Credited with bringing a bold and newfound realism to the big screen, Montgomery Clift distinctively transformed movie acting in the mid-20th century with his roles in "Red River," "From Here to Eternity" and "A Place in the Sun," to name a few. Marlon Brando and James Dean complete this holy trinity, each receiving invaluable training in the theatre before they ever made a film. With Clift's 100th birthday this past week, I return to his stage roots for today's "Theatre Yesterday and Today."
Edward Montgomery Clift was born October 17, 1920 in Omaha, Nebraska (coincidentally, three-and-a-half years later, the birthplace of Marlon Brando). Clift's twin sister Roberta was born several hours earlier, and along with their older brother Brooks, the trio had a childhood filled with privilege, with foreign travel and personal tutors common. The siblings mainly spent their early childhoods moving throughout Europe with their mother, Sunny, while Bill Clift, their father, stayed behind in Omaha (he was vice-president of a bank).
The Depression put a stop to Sunny and her gallivanting (Bill Clift lost his bank job) and the family settled in Sarasota, Florida. But it didn't take long before young Monty appeared in a school play and, with his good looks and natural talent for the stage, made evident to one and all that he was something special. In 1935, after being cast in a stock production of a new play Fly Away Home, he was offered $50 a week to repeat his role for its move to Broadway. So, the family embarked for New York where Monty's abilities were met with immediate success.
Fly Away Home had him play the son of the great character actor Thomas Mitchell. It ran six months after which Clift was immediately cast as a young Prince in the hit musical Jubilee, with a score by Cole Porter and direction by Moss Hart (opening night was five days before Monty would turn fifteen). Four more plays followed in quick succession leading him to working with Alfred Lunt & Lynn Fontanne, two of the most esteemed actors in the American theatre. Cast in the role of Lunt's teenage son, the twenty-year-old Clift gave his best performance to date in what would become the Pulitzer Prize winning drama There Shall Be No Night. With genuine affection, both Lunts took the young actor under their wing. They saw in him a bright talent and mentored him in the ways of the theatre as a great gift to the audience. Clift gladly went on an eight-month tour of the play with them after the Broadway run ended because the Lunts told him that is what a good actor did: allowing for people around the country who could never get to New York the chance to see stagecraft of the first caliber. This dedication to the theatre became one of the reasons Clift would not choose to make a film until he was twenty-eight.
Having seen Lynn and Alfred on stage, Clift greatly admired their naturalness as actors and took every opportunity to learn from them, going so far as to making the sound of his voice be as similar to Lunt's as possible, which made sense since he was playing his son. "Alfred taught me how to select," he said. "Acting is an accumulation of subtle details. And the details of Alfred Lunt's performances were like the observations of a great novelist — like Samuel Butler or Marcel Proust." Eventually, Clift would become so close to the couple that he was gifted with a photograph of them both with the inscription, "from your real mother and father."
Over his first ten years as a professional actor, Clift would appear in twelve Broadway shows. For a good deal of that time, he refused a number of generous roles in Hollywood and eschewed any talk about a contract, which he considered indentured servitude. Not one to be pigeon-holed, no one was going to tell him what parts he had to play, and that attitude was pretty revolutionary for a young actor who had yet to make a movie. As the film historian Robert Osborne stated:
“In an era when everybody was under contract to a studio, he didn’t go under contract to a studio. He remained a freelancer and the studio kind of hated him for that. And other actors were thinking, ‘My god, how can he get away with this?’ But he could because he was that talented. And people wanted him… he so stood out from the crowd that I think everybody knew that he was going to be important in films… he was given advice to hold out for the very best. You have enough talent to get the very best. And he did.”
In 1942, the young Clift got a chance to work with Elia Kazan, then at the start of his rapid rise to becoming the most influential stage director of the post-war era. Along with Tallulah Bankhead, Fredric March and Florence Eldridge, he was cast in Thornton Wilder's absurdist comedy The Skin of Our Teeth. The role was a limited one, but Clift was determined to work with the best people in the business now and become as good an actor as he possibly could. His judgment paid off as it would be his second play in a row to win the Pulitzer Prize. He'd dip into a third Pulitzer play when he chose to do a three-week run of Thornton Wilder's Our Town at City Center in the role of George Gibbs (Clift had befriended Wilder during the run of Skin of Our Teeth). And in case your appetite has been whetted to see this production by way of a time machine, make sure to bring along $1.45 to pay for the top ticket price in the orchestra.
When he did finally take on a film, it was one worth waiting for. It was The Search, directed by two-time Academy Award winner Fred Zinnemann, with Clift cast as a young soldier in post-war Berlin responsible for a young Czech boy, lost and in search of his mother. Clift made such an impression he got a Best Actor nomination for his first film (his young co-star, Ivan Jandl, actually went home with an Oscar for Best Juvenile Performance).
Clift would only return to the theatre one more time after becoming a movie star. It came out of a desire to act on stage with an actress who had become not only a friend and close confident, but his acting coach. This was the Russian-born Mira Rostova, who by the time of her death in 2009 at age ninety-nine, boasted such future stars as Alec Baldwin, Jessica Lange and Jerry Orbach as her students. By 1945, Clift felt indebted to all Rostova had done for him (she stood close to the camera, quietly approving take after take on many of his films). Together, along with their mutual friend, the actor Kevin McCarthy, they chose to adapt Chekhov's The Seagull, from the original Russian, with an eye towards mounting a production. Sadly, what began as a labor of love turned into an irreparable rift in the friendship between Clift and Rostova. The very idea of casting Rostova, then forty years old, as the nineteen-year-old Nina opposite Clift's Treplev was perhaps doomed from the start. Critics were unkind to say the least, and it was torture for her to play night after night to sold-out houses, feeling as she did that she had failed the production and her beloved friend. Rostova would never accompany him to a film set again.
Taking into account James Dean's early death at age twenty-five, it's interesting to note that neither Clift nor Brando ever returned to the Broadway stage after they began making movies. The discipline of eight shows a week is not for everyone; Robert Redford and Barbra Streisand, to name two, never returned either and it's easy to understand why. I, for one, would have loved to have seen what Clift was like live and in person. The kinetic quality of an actor is in its purest form when, in full figure, you watch them function in time and space right in front of your eyes, connected to all that's happening on stage and in the audience.
It's the main reason why, due to the pandemic, these past seven months have been so brutal for all eagerly awaiting the return of theatre when it's the smart and safe thing to do. In the meantime, find a Montgomery Clift film to watch. There's something brilliant in every one of his performances, especially in two of his own personal favorites from later in his career; The Young Lions (with Brando) and Judgment at Nuremberg, which led to his 4th and last Academy Award nomination.
If you enjoy these columns, check out Up in the Cheap Seats: A Historical Memoir of Broadway, available at Amazon.com in hardcover, softcover and e-book. And please feel free to email me with comments or questions at Ron@ronfassler.org.