Childhood & Early Life
Clift was born on October 17, 1920 in Omaha, Nebraska. His father, William Brooks Clift was vice-president of Omaha National Trust Company and his mother was Ethel Fogg Anderson. Clift had a twin sister, Ethel and a brother, William Brooks Clift, Jr.
He had an English, Dutch and Irish ancestry. His mother was born out of wedlock and spent much of her life and her husband’s wealth trying to find her Yankee lineage, and raising her children as aristocrats. The children were privately tutored, travelled extensively in Europe and America, and became fluent in German and French.
His father was financially ruined in the Great Depression. When his situation improved, Brooks was enrolled at Harvard and Ethel at Bryn Mawr College. Montgomery, on the other hand, decided to take up stage acting.
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At 15, Clift made his debut in Broadway. He achieved immense success and within five years appeared in the play ‘There Shall Be No Night’, winner of the 1941 Pulitzer Prize for drama. He continued stage acting for a decade before joining Hollywood.
In 1948, his first movie ‘Red River’ was released followed by ‘The Search’. For the latter, he rewrote most of the script as he was unsatisfied with the original one. The movie won an Oscar for screenwriting and the original writers were given credit. He, on the other hand, won an Oscar nomination for Best Actor.
He already had a huge female fan following by the time his next film ‘The Heiress’ was released in 1949. During the filming, he was again discontented with the script. He ended up being unhappy with his performance as well.
In the 1950s, he became one of the most sought-after actors in Hollywood. He was extremely choosy with his projects and Marlon Brando was his only real acting rival.
In his next movie, ‘A Place in the Sun’ (1951), he was paired opposite Elizabeth Taylor and it became one of his signature method acting performances. The movie was critically acclaimed and won praise from Brando and Chaplin. Clift and Taylor were termed “the most beautiful couple in Hollywood”.
In 1952, after a gap of almost two years, he signed up three more films: ‘I Confess’ (1952) by Alfred Hitchcock; ‘Terminal Station’ (1953) by Vittorio De Sica, and ‘From Here to Eternity’ (1953) by Fred Zinnemann.
On May 12, 1956, when ‘Raintree County’ (1957) was in progress, he met a near fatal car accident while driving from the dinner party of his co-star Elizabeth Taylor and her husband, Michael Wilding. His face was badly injured and he had to undergo plastic surgery.
He returned to finish the film after two months. Although his plastic surgeries were fairly successful, his facial appearance was noticeably affected. He got increasingly dependent on alcohol and medicines to combat the pain. He also suffered from chronic intestinal problems. Eventually, his health and physical appearance worsened.
His post-accident career is often referred to as the “longest suicide in Hollywood history” since he never fully recovered. His next films were ‘The Young Lions’ (1958), ‘Lonelyhearts’ (1958), ‘Suddenly, Last Summer’ (1959) and ‘Wild River’ (1960).
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In 1961, he co-starred in John Huston's ‘The Misfits’ which was both Marilyn Monroe and Clark Gable's last film. His last notable performance was a 12-minute supporting role in ‘Judgment at Nuremberg’ (1961).
By 1962, his reckless lifestyle and erratic behavior had impacted his health and professional life. Universal sued him for his frequent absences during the making of ‘Freud: The Secret Passion (1962)’. His reputation was tarnished and as a result he was not getting any work again.
He eventually took up voice work. In 1964, he recorded for Caedmon Records ‘The Glass Menagerie’. In 1965, he gave voice to William Faulkner's writings in the TV documentary ‘William Faulkner’s Mississippi’.
In 1966, Elizabeth Taylor helped him secure the lead role in ‘Reflections in a Golden Eye’. To prove himself fit for work, he took up a mediocre film ‘The Defector’ and the filming of the former got delayed until August that year. Unfortunately, he passed away in July and the role passed on to Brando.
Clift received critical appreciation for his performances in films like ‘The Search’, ‘From Here to Eternity’, and ‘Judgment at Nuremberg’.
His acting in ‘A Place in the Sun’ is considered as one of his signature method acting performances. He researched extensively on the character and even spent a night in a real prison, trying to understand the role better. Charlie Chaplin called it “the greatest movie made about America.”
Awards & Achievements
During his lifetime, Clift received four Academy Award nominations: Best Actor in a Leading Role for ‘The Search’ in 1948, Best Actor in a Leading Role for ‘A Place in the Sun’ in 1951, Best Actor in a Leading Role for ‘From Here to Eternity’ in 1953, and Best Actor in a Supporting Role for ‘Judgment at Nuremberg’ in 1961.
He has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 6104, Hollywood Boulevard.
Personal Life & Legacy
Clift’s personal life and relationships were shrouded in mystery. Initially believed to be bi-sexual, towards the end of his life he was exclusively homosexual, although he continued to hide his sexuality.
Elizabeth Taylor was a special friend and an important person in his life. She was also his co-star in ‘A Place in the Sun’ ‘Raintree County’ and ‘Suddenly, Last Summer’.
On July 23, 1966, he was found dead in his bedroom by his live-in personal secretary Lorenzo James. The autopsy mentioned “occlusive coronary artery disease” as the cause of death. He was buried in Friends Cemetery, New York.