Despite his famous last name, documentarian Robert Anderson Clift never met his famous uncle, actor Montgomery Clift. Yet that has never stopped him from being fascinated with the man who many said lived in a world of agony over being gay. With that in mind Clift and his partner, Hillary Demmon, decided to lift the veil on this perception of Clift, documented in the insightful Making Montgomery Clift. Clift and Demmon sat down with Film Radar to discuss their wealth of Clift information, the struggles to make a Clift biopic, and more.
You two are coming at this documentary like the regular classic film fan, but obviously there’s a more personal connection there. How did you come up with the idea of balancing this as both a personal family portrait and the story of Monty?
Robert Anderson Clift: At one point in the process we asked ourselves “what kind of a film did we want to make?” We didn’t want to make something that anybody could make. The film is a result of that balancing act between negotiating family and personal aspects to the experiences of Monty, and the views that opened up for me since I was a child. And also with the evidentiary and materials we were working with, and the people we spoke to.
Robert, what was the experience like for you growing up with the last name Clift? Has that relationship with the name changed as you’ve gotten older?
RAC: I wouldn’t say that I always experienced the difference between the public perception of Montgomery Clift and the family and friends and loved ones, the perception they had. There was a gap between what people thought about him, in terms of the public, and what people would say about him at home. I was always very aware of that gap, and so this film is a way to explore what that was all about and to think through it. Because my last name is Clift and because there are a number of Clifts out there who aren’t related to him, but because I am people will often tell me the standard story that has persisted around his life. They feel very strongly about how true it is, mostly because it’s just been repeated over and over again. I’m very familiar with that, and then having in the back of my head my father’s voice or Lorenzo [James] voice creates a disjunction between the two. This film is in the spirit of bringing that experience together.
A few months back we got Scotty and the Secret History of Hollywood, a far different documentary about Old Hollywood and sexuality. Monty was one of the more undisputed homosexuals in classic filmdom, but what do you think it is about people’s fascination with that time period and sexuality that persists today?
Hillary Demmon: For one, there is a historical fascination because we are living in a time that’s different. To look back at this time when there were these things that people couldn’t know about the stars. If you could go back and figure it out, people like knowing things. It’s a very big thing on a wanting to know-level. But also you’re looking at a time period where people had very tightly controlled images that were controlled by entities like studios, so anytime that you have the opportunity to strip away that layer, it is a layer of fascination because people feel there something else to be known; it’s a much more cloaked feeling period compared to now. It holds a lot of fascination for people.
How did you settle on focusing the documentary on media narratives and telling the story that Monty wasn’t this self-loathing man destroyed by his sexuality?
HD: I would say, and I think we’ll bring this question up between the two of us, but a lot of this film was following the material. As we started going through these boxes that we collected from everyone; we have audio recordings, we have film reels, we have all of these notes written on paper. And then we have the people we talked to, so once we started seeing where there was this very demonstrated evidentiary disconnect between the story that has persisted about Monty, and then all of these people who had these different experiences of him. At that point you have the material to work with to actually dive into that. But Robert grew up with different stories, and I think we probably knew that the materials existed to look for [that]. There’s a shaping perspective that probably comes with growing up with this stuff so you know what to look for. But I’m not the one who grew up with that.
RAC: It always amazes me, a lot of what we’re talking about has to do with understanding things historically or trying to understand them ahistorically when they need to be understood historically. Monty got to Hollywood at a time when the House of Un-American Activities Committee had just started, homosexuality was tied to Communism. You could go to jail for vice crimes as someone who was seeing other men, or having sex with other men. And you could certainly lose your career and people did lose their careers. Some people lost their careers for other actors who were considered more profitable. Monty, however, as my family told me, valued his independence and didn’t want, for example, to be signed to a seven-year contract, didn’t want to be put into a sham marriage. He was rejecting as much as he could for living during that time, a way of life where he would not have been able to be the person he was, sexually. But nevertheless, for some reason, the way he gets remembered is often the opposite. Thinking about a person who existed in a certain context where their sexual orientation is not necessarily permissible and then creating a narrative around it where they are somehow to blame, that it’s a sickness they have.
