To celebrate the release of the documentary Making Montgomery Clift (now available on iTunes, YouTube, Amazon as well as on DVD) writers and bloggers have been invited to share their thoughts on Monty right here, for the Montgomery Clift Blogathon! For the next three days, we’ll be talking about Monty’s work, his life, and what he means to cinema as an art form. There’s also a chance to WIN a digital copy of the film (full rules here).
October marks the 70th anniversary of the release of William Wyler’s The Heiress, so for the first post of this blogathon I thought it would be a lot of fun to go back and “re-live,” so to speak, the night of its Hollywood premiere: the night that Montgomery Clift and Elizabeth Taylor began what would be the most important friendship of their lives.
On the evening of Friday, October 21st, 1949*, Elizabeth Taylor could scarcely contain her excitement. MGM’s 17-year-old matinee princess was upstairs in her parent’s Beverly Hills home, preparing for one of the most important nights of her young career: any moment now, the most sought-after actor in Hollywood would be arriving to escort her to the biggest movie premiere of the year. The film was director William Wyler’s latest prestige picture, The Heiress, a period drawing-room drama starring Olivia de Havilland and Montgomery Clift. And thanks to the publicity team at Paramount Pictures, she was to be Clift’s date for the grand event.
Over the past year, the name Montgomery Clift had been everywhere: marquees, movie magazines, industry trades. Bursting onto the Hollywood scene direct from a successful career on Broadway, Clift’s talent, charm, and startling beauty had swept away millions of moviegoers. Although The Heiress was only his third picture, Clift already had an Academy Award nomination under his belt and had earned the unusual reputation of being both Hollywood’s hottest property—and its most elusive celebrity.
Although he checked all the boxes with his tall, lean form and dark, simmering beauty, Clift did not consider himself a “movie star”. He’d spent his formative years in the company of Broadway’s elite, working with stage luminaries like Tallulah Bankhead, Fredric March, and the great Alfred Lunt. By age 25, he’d grown into one of the Great White Way’s brightest young actors and that’s how he saw himself: as a serious actor. So, when Hollywood inevitably came calling, with its lucrative offers and standard seven-year contract, he was in no hurry to sign his life away on a dotted line. If he did go to Hollywood, it would be on his terms: he would be the one in charge of his career.
This was unprecedented behavior. Never before had an actor openly eschewed the Hollywood studio system by refusing point blank to play by its rules. Never before had a movie actor craved craft over contract from day one. Not knowing what to make of him, but sensing he’d be a sensation, Hollywood capitulated to Clift’s requests and granted him his freedom. The bet paid off: his first major picture, Howard Hawks’ Red River, was one of the top box office hits of 1948. And his screen debut, in Fred Zinnemann’s The Search, earned him an Academy Award nomination for Best Actor.
“Monty” had become an overnight sensation.
He was also a conundrum. Hollywood was accustomed to hot new talent succumbing willfully to its way of life, its conventions, its rules. From the start, Monty was different. He did not seek out Hollywood nightlife, did not schmooze with Hollywood gossip columnists, and truthfully, could not have cared less whether or not he was “seen” last night at the Cocoanut Grove or not. His emotional and spiritual core belonged home in New York City, not Hollywood, so why should he be expected to pretend otherwise? After all, he said, “a factory worker doesn’t live in the factory, does he?”
He was quickly branded a “rebel” in the press for his reluctance to toe the line: interviews were rare, public appearances even rarer—making his mere attendance at the premiere of The Heiress something of an event in itself.
On the opposite end of the spectrum was Elizabeth Taylor. A pristine product of the MGM dream factory, Taylor had been groomed since the age of ten for movie stardom. There wasn’t a photo session she hadn’t posed for, interview she hadn’t sat for, or fan letter she hadn’t answered. She’d even graced the LIFE magazine earlier that same year. (Yes, the famous portrait below really is Taylor at 16-years-old.)
But MGM viewed her as a property, not an actress, and as such she obeyed her orders from studio chief Louis B. Mayer and accepted the roles fed to her. And although these were high-end productions with that distinct MGM veneer (National Velvet, Life with Father, Little Women) the roles didn’t really give her much to do. This fact was becoming ever more frustrating for the blossoming ingenue which is why she had lobbied, hard, for a starring role in a decidedly “grown up” drama that, coincidently, Monty had also signed on for.
George Stevens’ A Place in the Sun was Taylor’s chance to move from starlet to actor.
Shooting for the film had already started on the Paramount lot and she had, in fact, already met her new co-star. As Taylor recounted in a tribute to Montgomery Clift on Turner Classic Movies, they had an immediate connection:
“[I first met Monty] in George Stevens’ office and we were there to talk about our first picture together, A Place in the Sun. I remember my heart stopped when I looked into those green eyes and that smile, that roguish, boyish smile. And I was so scared! I thought, ‘Oh my god, here’s this accomplished New York actor and I’m just a Hollywood nobody.’ But Monty was so funny, and he put me at ease. We liked each other from that day on, and I think that comes through in the film.”
When Paramount informed her that Monty was to be her escort for The Heiress premiere, Taylor marched straight to MGM’s chief costume designer, Helen Rose, requesting a dress fitting for the occasion. “Something sexy and sophisticated,” she instructed, and the result was a strapless gown of virginal white with matching fur cape, contrasting starkly with Taylor’s raven hair and violet eyes.
