Posted by Greg Ferrara on February 16, 2014
Tomorrow at noon (EST), The Young Lions airs on TCM. I wrote it up for TCM’s website (click here) and with it airing tomorrow, it got me to thinking about something I only touch on in the article, the luck and timing of the careers of Montgomery Clift and Marlon Brando. Dean Martin figures in there, too, though not as prominently. Coming off a successful run at comedy, he wanted to try his hand and drama and The Young Lions provided the vehicle after the studio nixed first choice Tony Randall. If you’ve seen The Young Lions and know Martin’s part, you’ll know how odd that first choice was but, nonetheless, I can see, in a stretch, Randall handling it. But who the movie really mattered to was Montgomery Clift and, sadly, it didn’t fulfill the promise he hoped it would.
Montgomery Clift had a short time at the top. It lasted from his star turn in Howard Hawks’ Red River, in 1948, to his role as the tragic Private Prewitt in From Here to Eternity, in 1953. After Eternity, he dropped out of the movies for three years until he finally came back for Raintree County, directed by Edward Dmytryk and starring his friend and former co-star, from A Place in the Sun, Elizabeth Taylor. During filming, in 1956, Clift was in an auto accident that severely damaged his face, breaking his jaw and nose. The lacerations were bad enough that plastic surgery was required. Clift would never look the same again but the toll it took on him emotionally was far worse than anything physical. Still, the physical was bad enough to hook him on painkillers for the rest of his short life.
So that was it for Clift at the top, five short years, from 1948 to 1953. His devastation at losing Best Actor to William Holden (Holden one for Stalag 17 over Clift for From Here to Eternity) is one of the reasons he did no films for three years. Filming of Raintree County was delayed, due to the accident, and wasn’t released until 1957. It made enough money, thanks to a curious public anxious to see what Clift looked like post-accident, but wasn’t artistically fulfilling to Clift who wanted to resurrect his now four year long dead career in Hollywood. The Young Lions looked like the movie to do it.
In the role of Noah Ackerman, a Jewish soldier fighting antisemitism in his unit while fighting the Nazis in Europe, Clift thought he had found the role that would finally bring him the Oscar. It didn’t. In the movie, Clift looks shockingly gaunt, even emaciated. During the several fight scenes, as he takes on one soldier after another in his unit, I found myself worried he was going to get hurt. I knew it was a movie and that the punches weren’t actually landing, but he looked so frail, so fragile, I worried even so. The appearance of Clift wouldn’t be distracting to anyone walking into the movie with no prior knowledge of Clift but for fans it was jarring.
His performance is first rate. In fact, Clift was probably right in believing it was his best work. However, the accident and his ongoing disdain for Hollywood meant an Oscar nomination probably wasn’t going to happen. It was ironic that Clift so disparaged Hollywood and all that it stood for (he wasn’t well liked by insiders and thought of as a snob) and yet so desperately wanted peer recognition in the form of an Oscar. When he didn’t get nominated, he was once again devastated.
At the top of this piece, I mentioned Brando and he too had been hoping for more from The Young Lions. After a stellar beginning to his career, he became less bankable at the box office and less reliable on the set. In The Young Lions, his performance, too, is excellent but also went un-nominated. Brando spent the next fourteen years making movies that achieved little success at the box office and garnered no nominations for himself. In 1967, he starred in Reflections of a Golden Eye with Elizabeth Taylor, directed by John Huston. Had Clift not died unexpectedly of a heart attack before filming began, he would’ve played the lead, not Brando.
Elizabeth Taylor had wanted Clift for the lead so badly she even put up her own salary as insurance for him to be signed. The studio didn’t want to because Clift had become so erratic in the preceding years. Not showing up consistently, forgetting his lines regularly, Clift was considered a liability on the set. So when this great actor and close friend of Taylor died and his longtime acting rival, Brando, got the part, after a couple of others, including Richard Burton, had turned it down, one wonders how much that affected the acting relationship of Taylor and Brando on the set.
Would Reflections in a Golden Eye have brought Clift back? It’s hard to say. It didn’t do well with audiences or critics (although I like it very much) and Brando continued to muddle through until The Godfather opened up a third act for Brando that Clift never got. Could Clift have made it better? If not, would he have held on until his fifties brought him a greater range of roles and perhaps, finally, an Oscar? Brando’s career had floundered as badly as Clift’s, post The Young Lions, but age gave him another chance. Sadly, that never came to be for Clift.
So many things in Clift’s career seemed to work against him like cruel jokes played by fate. William Holden made a brief mark on Hollywood in 1939 and 1940 with Golden Boy and Our Town before falling into almost immediate mediocrity with second rate movies and miscasting based on no one quite knowing what to do with him. When Sunset Boulevard came around, Clift was wanted for the lead. Hell, he was who Wilder and Brackett had in mind when they wrote it. But Clift felt it would be bad for his image and bowed out, giving Holden the second chance he needed and, eventually, the Oscar that so depressed Clift.
Shortly after The Young Lions, he was given a chance to work with Howard Hawks again, on Rio Bravo, but turned it down, the part going to Dean Martin instead, who had come out quite well with The Young Lions (as had Maximilian Schell, who would soon find himself an Oscar winner for Judgment at Nuremberg). Instead of filming once again with Hawks and John Wayne, he sat on the sidelines, bitter and depressed when the film proved a success. I think everyone can understand that feeling to a degree, the feeling of not wanting to be a part of something but then feeling a little resentful when that something becomes popular. The problem that Clift had was he couldn’t let it go. Depression and anxiety plagued him until the end of his too short life. It seems like everyone else got a second or third chance but not Clift. In the end, he only made 18 movies but the performances he gave stay with us today. His characters always seemed troubled because Clift gave them such depth and infused them with the same emotional anxieties he had. This 31 Days of Oscar on TCM will go by without mention of Montgomery Clift winning an Oscar, since he never did but dearly wanted to but that doesn’t mean he wasn’t worthy. The Young Lions isn’t perfect but I like it and Clift is excellent and, in fact, it should have brought him back. That it didn’t is simply a testament to how unpredictable the breaks are. Sometimes you get them, sometimes you don’t. Clift didn’t here but he gave us enough great performances, in only 18 movies, that I feel like I get a good break every time I get to watch one of them.
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