Today marks what would have been the 99th birthday of Montgomery Clift, an actor I’ve long admired since taking a deep dive into classic Hollywood films. While one of the more prolific stars of his time, Clift feels underrated as an actor, especially in conversation with his contemporaries like Marlon Brando and James Dean, and his on-screen talent was also often overshadowed by his off-screen life. So in honor of his birthday today, I wanted to take a look back at the performances that earned him Academy Award recognition.
THE SEARCH (1948)
Directed by Fred Zinnemann
In post-war Germany, Karel (Ivan Jandl), a nine-year-old Czech boy who survived Auschwitz, flees a refugee camp determined to reunite with his mother, Hanna Malik (Jarmila Novotna), who is also searching for him. As he wanders the streets of Berlin, he runs into American G.I. Ralph “Steve” Stevenson (Montgomery Clift), who brings the lost boy to his home to try to help him out on his quest. Soon after, Steve is able to gain Karel’s trust as he brings him out of his shell and teaches him English, forming a strong bond between them.
Though Montgomery Clift filmed Red River before starring in The Search, it was the latter film that hit theaters first in 1948, marking his official debut on the silver screen. It’s not exactly what one would think of as a star-making turn, but it immediately shows the kind of magnetic presence Clift brought to the screen. His role as Steve also turned out to be a bit different from the characters he went on to play. Unlike his most well-known roles, his character here is generally content (given the circumstances) and is not dealing with any sort of personal tragedy or a dark past. While in some ways it’s a seemingly lighter characterization than what Clift became known for, his performance is still deep in emotion as he infuses his natural sensitivity into the character. His portrayal as an American G.I. was so realistic, that director Fred Zinnemann was even asked how he was able to get such a great performance out of soldier, not knowing that the role was being played by an actor. Clift also works alongside child actor Ivan Jandl incredibly well and doesn’t try to take focus away from him in their scenes together. Come Oscar night, he ended up losing the Academy Award for Best Actor to Laurence Olivier in Hamlet, but fortunately, Clift was just getting started and had even richer performances ahead of him.
A PLACE IN THE SUN (1951)
Directed by George Stevens
George Eastman (Montgomery Clift), the nephew of a wealthy industrialist, arrives in California in the hopes of making his way up in his uncle’s company. He starts in a blue-collar job in the factory, where he soon begins to date his co-worker Alice Tripp (Shelley Winters). But as he starts to move up in the ranks, he’s invited into high society, where he meets the beautiful socialite Angela Vickers (Elizabeth Taylor), with who he quickly falls in love, leading to a tragic love triangle.
Montgomery Clift made a couple more films after earning his first Oscar nomination for The Search, but it was with A Place in the Sun that he truly came into his own as an actor. Unlike his previous films, A Place in the Sun followed the journey of his character, so the film relied heavily on his performance. It’s among Clift’s most complex performances, as his character’s morals are put into question as the film progresses. Aside from boasting some of the best work in his career, this film was also an important one for him personally, as it marked the first time he worked with Elizabeth Taylor, who quickly became one of his closest friends, with their bond lasting through the end of his life. By the time the Oscars ceremony came around, Clift’s main rival in the Best Actor category seemed to be fellow method actor and rising star Marlon Brando, who gave one of his most iconic performances in A Streetcar Named Desire that same year. But both actors were so moved by the other’s performance, that they ended up voting for each other, with Brando even believing Clift would take home the Oscar. But ultimately, the Academy Award went to Humphrey Bogart for The African Queen.
FROM HERE TO ETERNITY (1953)
Directed by Fred Zinnemann
At an Army barracks in Hawaii in the days leading up to the attack on Pearl Harbor, Private Robert E. Lee Prewitt (Montgomery Clift) has just been transferred to the infantry unit under Captain Dana Holmes (Philip Ober), who hopes he will join his champion boxing team. However, Prewitt refuses to box after a previous incident in the ring left a friend permanently injured. Because of his decision, Prewitt is subjected to a grueling series of punishments, while unbeknownst to the captain, his wife Karen (Deborah Kerr) and his second-in-command, Sergeant Milton Warden (Burt Lancaster) are falling in love.
Just a few short years after their successful collaboration in The Search, Montgomery Clift reunited with director Fred Zinnemann for From Here to Eternity. The role of Prewitt was one Clift has his eye on the minute he read the book a couple years prior to its eventual screen adaptation. While Clift often put a lot of work into researching for his roles, here he really threw himself into the character by learning the skills his on-screen persona had. In preparation for the film, he took boxing lessons and learned how to play the bugle to get the physicality of each task to look as realistic as possible. According to Zinnemann, Clift’s intense work ethic not only elevated his own performance but that of his co-stars, who worked hard to match him on screen. Frank Sinatra and Donna Reed, both of who shared most of their scenes with Clift, went on to win Oscars in the supporting categories that year. Clift meanwhile was up against his co-star Burt Lancaster in a stacked category that also included Marlon Brando in Julius Caesar, Richard Burton in The Robe, and William Holden in Stalag 17, who ultimately won the Academy Award.
JUDGMENT AT NUREMBERG (1961)
Directed by Stanley Kramer
In 1948 in Nuremberg, Germany, Chief Judge Dan Haywood (Spencer Tracy) presides over the trial of four Nazi judges for war crimes. Each judge is charged with having abused the court system to help cleanse Germany of the politically and socially undesirable by conducting Nazi sterilization and cleansing policies. Throughout the trial, Haywood hears evidence and testimony not only from lead defendant Dr. Ernst Janning (Burt Lancaster) and his defense attorney Hans Rolfe (Maximilian Schell), but also from the widow of a Nazi general, Mrs. Bertholt, (Marlene Dietrich), U.S. Army Captain Harrison Byers (William Shatner), and witnesses Irene Wallner (Judy Garland) and Rudolph Petersen (Montgomery Clift).
Nearly a decade passed by the time Montgomery Clift earned his last Oscar nomination for Judgment at Nuremberg. Clift was notoriously picky when it came to selecting his film projects, and waited a few years before making his next film following the success of From Here to Eternity. His follow-up was Raintree County, which reunited him with his great friend Elizabeth Taylor. But it was during filming in 1956 when he was involved in a serious car accident that nearly killed him and damaged his movie-star looks. Though he never fully recovered from the accident, both physically and emotionally, he made several more films in the late 50s and into the early 60s, leading to this small but substantial role as Rudolph Petersen. During filming, Clift had trouble remembering all his lines and wasn’t sure he’d be able to get through the scene. But both director Stanley Kramer and co-star Spencer Tracy reassured him, telling him to instead draw from his understanding of the character and not worry about sticking to the script. In doing so, Clift conveys the raw emotion his character feels as he goes through the harrowing testimony, making Peterson’s confusion and pain feel all the more real and heartwrenching. He received his last Academy Award nomination for his one-scene appearance in Judgment at Nuremberg, this time in the Best Supporting Actor category, where he lost to George Chakiris in West Side Story.
Sadly, Montgomery Clift would only make two more movies after Judgment at Nuremberg before his untimely passing at age 45, though he left behind a wealth of performances in such a short period of time. His four Oscar-nominated performances really showcase the range and depth of his talents as an actor, but there is certainly more to discover throughout his filmography. From Red River to Wild River, and from I Confess to The Misfits, and everything else in between, Clift was always a captivating figure on screen, and he truly deserves to be more widely recognized for his work.
I wrote this entry as a part of The Montgomery Clift Blogathon, where bloggers are writing about the Oscar-nominated actor in honor of his 99th birthday. Click the banner below to read more great posts!