Montgomery Clift season at BFI Southbank
Charismatic and insightful, yet troubled and with a tragic personal life, Montgomery Clift brought a potent sensitivity to his portrayals which make him the most modern of Hollywood legends. This February the BFI celebrates his work with a month-long film season.
When he burst on the scene in the late Forties, Montgomery Clift brought a new kind of masculinity to the screen. Listening, caring, intelligent, but no wilting flower either – behind everything lay a stony determination.
He had the looks to make any matinee idol jealous, yet he wasn’t playing up to any star persona, instead intuitively grafting away to represent his diverse characters in minutely observed psychological detail: a befuddled US Army engineer taking care of a Czech orphan in The Search, a conflicted social-climber in A Place in the Sun, torn between accepting ordinariness or reaching for the stars, or From Here to Eternity’s stubborn idealist, squaring up to serial beatings to evade joining his Pearl Harbour platoon’s boxing team.
Wrongly, he’s often lumped in with those icons of the Method, Brando and Dean, but while their performances were often founded on expressive self-revelation, Monty (as friend and foe alike called him) did his utmost to disappear inside his characters. When a horrific 1956 car crash almost ended his life, and resulted in extensive facial surgery which reduced his muscular flexibility, many actors would have retired there and then. Clift however continued to do remarkable work in the likes of Wild River, The Misfits and Freud, achieved through that consistent, entirely characteristic will to inhabit his parts. He’s never just an actor awaiting his cue, he is absolutely there in a way which always compels attention.
The physical and mental legacy of his brush with mortality took its toll, however, seemingly exacerbating his psychological fragility. Whether it was the strain of keeping his sexuality closeted, the lack of emotional connections in his life, or his self-destructive addiction to booze and illicit prescription medication, he certainly reached burn-out far too soon.
Tantalising to think what else he could have achieved, but his compact, rich filmography is its own testament, since the unshowy dedication of his performances has hardly dated a day. He lived fast, he died young, and he remained cool enough to have The Clash write their song ‘The Right Profile’ about him…. ‘That’s Montgomery Clift, honey!’.
Listing of screenings
1 February – 28 February 2013
text: Trevor Johnston