How Montgomery Clift Made It Real in his 10 Best Performances

by Frank J. Avella

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Sunday July 17, 2022
Originally published on June 22, 2022

Montgomery Clift in "From Here to Eternity"
Montgomery Clift in "From Here to Eternity"  (Source:IMDb)

Today, Montgomery Clift is easily recognized as a cinematic gay icon who, like Rock Hudson (and many others whose sexual orientation is still covered up), had to remain closeted to work in motion pictures. It was the reality of LGBTQ+ people, regardless of their fame or lack thereof, living in the '40s through the ' least.

Clift's nephew, Robert Anderson Clift and Hillary Demmon go a long way towards dispelling this salacious but overfed myth that Monty was tormented by his sexual orientation in their revealing doc, "Making Montgomery Clift." Their work flies in the face of many of his past biographers who chose to focus on the "damaged queer star" narrative.

"The popular image of Monty is one of gay tragedy—that he was a self-hating, love-starved closet case who drowned himself in liquor and solitude," Michael Schulman wrote in a 2020 New Yorker piece on the doc. "([Clift] died of a heart attack, at the age of forty-five, but a colleague called it 'the longest suicide in Hollywood history.') Robert takes a closer look at his uncle's legacy, finding friends—including Jack Larson, who played Jimmy Olsen on the TV show 'Adventures of Superman'—who attest to his joy and humor. He may have been closeted to the public, but he appears to have had fulfilling love affairs with both men and women. Maybe he wasn't so tortured after all?"

Montgomery Clift in the 1950s
Montgomery Clift in the 1950s  

In studying Clift's output, one can easily see a before-and-after version of the actor, with the line between the two marked by his near-fatal accident on a break from filming "Raintree County" in 1956. The accident, which occurred after he was leaving his bff Elizabeth Taylor's home one night, left his face in tatters. Many corrective plastic surgeries later, one could still see the injuries, but it was the toll it took on him psychologically that is evident. That and his chronic pain led to a reliance on alcohol and pain relievers — and a very manipulative therapist.

Clift only made 17 feature films in his all-too-brief career but his stamp on movie history cannot be exaggerated. He is often spoken in the same breath as Marlon Brando and James Dean as among the first screen actors who approached the craft from a realistic standpoint.

With Clift, every performance is steeped in the kind of realism and vulnerability that was rare in the '40s and '50s. Make no mistake, he was the first. And one can feel his queerness often emanating from his characters onscreen; sometimes subtly, sometimes rather boldly.

Clift was one of the most stunning stars to ever grace the silver screen. Film Forum in NYC recently presented a tribute celebrating this titanic screen anti-hero.

EDGE has selected the 10 Montgomery Clift performances that should be streamed to appreciate his groundbreaking work.

Matthew Garth in "Red River"

Director Howard Hawks saw Clift on Broadway in the Lillian Hellman play, "The Searching Wind," and was so impressed he perspicaciously cast Clift opposite John Wayne in the 1948 western, "Red River." It was a perfect match — a son and father at odds with one another in the American West. It was also quite symbolic of old Hollywood vs. the new breed of actor epitomized by Clift — a thesp who challenged old values and ways of thinking, both intellectually and viscerally, via an authentic approach to the material. Nominated for two Oscars, the film was quite popular upon release and today is considered one of the best westerns of all time. It also contains some of the most homoerotic moments ever captured in a western.

"Red River" is available to rent on Prime, Apple TV and YouTube. The Criterion Edition Blu-ray is also available.

Ralph "Steve" Stevenson in "The Search"

Although "Red River" was the first movie Clift made, his second feature, Fred Zinnemann's "The Search," was actually released earlier in 1948. It centered on a young Auschwitz survivor in search of his mother who encounters a soldier (Clift) who helps him. The bond between the confused and tormented boy and the caring soldier is what drives this touching film. Clift's naturalistic performance led many to believe he was a real Army engineer.

Clift rewrote some of the script himself. The film went on to win an Oscar for screenplay, but only the credited writer took home a statuette. Zinnemann got a directing nod and Clift himself received his first Best Actor nomination, losing to Laurence Olivier in "Hamlet."

"The Search" is available to rent on Prime, Apple TV and YouTube.

