Star-struck James Dean would call up Montgomery Clift just to hear the sound of his voice. Watching dailies of The Misfits (1961), co-star Clark Gable offered this praise: “That faggot is a hell of an actor!” Of the 17 films Clift made, BAM’s retrospective—its title taken from the Clash’s waggish Monty ode, “The Right Profile”—includes six pre-accident movies and five made after May 12, 1956, the night he smashed his car after leaving a dinner party hosted by friend and three-time co-star Elizabeth Taylor. One of the most beautiful, in-demand faces in the world became partially immobile; acting teacher Robert Lewis called the 10 years that Clift lived and worked post-crash the “longest suicide in Hollywood history.” But both before and after disfigurement, Clift’s cautious, slow-burning, and slightly stoop-shouldered heroes offered new ways of being a man.
As Patricia Bosworth points out in her essential Montgomery Clift: A Biography, Monty, though associated with the Actors Studio, was never truly a Method actor, feeling that “many Method actors never created characters” but “merely played variations of themselves.” In Howard Hawks’s cattle-driving Red River (1948), Clift immediately transfixes as John Wayne’s surrogate son, his pensive cowboy puncturing Wayne’s alpha-maleness. From the Chisholm Trail to the Armed Forces, the actor thrived in homosocial settings (off-screen, his same-sex leanings tormented him). As a pilot bringing food to occupied Berlin in George Seaton’s The Big Lift (1950), Clift falls for a double-crossing fräulein, but the bonds with his Air Force buddies are stronger: “I feel as if you and I were getting married, Lieutenant.” Likewise, though Donna Reed’s doxy plays Clift’s putative love interest in Fred Zinnemann’s From Here to Eternity (1953), his chemistry with Frank Sinatra and Burt Lancaster electrifies more.
Yet Clift was also, of course, a devastating romantic lead, constantly redefining the erotic pull of vulnerability. His first collaboration with Elizabeth Taylor in George Stevens’s A Place in the Sun (1951), playing a desperate social climber to her debutante, is usually celebrated as his greatest pairing; Andrew Sarris called them “the most beautiful couple in the history of cinema.” If the Clift-Taylor pulchritude stands as the apogee of pre-accident Monty, then Clift opposite Lee Remick in Elia Kazan’s New Deal tribute Wild River (1960) is the unrivaled partnership after it. “You’re not easy to love, and you do need someone,” Remick’s young widowed Tennessee mother tells Clift’s government idealist—a perfect articulation of the actor’s post–car wreck appeal.