How Montgomery Clift Changed the Course of Hollywood Dramas

The history of drama in film is one inextricably intertwined with the leading actors of an era. The image of the dramatic movie star took a big hit with the arrival of Method Actors in the 1950’s. While Marlon Brando is the performer most closely identified with the change wrought upon dramatic film in the 1950’s, it is worth noting that Montgomery Clift was in the movies before Brando or James Dean.

Clift was saved from an early grave and probably denied legendary status when Elizabeth Taylor reached down into his throat and retrieved some dislodged teeth that were making it impossible for him to breathe after a car accident. The result was a hardening of his impossibly handsome face and an addiction to booze and pills that impacted his career. Nevertheless, the history of dramatic film is written with Montgomery Clift in large bold letters.

“A Place In the Sun”

“A Place in the Sun” was the first of three pairings of Clift and Liz Taylor. Based on Theodore Dreiser’s novel “An American Tragedy,” “A Place in the Sun” is a drama about the American dream and the seamy underbelly that deserves to be called the American Reality. Clift paints the portrait of an individual beset from all sides with damaging influences who is putting up an aching struggle to locate his place in the sun. Girlfriend Shelley Winters is pregnant, a harridan, and an obstacle, and maybe Clift’s character didn’t really murder her, but maybe he doesn’t really save her from drowning either. Clift’s power as a dramatic actor is that you can believe either possibility.

“From Here to Eternity”

Robert E. Lee Prewitt is the best bugler in Hawaii and a man with a motto: A man don’t go his own way, he’s nothing. Clift endows Prewitt with a straightforward nobility that gives “From Here to Eternity” a character verging on that of something from a Greek tragedy. Burt Lancaster is a big, burly presence and he once admitted that the only actor who ever intimidated him was Montgomery Clift. Watch “From Here to Eternity” and see why the smaller, slender, and hardly physically intimidating Clift could daunt a sheer force of nature Burt Lancaster.

“Judgment at Nuremberg”

You want drama in your movie? “Judgment at Nuremberg” is about the Nazi war criminal trials. Montgomery Clift only appears in about 10 minutes of this movie, which at times seems like it is going to last as long as World War II. Clift plays a mentally challenged man who was castrated by the Nazis as part of their grand plot to preserve their own purity. Hollywood actors can’t wait to latch onto the part of a mentally challenged character so they can turn in a lazy performance and cop an Oscar. Clift’s performance is anything but lazy, as he makes the decision to not focus on his character’s mental shortcomings, but rather his strength of character. If you only have time to watch one segment of “Judgement at Nuremberg,” you need only watch Monty Clift’s performance.

“The Young Lions”

Brando and Clift only made one movie together and they only share about a minute of screen time together at the end of the flick. Only in Hollywood would you get the two biggest actors of their generation together in a movie and then not give them the chance for an acting showdown. Once again, Montgomery Clift plays a soldier and once again he’s victimized by his own kind. Only in “The Young Lions” instead of getting beatings because he sticks to his principles, it’s simply because he’s Jewish.