Morris Townsend in "The Heiress"

Monty turned down the role of Joe Gilles in Billy Wilder's "Sunset Boulevard." Many believe the reason was that his relationship with older singer Libby Holman mirrored that of Joe and Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson) in the film's narrative. Instead, he signed to play the (is he or isn't he) fortune hunter to Olivia de Havilland's lonely spinster in William Wyler's film adaptation of Augustus and Ruth Goetz's, "The Heiress."

Clift (via the camera) used his good looks to the best advantage yet. His Morris Townsend is marvelously dashing and a great charmer, but the way Clift plays him, one can never quite figure out if he's a gold digger, completely sincere, or someone battling both extremes.

The film was nominated for eight Oscars and won four including a second for de Havilland. Clift, whose ambiguous turn should have been recognized, was overlooked.

"The Heiress" is available to stream via subscription to Retro Reels on Roku. The Criterion Edition Blu-ray is also available.

George Eastman in "A Place in the Sun"

The very first moment George Eastman (Clift) lays eyes on Angela Vickers (Elizabeth Taylor), those peepers tell us everything we need to know about his feelings and his ambitions. Based on the popular 1925 novel, "An American Tragedy," "A Place in the Sun," released in 1951, marked a significant change from the romantic drama audiences were fed by Hollywood. Clift is stuck with a pregnant Shelley Winters when his heart belongs to Taylor. And it's all brilliantly directed by George Stevens ("Woman of the Year").

The classic melancholy dance scene where Angela comments, "You seem so strange, so deep and far away, as though you were holding something back," and Eastman replies, "I am." His response, funneled through a queer lens, captures the torment Eastman feels in the narrative and what it must have been like to be a gay man in the 1950s forced to hide in the shadows. "Tell mamma, tell mamma all," Angela offers. Clift, at least, had Taylor, who — after this film — became his best friend.

The film was nominated for nine Oscars including a second Best Actor nod for Monty. It went home with six trophies including Best Director. Clift would lose to Humphrey Bogart (long-overdue) who won for "The African Queen." "A Place in the Sun" would solidify Monty's place as a cinematic heartthrob, but one we hadn't seen before — a leading man who was sensitive and vulnerable.

"A Place in the Sun" is available to rent on Prime, Apple TV and YouTube. The Paramount Presents Blu-ray is also available.

Private Robert E. Lee Prewitt in "From Here to Eternity"

Arguably Clift's best performance was in 1953, at the height of his popularity, fully embodying the role of Robert E. Lee Prewitt in Fred Zinnemann's "From Here to Eternity." Based on the James Jones novel, the sweeping story takes place on the eve of the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor. Prewitt is a GI and former boxer who, despite pressure to join the regiment boxing team, refuses.

The Production Code rules required that the allusions to homosexuality among the soldiers in the book be completely removed from the film narrative, but Prewitt's relationship with Maggio (Frank Sinatra) is quite palpable.

Clift is devastatingly effective, and his bragging barroom bugle solo is unforgettable.

Nominated for a whopping 13 Academy Awards, the film won eight including Best Picture. Clift, nominated opposite co-star Burt Lancaster, lost to William Holden in "Stalag 17." Sinatra won a Supporting Actor award.

"From Here to Eternity" is available to rent on Prime, Apple TV and YouTube.

Noah Ackerman in "The Young Lions"

The film he made after his life-altering accident was "The Young Lions" where he co-starred with Marlon Brando and Dean Martin. Based on the novel by Irwin Shaw, the 1958 movie chronicles three different soldiers and how they endure World War II. Clift plays a Jewish-American who finds himself bullied by his fellow troops. It's a deeply affecting performance in a too-often overlooked gem that established Martin as a legit dramatic actor. Oddly, Clift and Brando never appear in the same frame together. Directed by Edward Dmytryk, "Lions" was nominated for three tech Oscars.

"The Young Lions" is available to rent on Prime, Apple TV and YouTube.

Dr. John Cukrowicz in "Suddenly, Last Summer"

One of the most beguiling films of the late '50s, Joseph L. Mankiewicz's film adaptation of Tennessee Williams' chilling Southern Gothic play, "Suddenly, Last Summer," brought together three screen titans: Clift, Katharine Hepburn and Elizabeth Taylor (her third and final film with Monty). Clift is a psychiatrist evaluating whether Taylor should be lobotomized at the behest of Hepburn, her aunt. All issues seem to stem from Hepburn's son and Taylor's cousin, Sebastian Venable, who died under odd circumstances.

