‘Making Montgomery Clift’–A Documentary About a Movie Star NOT Tortured By His Sexuality
In October, an independent documentary on Montgomery Clift, assembled by his nephew Robert from multiple primary sources, appeared on streaming services and DVD. It purports to tell truths about Monty that no other biography has. Certainly the film succeeds in this goal, but it also lays a finger on the most problematic aspects of biographizing famous people.
Making Montgomery Clift is most preoccupied with detaching Monty from an especially harmful myth: that his homosexuality tormented him. According to his family, Monty was bisexual, and there was no torment involved. He was not closeted among loved ones, but he was also not interested in being stripped of his ability to work and live. For him to keep the secret publicly and professionally was not a torment, but a practical matter. No one among Monty’s closest friends believed that being bi made him unhappy. “Monty’s sexuality got framed as a destructive force in his life rather than a fact of it,” Robert Clift narrates. This myth has become prevalent partially because of Monty, Robert LaGuardia’s sensationalist 1977 biography, and perhaps because modern readers assume that a gay man in the 1950s would have been self-hating. Sensible, perhaps, but no, not Monty.
The documentary goes further. Much of its running time uses reel-to-reel audio recordings and documents preserved by Monty’s brother Brooks to stake claims and defend them: that Monty rewrote and thus improved large portions of all his scripts, that he cared far more about work than about celebrity, and that he liked his face better after his famous car accident in 1956. Most pressingly, it shows that Brooks Clift worked hard to correct misrepresentations about Monty in Patricia Bosworth’s celebrated 1978 biography—preemptively, by working closely with Bosworth; again, in galley stages; and repeatedly, well after the book had been printed.
This is the hidden peg of Making Montgomery Clift: the conflict between Bosworth’s vision of Monty and Brooks’s. The documentary advertises itself as correcting multiple misconceptions, but it spends an inordinate amount of screen time on how Brooks responded to Bosworth’s book. “This Monty wasn’t the man that [Brooks] knew,” Robert sums up.
A book-length biography involves an enormous amount of work. The biographer must synthesize a library’s worth of research and information into a single voice of authority, and then shape a comprehensible narrative in that voice. Elisions may offer mistaken impressions, but they also tend to make the work more readable.
A Man In Full
The documentary chases down a stray question by Louella Parsons that begs a distinction between “man” and “boy” in the context of Monty picking someone up on the street. It’s a distinction that divides pederasty from consenting homosexuality. Although in the 1940s and 1950s that line was blurry in the eyes of the law (and of gossip columnists), and that blurriness was likely the cause for Bosworth’s eliding “man” and “boy” in a single paragraph, the documentary all but accuses her of purposely sensationalizing the incident. It’s one pebble in a monumental task of masonry, but to Monty’s family, it matters. A lot.
Here, Making Montgomery Clift becomes a case study about something different than a single celebrity or a single family. Patricia Bosworth’s interpretation of Montgomery Clift—a public figure, an actor, a human being who lived to age 45 and then died—derives from dozens of sources and years of research about him. She gathered all the information she could from family, friends, lovers, fellow actors, directors, journalists, and other sources and made a judgment on how she would frame his life and choices. Brooks Clift’s judgment of his brother derives from a much closer but less comprehensive set of sources. These two judgments only dovetail inasmuch as Brooks can accept the whole man his brother was, and absorb the fact that there was plenty about his brother he never personally learned. Otherwise, they will naturally conflict.
As the film puts it, “Brooks did not agree with almost all the books written about Monty.” Of course he didn’t. He saw his brother in one way; biographers saw him in others. From a distance, that is only natural. Public figures, no matter how much they may value work over fame, belong partially to the world. Biographies of them derive from the world’s angle, not from the family’s angle. For those who knew Montgomery Clift personally, this gap between angles causes heartbreak.
One of Bosworth’s most enduring hypotheses about Monty is how his 1956 accident changed everything for him. She perceived him as more troubled after the accident than before it: anxious about his face and his prospects, full of despair, self-destructive. According to Monty’s family and loved ones, he liked himself better after his face was less perfectly aligned. He liked his post-accident performances better. In this instance, his family proves more believable.
A New Judgment
But the documentary also argues that Monty was not forgetting his lines and losing the ability to work during Freud and Judgment at Nuremberg. This argument contradicts many witnesses on those productions. Family members who claim Monty was doing fine have much more to lose, emotionally, than Bosworth’s other witnesses do. Brooks was not on the set of Nuremberg with Monty; he spoke to him often, but perhaps he didn’t hear the lability in Monty’s voice and manner, the ego and pride that propped him up while drugs and alcohol tore him down. Bosworth wins that one.
An interesting quirk of the Clift family is the urge to record everything. Monty took scads of pictures, starting very early in his acting career, and later recorded many of his phone calls. Brooks also recorded many or most of his phone calls, he took endless film of his family, and he kept scrapbooks about Monty’s career and life. This archive of information proved invaluable to Bosworth in the course of writing her biography, and to Robert Clift in the course of making a documentary to reinterpret that biography. No one in Brooks’s life offers a good reason why he recorded so obsessively, but it seems to be related to the urge that drove him to correct and re-correct Bosworth’s rendering of his brother’s life. A push toward the unassailable truth of the matter: material that proves how it really was.
Yet no truth is concrete enough not to bear differing interpretations. Not one in this life. Monty’s slurred speech in 1960s phone calls might be due to pills and alcohol, but it might also be a man with a thyroid condition speaking comfortably to his brother late at night. The only concrete truth is the slurring. His brother recorded the call, not the reasons for it. Every listener is going to add her own reasoning. Brooks cannot alter what happens to a piece of information once it goes out into the world, and neither can Robert.
The task of a biography is not just to retell a person’s life, but to interpret both the life and the person, based on the biographer’s superior knowledge of her subject. A biographer’s biases play a part in this interpretation, surely. But the biases of the people who loved the subject are much stronger, and rely on a less exhaustive body of knowledge than the biographer obtains. Robert notes that he finds Bosworth’s biography “reliable only up to a certain point,” and that is true for Making Montgomery Clift, too.
The documentary doesn’t land on (or even hover over) Monty’s addictions, which were unusually severe even for that moment in Hollywood. It doesn’t offer reasoning for biographers’ consistent fixation on Monty’s mother, if she was as harmless to him as Robert claims. The documentary doesn’t seem to realize that it’s creating a biased portrait of Monty, too, even if it’s much less sensationalist or harmful than other works about him. It attempts to reveal the whole man, but it reveals only another angle, as any brief portrait of a three-dimensional human being ever will.
The most convincing impression the documentary offers is the words of Monty’s last companion, Lorenzo James. He describes being with Monty as “like standing in front of a fireplace in the dead of winter.” That testimony, unlike so much else in this documentary, is immediately easy to accept. Such a bright star, no matter the source of its fuel, could not glow for long.