It really plays into the homophobia of the time. You’re really lifting the veil on how the self-loathing shamefulness was meant to remind audiences that being gay was something to be ashamed of. Your documentary is doing a lot to say that was created.
RAC: Exactly! And even after his life, the homophobia. Something like Judgement at Nuremberg, he gets nominated for Academy Awards. People appreciated his performance at that time, and that was a performance. But later on it gets told that it was an on-screen expression of his illness and that illness is essentially his sexuality, instead of appreciating the performance for what it was.
I was so jealous because you have a ton of history to sort there. It’s a classic film lovers dream.
RAC: We’d love for you to join us! We’re still sorting.
How did you decide what to include? Where there items, angles you wanted to include but couldn’t?
HD: There was so much cool stuff when it comes down to it. Taking, for instance, Monty’s photography. We got so many of these boxes where the whole bottom of the box was just filled with film negative canisters. We went through the process of sorting and cleaning and scanning all of it, but it’s thousands of photos and we weren’t making a movie about Monty’s photography, beautiful as it is. We couldn’t put that in. Hopefully we’ll be able to do a book of it at some point, but we couldn’t put it in the film. We found his jacket from The Misfits that still smelled like a rodeo but we couldn’t put that in the film. There’s all kinds of cool stuff.
You bring up in the documentary some inaccuracies and changes Monty’s biographer Patricia Bosworth made. Was there ever an attempt to confront her on those changes?
HD: It’s interesting because taking that specific example, that was an area of the book that read a little weird, especially now being aware of what the stereotypes about men who have sex with men.
RAC: For me, as a child, when I was reading these books at 12 that was something that jumped out and trying to understand was Monty somehow attracted to young children? That was the anecdote that always stuck in my head and had to be figured out later on.
HD: The way that progressed was we had already done our interview with her and we were at the New York Public Library doing other research, looking through other stuff of Monty’s that was there, and we realized that she also had papers there. So we thought, “Oh, great, more research. Let’s look at that too.” Once we came across these interview notes and seeing, oh, here is the origin of this story, let’s look at this. As we show in the film it went through a number of drafts. Once we get to look back at that first set of notes, oh, this is different than what ended up here. This is not a story about pederasty, this is playing on them getting chased around. It’s the difference between a crime and just language. The materials are what we followed and took us to what was there.
Well and what your documentary is doing is showing us who has control of media narratives today. I don’t even know how an intensely private person like Monty would handle Twitter in today’s age.
RAC: If you look at literature about Marilyn Monroe there’s still so many interpretations and versions of Marilyn Monroe that are still out there. My sense is most of the readings on Monty’s life or most of stories that have been told tend to be terribly homogeneous, so I don’t think it has evolved that much. Our hope is this film lends to a movement to let it evolve in new directions.
HD: There was a lot more to learn about Monty. And at this point today you see that actors tend to be more collaborators. Monty made that happen for himself. There are a lot of things that we missed out on that are available from Monty having existed and worked in the movies. So, hopefully, our film will let that open up a little bit.
You interview several filmmakers who have attempted to make a Monty biopic. Do you think we’ll ever get a Monty biopic? Do you see anyone as being able to play him in today’s day and age?
RAC: I don’t know. When I think about the scripts that we’ve seen and what we’ve heard about in terms of biopics, I’m very skeptical about wanting that to happen. I will say, when it comes to the Matt Bomer biopic, but I was really encouraged by the way he’d talk about Monty and that’s the sense I have. I spoke to one of his acting coaches at one point. I haven’t seen the script, so we can’t really say much. I’m just very skeptical that something good could be made, but I do hope if something is made that they do further research and they also incorporate the insights our film offers and that they don’t go back to the tried and true narrative that’s been done over and over for fifty years.