This is not one of Clift's best performances, but it's a fascinating one. He tries to hold his own opposite these two divas. But he was in pain throughout the shoot and Mankiewicz allegedly pushed him so hard that upon completing her work, Hepburn spat in Mank's face because of his mistreatment of Monty.

This disturbing curio was nominated for three Academy Awards including Best Actress for both Hepburn and Taylor.

"Suddenly, Last Summer" is available to rent on Prime, Apple TV and YouTube.

Rudolph Peterson in "Judgment at Nuremberg"

One of the first and best motion pictures to take on the Nuremberg trials was Stanley Kramer's "Judgment at Nuremberg," released in 1961 and written by Abby Mann, based on his 1959 Playhouse 90 TV special.

This epic courtroom drama centered on a group of Nazis accused of crimes against humanity. The all-star cast included Spencer Tracy, Burt Lancaster, Marlene Dietrich, Richard Widmark, Maximillian Schell, Judy Garland and Clift, who played a developmentally disabled man who was sterilized by the Nazis. Clift's dignified and heartbreaking performance was often thought to be the result of the actor's confused ad libbing, but in "Making Montgomery Clift," the filmmakers show Clift's original script where he had rewritten his part, so the character deliberately sounded confused. It's brilliant work, his last truly great performance.

The film was nominated for 11 Oscars including Best Picture and Monty received his fourth career nomination. Schell won best actor and Mann copped Best Adapted Screenplay.

This was finally going to be Clift's long overdue Academy Award, but he and Judy Garland confoundedly lost to the "West Side Story" juggernaut as George Chakiris and Rita Moreno took both awards instead. When you rewatch these films it's easy to conclude that history has not been kind to Hollywood's refusal to honor these two legends. Both would be dead by the end of the decade.

"Judgment at Nuremberg" can currently be streamed on Hulu.

Perce Howland in "The Misfits"

Director John Huston brought together some extraordinary talent for Arthur Miller's adaptation of his own short story, an anti-western that delved into toxic masculinity way before it was vogue, "The Misfits," released in 1961. The cast included Clark Gable, Marilyn Monroe, Thema Ritter, and Clift. The film would mark Gable and Monroe's last screen performances and Clift and Ritter would only make a handful more before their untimely deaths.

Clift immersed himself in the role of a rodeo cowboy on the skids, and watching him and Monroe together is a study in two pained but gifted movie stars giving their all for their craft.

"The Misfits" was a failure upon release but has achieved classic status.

"The Misfits" is currently streaming on Philo, and is available to rent on Prime, Apple TV, and Vudu.

Dr. Sigmund Freud in "Freud: The Secret Passion"

Clift's final collaboration with director John Huston in 1962 would be a most unpleasant experience and would destroy his career and, arguably, his life.

Huston and Clift got along well filming "The Misfits" just a year earlier, but on "Freud," Huston "developed homosexual animosity towards him after discovering that Clift had sex with another man while staying at Huston's castle in Ireland," according to many sources including the doc, "Making Montgomery Clift." Huston made life a living hell for Clift during production and afterwards, thanks to Huston, Monty was seen as an insurance risk.

The film itself feels like a harshly edited version of a significant time in Freud's life — for good reason. Huston's intended cut was over three hours long and the studio insisted on cuts...and more cuts...until it was down to 140 minutes. Yet it's Monty's complex, fully committed portrait of this paradoxical genius that shines through. We may never get to see the original uncut version, but enough remains to showcase Clift's talents.

"Freud" was nominated for two Oscars. Despite mostly stellar reviews, his performance was ignored.

"Freud: The Secret Passion" can be streamed here:

Or you can pick up the Kino Lorber Blu-ray.

"Making Montgomery Clift"

"Making Montgomery Clift" is available to rent on Prime, Apple TV and YouTube. It can be streamed free on Tubi.

Frank J. Avella is a film journalist and is thrilled to be writing for EDGE. He also contributes to Awards Daily and is the GALECA East Coast Rep and a Member of the New York Film Critics Online. Frank is a recipient of the International Writers Residency in Assisi, Italy, a Bogliasco Foundation Fellowship, and a NJ State Arts Council Fellowship. His short film, FIG JAM, has shown in Festivals worldwide ( and won awards. His screenplays (CONSENT, LURED, SCREW THE COW) have also won numerous awards in 16 countries. He is a proud member of the Dramatists Guild.