Playing at NewFest, Making Montgomery Clift is an utterly absorbing recasting of the image of the trailblazing actor by his nephew, one that meticulously pares away propaganda — Hollywood and otherwise — in place for decades that would have us believe Clift was a self-loathing gay man who all but killed himself.
Monty Clift was a new kind of emotional actor, one whose style was soon embraced by contemporaries James Dean and Marlon Brando. He made only 17 films, but they included such classics as The Heiress (1949), A Place in the Sun (1951) and From Here to Eternity (1953). His gayness was an open secret in Hollywood, and fairly jumps off the screen in many of his appearances; it's shocking that Red River (1948), with its gun-comparing scene between Monty and John Ireland, wasn't banned for promoting homosexuality.
So why does everybody think Clift drank himself to death in an increasingly tiny closet of his own making?
Co-directors Robert Anderson Clift and Hillary Demmon had at their disposal an unprecedented amount of material for any subject, let alone one so private. Most compelling are the hour and hours (weeks?) worth of audio tapes made clandestinely by co-director Clift's dad, Monty's brother Brooks Clift. These pristine tapes (there is a momentary Capturing the Friedmans vibe as his son ponders why the tapes were so obsessively made) hold the private thoughts of Monty and his entire family, including his mother, a direct window into what made Clift — and the Clifts — tick.
Add to the tapes family photos and home movies, the extensive research and scrapbooks kept by Brooks Clift, and the willingness of two of Monty's last surviving lovers to speak (Jack Larson and Lorenzo James, both since deceased), and that is a recipe for either the definitive biography of Montgomery Clift or a colossal missed opportunity.
Making Montgomery Clift is the former.
Along with the wealth of material, what distinguishes this doc is the directors' drive to call out some of their own participating subjects in their quest to tell the story of who Monty really was, to dispel the notion that he hated being gay. Patricia Bosworth, who wrote the second major Monty biography, is hung out to dry in a way she couldn't have guessed until she saw the final film. When she was writing her book, she relied on the input of Brooks Clift, who was dismayed that she had taken his words and crafted a portrait of his brother he barely recognized. When Brooks complained and demanded corrections, Bosworth played dumb — her bad-faith efforts are captured in some of the secret tapes, and even in the book's original manuscript, from which the filmmakers are able to trace Bosworth's recasting of several aspects of Monty's life, most damningly an irresponsibly embellished (and homophobic) tale of a possible morals arrest from Monty's early years.
The filmmakers also hilariously draw out some of the creative team behind what could become a big-budget biopic about Monty, framing them as all too eager to continue selling the tale that Clift hated himself.
Surgical in its evisceration of those it seeks to undermine, Making Montgomery Clift is every bit as careful to give voice to those it seeks to validate, most especially James. As a black man living with Monty when he died, James was referred to as his private nurse, but he was closer to a life partner, and he is filled with observations that make the third-hand views of hack writers sound like so much flimsy tabloid fare.
Still, if the movie has a flaw, it may be that it is so resolute in rejecting the overreaches in the mythologizing of Monty it sometimes overreaches itself, seeming to argue that he wasn't troubled at all, when Monty's latter-day interviews (precious few of them) clearly show him to be struggling, at the very least with alcohol.
You will never need another film or book about Montgomery Clift after this one, but it will make you crave Monty's performances in such films as The Misfits (1961) and Judgment at Nuremburg (1961) as payback for ever having believed the Hollywood Babylon-style gossip that, come to find out, does not stand up to intelligent scrutiny.
An extraordinary achievement.
Making Montgomery Clift is at NewFest October 30, where it serves as the closing-night gala film.