Tuesday, August 12, 2014

The Misfortune of Montgomery Clift

The men in Tennessee Williams' work never seem to elicit the same sort of fervor as his female characters. And with such indelible women as Blanche DuBois, Amanda Wingfield, and Maggie the Cat, among others, it's easy to see how their male counterparts tend to get overshadowed by such towering creations. Especially when they've been brought to life by such sublime actresses as Vivien Leigh, Cate Blanchett, Jessica Lange, Cherry Jones, Elizabeth Taylor, and Scarlett Johansson. There are exceptions, of course, Stanley Kowalski immediately comes to mind, but outside of Brando's performance do you ever hear him mentioned in quite the same way as that play's ladies? Even at the most recent production of The Glass Menagerie on Broadway in which Zachary Quinto's performance as Tennessee Williams stand-in, Tom, gained some of the play's best reviews, he still found himself as the odd man out when it came to Tony recognition. Once again upstaged by the Williams women.

For this week's edition of Hit Me With Your Best Shot from Nathaniel at The Film Experience we took on the film adaptation of a Tennessee Williams One-Act that became the gonzo Southern Gothic melodrama Suddenly, Last Summer. You name it, this movie's got it - cannibals, predatory gays, lobotomies, suggestive swimwear, and a couple of Oscar-nominated performances from two of Classic Hollywood's finest actresses (domineering Katharine Hepburn as the WASP-iest Southern Grand Dame ever to grace the screen and the buxom Elizabeth Taylor going off the deep end magnificently) that perpetuate the long-standing Williams womanly tradition. But as campy and delicious as those two turns were, I kept getting drawn into the sad eyes of Montgomery Clift as the observant Dr. Cukrowicz. Not necessarily for the performance he was giving (because those ladies were overpowering him) but because Monty himself suddenly seemed like one of Willimas' women - so lost and fragile. As delicate as Laura in Glass Menagerie, capable of breaking at any moment.

There had always been something softer about Montgomery Clift. Beneath the manly visage of the star, there was always a haunted quality and a femininity married to his masculinity. But after the car crash that almost left him for dead (saved only by kindred spirit Elizabeth Taylor - who certainly knew about suffering. Husband Mike Todd died just before filming of this movie, allowing her to access a well of emotions for her impassioned monologues), Clift seemed to become a shell of himself. Retreating into alcohol and drugs to numb the pain, it has been noted that his life after the accident was the longest suicide in Hollywood history.

He was such a liability that he couldn't even get insured for the film's production. He only appeared in it at the insistence of Taylor, who used her power as the biggest box office draw to secure Monty a job. And as the two actresses spend most of the film in elaborate soliloquies, Monty silently listens, taking in what they say but not completely registering entirely what is happening around him.

After he meets Hepburn's Violet Venable in her late son Sebastian's primitive jungle (complete with Venus Fly Trap, naturally), she goes on and on about her poet son and as she describes him, Monty begins to become the stand-in for him. We never once see Sebastian's face, even during Catherine's flashback as to what happened and perhaps because Monty was also gay in real-life, the connection seems natural. When the truth is learned and Violet suddenly seems to be the one to lose her own mind, she even mistakes Monty's doctor to be her dead son. Not to say that Monty was devoured by a pack of ravenous boys as Sebastian was, but he was devoured just the same.

Right before Monty leaves the house on his first visit, he and Violet stop in front of a statue of the Angel of Death, a macabre yet grotesquely beautiful winged skeleton. Violet looks out over the prehistoric plants that populate the setting,
"Millions of years ago, dinosaurs fed on the leaves of these trees. They were vegetarians. That's why they became extinct. They were just too gentle for their size. Then the carnivores, the ones that eat flesh - the killers - inherited the earth. But then they always do, don't they..."

Monty is left alone looking bewildered (but after a half an hour of Hepburn's rants on birds of death, fly-eating plants, and a mother/son relationship that seems a little too close for comfort, bewildered is probably putting it mildly). Even though her words are about her son and foreshadow the fate of Sebastian, it's hard not to read into it in regards to Monty's own life. Monty's own demons were carnivorous, chasing him the way the wild pack would Sebastian, and as the grinning skull looks down on the actor, foreshadowing his own untimely demise, it was not the character in the film that looked adrift, but the actor himself. He would only live another 7 years after this film was made, finally unable to outrun his own demons. Perhaps he never stood a chance to begin with. Like a Tennessee Williams heroine, he was too gentle for this world.


  1. i feel too emotionally fragile to read this tonight. The second I know that something is about Montgomery Clift's own damage I have to steel myself. I love him SO much... though this is a strangely tentative performance.

    but when i gather my strength i shall read it fully and enjoy fully.

    1. ever since i first saw him in A PLACE IN THE SUN as a young teenager, i became an instant admirer. he's also one of my favorites.

      and it's that tentativeness in this film that was making my heart break for him. capable of so much more, he just seemed so skittish. like he wasn't prepared to tackle the material or hold his own against these actresses that were nothing but nurturing and understanding of him. he couldn't get out of his own way.