) His privacy was a key component to his acting. He was guarded in interviews and his acting style always appeared to hold back and have a reticence that permeated his characters.

Looking at his obituary with the eyes of a 21st Century reader, the inclusion of his male secretary finding him in bed raises eyebrows and questions within the reader. It is hard to read this last sentence and not immediately code “secretary” as lover. For most, the idea of a male live in secretary to a single male actor conjures up the idea of gay lovers. But, that’s coding being placed on the obituary and nothing that is being stated. The editorializing is happening in the reader’s mind while the page stays neutral. These suppositions are how one tries to understand oddness or “queerness”. In Nikki Sullivan’s A Critical Introduction to Queer Theory, the author states that “If actions, gestures, and desires are seen as an expression of an innate self, it becomes possible not only to interpret others, but also to evaluate, and categorise them. And connected to this supposed capacity to know the other, is the possibility of self-knowledge” (83). When a modern reader looks at old articles and reviews of Montgomery Clift, they believe that they are finding an answer to a question that is loaded with ambiguity. Clift’s real life is not known by the reader, the reader is only trying to deduce based on what they perceive in the world around them and any coded messages they believe that the writer is sending to them.

Montgomery Clift was an eccentric person outside of his ambiguous sexuality. His manner, privacy, and odd habits were all part of the package of a man who did not fit into most fences that people place their film and television idols in. Because of his non-normative behavior he made it hard for those interviewing or critiquing him to stick to their part of the bargain in relation to the studios and its system. Clift’s general demeanor made the entire star making enterprise almost impossible. With that, he became the first alternative to the highly stage managed actors around him. His acting style also helped usher in the more naturalistic style that is the norm today. With the demise of things like the studio system, actors became a little freer to explore their true selves. Actors coming out and declaring their sexuality has become more commonplace, but is still not frequent. But, actors being generally odd or seen as “deviant” from the norm has been much more common and the actors themselves are more comfortable with declaring their oddness. His otherness made a challenge for the media, but it also made him an interesting performer. 




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