Biography of Montgomery Clift

Pioneer of Method Acting in Movies

Montgomery Clift
Photo by Ernst Haas / Getty Images

Montgomery Clift (October 17, 1920 - July 23, 1966) was one of the first and most prominent method actors in American movies. He became known for brilliant portrayals of brooding, troubled characters. He earned four Academy Award nominations, and his career was cut short by a heart attack at age 45.

Early Life

Born in Omaha, Nebraska, the son of a wealthy vice president of  Omaha National Trust Company, young Montgomery Clift, known as Monty to many of his friends, lived a life of privilege.

His mother took her three children on frequent trips to Europe and arranged private tutoring. The Stock Market Crash of 1929 followed by the Great Depression brought financial ruin to his family. The Clifts first moved to Florida and later to New York City as Monty's father sought employment to improve the family's situation.

Broadway Star

Montgomery Clift made his Broadway debut at age fifteen. An appearance as the lead in the play "Dame Nature" at age 17 made him a stage star. During his career on Broadway, he appeared in the original production of Thornton Wilder's "The Skin of Our Teeth." Clift acted alongside such legends as Tallulah Bankhead, Alfred Lunt, Lynn Fontanne, and Dame May Whitty. He was in the Broadway cast of 1941 Pulitzer Prize winner "There Shall Be No Night" at age 20.

Film Career

Representatives of Hollywood's movie industry continually tried to lure Montgomery Clift away from Broadway.

Executives pursued him as one of the country's most promising young actors. He turned down multiple offers. When he finally accepted a role opposite John Wayne in Howard Hawks' legendary western "Red River," Clift made the unprecedented move of refusing a studio contract until his first two films were successful.

"Red River" appeared in 1948, and it was followed in quick succession by "The Search" which earned Montgomery Clift his first Best Actor Academy Award nomination and his male lead opposite Olivia de Havilland's 1949 Academy Award-winning role in "The Heiress."

Montgomery Clift's 1951 performance in "A Place in the Sun" with Elizabeth Taylor is regarded as a method acting masterpiece. As part of the preparation for the role, Clift spent a night in a state prison so that he would understand his character's emotions when he served jail time in the film. It earned him his second Academy Award nomination. He lost to older, established star Humphrey Bogart for his performance in "The African Queen."

1953's "From Here to Eternity" earned Monty a third Best Actor nomination. This time he lost to William Holden in "Stalag 17." After two more films, he took a nearly three-year leave from movie appearances. For his return, he began working with his friend Elizabeth Taylor in "Raintree County."

Car Accident and Last Movies

On the night of May 12, 1956, Montgomery Clift suffered serious injuries in an automobile accident after leaving a dinner party at Elizabeth Taylor's Beverly Hills, California home.

He reportedly fell asleep while driving and his car smashed into a telephone pole. After being alerted to the accident, Elizabeth Taylor rushed to the scene of the crash to help save her friend's life.

Clift suffered multiple severe injuries including a broken jaw and smashed sinuses. He was forced to endure reconstructive surgery and spent eight weeks in the hospital. For the rest of his life, Montgomery Clift suffered from chronic pain resulting from the accident. 

Amid Clift's heavy drug and alcohol use that complicated the film's production, "Raintree County" was completed and released in December 1957. Audiences were drawn to theaters out of curiosity about Clift's post-accident scenes. "Raintree County" earned nearly six million in box office receipts, but due to excessive production costs, it still lost money.

Montgomery Clift continued to act in films, but he developed a reputation for erratic behavior. Producers feared that he wouldn't complete films when they hired him. He co-starred in 1961's "The Misfits" with legends Clark Gable and Marilyn Monroe. It was the last completed film for both of his co-stars. Marilyn Monroe famously said of Clift during the production: "[he is] the only person I know who is in even worse shape than I am."

One of Monty's best performances came in the 1961 Academy Award nominee for Best Picture "Judgment at Nuremberg." His role lasted only twelve minutes, but his appearance as a developmentally disabled man victimized by the Nazi sterilization program was riveting. It brought Montgomery Clift his final Academy Award nomination in the Best Supporting Actor category.

Personal Life and Death

Most of the details of Montgomery Clift's personal life and relationships were unknown during his lifetime. He lived in New York City instead of California which shielded him from the crush of Hollywood tabloids. He met Elizabeth Taylor in the late 1940s when studio executives presented them as a dating couple for publicity at the premiere of "The Heiress." Later they co-starred in "Raintree County," "Suddenly, Last Summer," and "A Place in the Sun." They remained friends until his death, and there is no evidence they were ever more than close friends.

In a public speech at the 2000 GLAAD Media Awards, Elizabeth Taylor stated that Montgomery Clift was gay. Most authors and researchers consider him bisexual and point to intimate relationships he had with both men and women.

Following his 1956 automobile accident, sexual relations were frequently impossible, and he was more interested in emotional than sexual connections.

On the morning of July 23, 1966, Montgomery Clift's private nurse Lorenzo James found Clift dead in his upper east side Manhattan townhouse. An autopsy found a heart attack to be the cause of death with no indications of foul play or suicidal behavior.

Legacy

Montgomery Clift was one of the first prominent American movie actors to study with Lee Strasberg, one of the most prominent instructors of method acting, a system designed to help actors create more authentic portraits of the characters they portray. Marlon Brando was another prominent early student of method acting.

Clift's image ran counter to World War II-era images of strong, silent masculine film heroes. His characters were sensitive and often emotional. Although he argued against it, many observers saw Monty Clift as the embodiment of a new leading man image emerging in the 1950s.

When biographers began to discuss Montgomery Clift's sexual orientation in the late 1970s, he quickly became a gay icon. He was spoken of along with Rock Hudson and Tab Hunter, two other iconic gay movie stars.

Montgomery Clift Fast Facts

  • Full Name: Montgomery Clift
  • Also Known As: Monty
  • Occupation: Actor
  • Born: October 17, 1920 in Omaha, Nebraska, USA
  • Died: July 23, 1966 in New York City, New York, USA
  • Selected FilmsRed River, A Place in the Sun, From Here to Eternity
  • Key Accomplishments: Nominated for four Academy Awards.
  • Famous Quote: “The closer we come to the negative, to death, the more we blossom.”
  • Offbeat Fact: His 1939 Broadway performance in Noel Coward's "Hay Fever" was part of one of the very first television broadcasts of all time.

Resources and Further Reading

  • Bosworth, Patricia. Montgomery Clift: A Biography. Harcourt, 1978.
  • Laguardia, Robert: Monty: A Biography of Montgomery Clift. Avon, 1977.