Montgomery Clift and the Second Chance that Never Was

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.


20 Responses Montgomery Clift and the Second Chance that Never Was
Posted By LD : February 16, 2014 4:34 pm

THE YOUNG LIONS is a movie I saw decades ago when it was shown on afternoon T.V. and have not seen since. The most memorable part of the film to me is a blonde Brando playing a conflicted Nazi instead of the usual one dimensional type. The DVR is now set so I can revisit this film.

Clift seems to be lacking in good judgment with some of his career choices and in evaluating other actors. He was contemptuous of de Havilland’s acting on the set of THE HEIRESS, yet she won her second Oscar for that role. That had to give her a certain degree of satisfaction in regards to Clift.

Posted By Doug : February 16, 2014 7:41 pm

A sensitive post for a sensitive actor-what was true for Clift is true for all of us-not everyone gets acclaim; if we are frustrated by unrealized potential it can tear us up.
What I would have told Clift is this: “Appreciate what you have, rejoice in what IS rather than bemoan what never was. You will be happier and at peace with yourself.”
I’m guessing that Clift would have attained that peace if he had lived a bit longer-age has a way of smoothing out the bumps in our road. What is terribly important to someone in his 30′s may fall away as we get older.

Posted By gregferrara : February 16, 2014 8:49 pm

LD – Clift was contemptuous of a lot of Hollywood and it made him an outsider almost from the start.

I, too, like the Brando character a lot, very well written and portrayed.

Posted By gregferrara : February 16, 2014 8:50 pm

Doug – It’s so true. He had a heart attack in his mid-forties and by then I think he had stopped caring so much about Hollywood and awards. By the seventies, he might have happily accepted older, character-actor roles and, ironically, once he stopped caring about it, finally won that Oscar.

Posted By AL : February 16, 2014 10:22 pm

Clift biographer Patty Bosworth told me that, in a conversation with Monroe, Marilyn said “He’s the only person I know who’s more ****ed-up than I am.”

Posted By gregferrara : February 17, 2014 2:57 am

They’re both sad figures in Hollywood history, I can see Marilyn connecting with Clift in many ways.

Posted By spence : February 17, 2014 9:48 am

(*-always denotes Oscar winner) Clift actually drank & if
not more than pill though. It’s said/written that *Liz Taylor actually saved his life 1st, after that ’56 crash, coming home from her Be-Air home. He also burned his cigarrette down to the finger bone once, after falling asleep/passing out, while a party was happening downstairs, inside her at her Bel-Air residence-(after taking all her pills)

Most on this site know he was first offered Joe Gillis in “Sunset Blvd.” & that *Harry Cohn 1st wanted both Aldo Ray & Eli Wallach as Robert E. Lee Prewitt & Maggio.

& the majority of so called movie-buffs have no idea that both Clift & John Garfield-(l913-52) were the first NYC Method actors, even before *Marlon?-(P.S. *Paul Muni-(l895-l967) goes even further back as one, but of course from a different method type.

It’s amazing the vastly underated “Misfits” ever got completed what with *”The King” MM & Monty-(plus *J. Huston) all working on it!

& during the superb “Judgment at Nuremberg” ironically it was *Tracy of all people, always having some of the same demons!
Who helped him a bit when he couldn’t even remember his lines.

I’ve as yet ever saw all of “The Search” myself.

He’s long said-(the bio channel once also played a phone recording between him & his brother about Montgomery very excited that he may actually “Walk Down-the-Aisle” & win Best Actor for “Freud” Though he wasn’t nommed for the role)-(NOTE: Who else finds it disgusting that the listen in on someone’s ph conversation, especially after their dead???)

& he was interred in a NY Quaker cem.

& some of you TCM-ITE’s may have already read the long standing rumor of him actually haunting the legendary “Hollywood Roosevelt’s” 9th floor. It was here that he stayed for 3 months during *”From Here to Eternity” practicing his bugle & they-(even the staff) say that several people have actually asked to be moved-(from the bugle apparently)
This all-time great landmark hotel is also-(they say anyway)
is lieterally known most of all about being haunted & of course the very 1st Academy Awards held in it’s-(kinda’ small when you get there) “Blossom Rm.”

