The documentary Making Montgomery Clift aims to paint a more accurate picture of the classic Hollywood actor. I feel like most people only know a few facts about him. And some of those facts are quite shaky. But if you don’t want to dig deeper about a subject, you tend to go with the basic things out there. Co-directors Robert A. Clift and Hillary Demmon set out to fill in the details that previous movies, books, or TV specials left out. Robert, Montgomery’s nephew, is especially invested in correcting the stories that have been told about his uncle over the years.
The biggest misconception that the film sets out to dispel is that Montgomery was a tragic figure. Supposedly he was a self-hating homosexual who was slowing killing himself with heavy drinking and pills. The film doesn’t try to skip over his vices, but it’s clear that he didn’t have a death wish either. He seemed to have enjoyed his life. In terms of his sexuality, he was open as one could be at that time about being into men. His friend Jack Larson speaks of how Montgomery was affectionate with him, going so far as to kiss him in a restaurant. He refused to play the game, like other gay actors in that period, by getting married to a woman. In addition, many interviewees in the film talk about his light-hearted jovial spirit. Definitely not the walking tragedy he was reported to be.
A lot of attention was paid to Montgomery’s appearance. He was an exceptionally beautiful man and his talent often gets overshadowed by his looks. The documentary goes into detail about how serious he was about acting. He was very choosy about which movies he made turning down many prominent roles, like the lead in Sunset Boulevard. Montgomery also refused to sign a contract with a studio. He wanted to be a free agent and avoid being controlled by the system. In the middle of his career, he was involved in a horrific car accident that altered his appearance dramatically. It was alleged that this contributed to his downward spiral. But a talking head in the film says Montgomery actually preferred how he looked after the accident. The focus wasn’t on his looks anymore and he could become more of a character actor.
The one flaw in this valuable history lesson of a film is the focus on Montgomery’s brother William Brooks Clift Jr. Like his son, Robert, William was invested in correcting the false information that had been put out about his brother. He was a bit obsessed with his brother’s career actually. William horded pictures, home movies, newspaper clippings, and audio recordings featuring Montgomery. The film devotes a lot of time to this obsession. It makes sense that Robert would want to mention his father. He certainly influenced the movie. But so much detail slows down the narrative and the focus is taken away from Montgomery. It all could have been trimmed down more.
I felt like I walked out of Making with a better understanding of who Montgomery was as a person. And, it definitely made me side-eye previous reports about him. In a voice-over, Robert speaks of wanting to give back the dignity that past tabloid tales took away from his uncle. I think he definitely achieves his goal with this film.