But her date was running late.
Somewhere in Hollywood, Montgomery Clift was devouring a hamburger. Watching him was Paramount’s head of publicity Max Youngstein, press agent Harvey Zim, and Monty’s acting coach, Mira Rostova, who all sat in stony silence in the limousine. This drive-in detour was Monty’s way of stressing his vast displeasure at having been forced into the evening: he may have liked Taylor, but he was far from happy about attending the premiere. A Place in the Sun was a complex script requiring intense focus, and Monty would have much rather spent the evening at home, poring over the script and digging deep into what he sensed would be his most important role to date. A movie premiere—even his own movie premiere— felt like an unnecessary distraction.
Youngstein and Zim were sparing no expense in an aggressive publicity campaign for The Heiress and tonight’s Hollywood premiere was its big kickoff. In addition to ensuring their stars adorned newsstands everywhere (Taylor was October’s cover girl of Screen Album magazine while Monty was heavily featured in that and many other fan mags) the L.A. papers heralded the arrival of the glittering premiere. A ticket to the show was just as hot as one to the Academy Awards. The film’s star, Olivia de Havilland, would not be in attendance as she was recovering from a stressful pregnancy (she had been confined to her bed for five-and-a-half months and had to have a C-section), so her co-star’s attendance was non-negotiable as far as Paramount was concerned. The Heiress was a Paramount Picture, A Place in the Sun was a Paramount Picture, he had a three-picture deal with Paramount, so he was going to escort Elizabeth Taylor and that was final.
It didn’t help that Monty was deeply dissatisfied with how his performance in The Heiress had turned out and was in no hurry to watch it, 20 feet tall, in a crowd of hundreds. By the time he finally arrived at the Taylor home, with its pink stucco and terra cotta, Elizabeth’s mother was ready to greet him. When she opened the door, however, the sight of the tall, dark, handsome Montgomery Clift quite took Mrs. Taylor’s breath away and she began to gush at Monty like a smitten schoolgirl.
Embarrassed, Taylor hurried things along and followed Monty into the cigarette smoke-soaked limousine. “Sorry about mother,” Taylor said. “She can be a real pain in the ass.”
Monty laughed in delight. Youngstein and Zim laughed with relief. The sullen mood in the car lightened and by the time the entourage made it to the Carthay Circle theater, Monty’s anxiety—although high—had been at least somewhat mollified by Taylor’s youthful giggle and thousand-watt smile.
The Carthay Circle was second in splendor only to Grauman’s Chinese to the north. Its’ imposing Spanish Colonial Revival tower had long been a beacon for Hollywood premieres and tonight the tinsel townsfolk had turned out in splendid form. Spotlights flooded the night sky in high drama and down on the red carpet the energy was palpable. Scores of fans had lined the streets along San Vicente Blvd. to ogle at the arrivals where superstars like Gregory Peck smiled for the cameras while fans cheered.
When Montgomery Clift and Elizabeth Taylor stepped out of the limo and onto the red carpet, the crowd went wild. They were perfect mirrors of each other: dark, delicate, staggeringly beautiful. Lightbulbs exploded and fans screamed as the two, arm in arm, greeted the press. Smiling brightly, they looked almost intimate. She fixes his tie. He leans in close, as if confiding an old secret. They are acquaintances of mere minutes and already feel comfortable; familiar.
As they took their seats, Monty dissolved into a mess of nerves. He watched as his celluloid self danced with Olivia de Havilland, charming his way into her affection and, more to the point, fortune. In not so soft whispers, he fretted to Taylor over and over again how awful, how miserable, how dreadful his performance was. But Taylor could only see what everyone else saw: a well-mannered performance that resulted in generous applause after the house lights went up.
When the house lights came up, Monty was eager to leave. “Let’s get out of here, Bessie Mae,” he said.
Confused by the name “Bessie Mae,” Taylor nevertheless followed his lead, heading firmly through the congratulatory crowds and back toward the limo. As they headed toward the after party, an elegant affair at William Wyler’s Beverly Hills home, Taylor asked him about the name. Monty, who had a fondness for silly nicknames, shrugged and said that to her that to everyone else she was “Elizabeth Taylor,” but to him he’d be his “Bessie Mae.”
They would see each other again soon, bonding together in the freezing January cold up in Lake Tahoe for A Place in the Sun. But that night was the real beginning of the most meaningful friendship of his life.
The next morning, when Hollywood woke from its foggy hangover, Paramount’s press team eagerly awaited the early reviews from the critics. Monty was back at work on his scripts: intensely serious, he meticulously pulled apart each line. That laser-sharp focus would, a little over a year later, result in a second Academy Award nomination.
The motivation for this kind of intensity was simple: “I’m trying to be an actor,” Monty confided. “Not a movie star. An actor.”
And for the rest of the 1950s, Monty would indeed not just be any actor, but one of the most influential actors of his generation.
*Note: Although varying dates for the premiere have appeared in multiple publications, October 21st is the date that appears on all photographs in Los Angeles photo archives as well as promotional materials for the film that are kept at the Margaret Herrick Library.