Thank You

Posted By spence : February 17, 2014 9:58 am

(*-Indicates ACADEMY AWARD) I just posted a reply to this very strong article. However, our very own R. 0sborne-(l932-) said on that exceptional “Private Screenings” about himself that his all-time fav.dramatic picture was “A Place in the Sun!” & both he & A. Baldwin choose *William “Sefton”Holden-(l9l8-8l) as their A No. #1 fav. actor!-(NOTE: A choice even *Kevin Costner & Bill Murray easily go with)



Posted By SergioM : February 17, 2014 5:39 pm

Kazan’s 1960 Fox film Wild River was a film that should have bought him back but that film was a box office flop too. Now it’s been rediscovered as a major Kazan work and one of Clift’s greatest performances.

Only 50 years too late

Posted By philip yates : February 17, 2014 7:25 pm

Young Lions was not the end.I think he tried to reinvent himself with wild river misfits suddenly, last summer, and Freud. I think he would have gone on to grater parts

Posted By swac44 : February 17, 2014 8:14 pm

The Young Lions was actually my first exposure to Clift’s work, and I got to see it in the early days of laserdisc, for the first time on home video in its CinemaScope, B&W glory. I was really taken with his character, and soon followed up with FHTE and The Misfits. I don’t know what took me so long, for years before that I’d known about Clift mostly from a song by The Clash, The Right Profile.

“Say, where did I see this guy?
In red river?
Or a place in the sun?
Maybe the misfits?
Or from here to eternity?

Everybody say, is he all right?
And everybody say, whats he like?
Everybody say, he sure looks funny.
Thats…Montgomery Clift, honey!

New York, New York, New York, 42nd street
Hustlers rustle and pimps pimp the beat
Monty Clift is recognized at dawn
He aint got no shoes and his clothes are torn

I see a car smashed at night
Cut the applause and dim the light
Monty’s face is broken on a wheel
Is he alive? can he still feel?

Everybody say, is he all right?
And everybody say, whats he like?
Everybody say, he sure looks funny.
Thats…Montgomery Clift, honey!

Nembutol numbs it all
But I prefer alcohol

He said go out and get me my old movie stills
Go out and get me another roll of pills
There I go again shaking, but I aint got the chills”

Posted By James : February 17, 2014 11:39 pm

R.E.M. also paid tribute to Clift with their song “Monty Got a Raw Deal.”

Posted By LD : February 18, 2014 11:05 am

Watched THE YOUNG LIONS again and once more Brando’s performance stood out. Clift was indeed fragile looking and in the fight scenes it was impossible to find it credible that he would survive one, let alone a series of them. I wonder if 1958 America was far enough removed from WWII to accept a sympathetic Nazi and brutal anti-Semitism in the U.S. Army being portrayed on screen. I was an army brat in the 1950′s and my parents’ best friends were Jewish. We weren’t. The prevailing bigotry was against the German and Asian wives of American soldiers. But that’s another movie. SAYONARA.

Posted By SergioM : February 18, 2014 4:23 pm

I glad john Huston’s Freud was mentioned since that’s one film that I would love to see. One of the truly “lost” movies. I’ve only seen parts of it and that was many years ago. Why hasn’t it been on DVD? And I would like to see Huston’s original theatrical 140 minute cut and not the studio’s later 120 minute re-release version

Posted By kingrat : February 18, 2014 9:16 pm

Let’s not forget that part of the problem was that Clift was gay at a time when this was career suicide for a leading actor. This undoubtedly led to more drinking and pill-taking.

I don’t think that THE YOUNG LIONS is among the best work of either Clift or Brando. Clift did a similar role much better in FROM HERE TO ETERNITY, and Brando’s bad accent and hair dye are both distracting. The script never solves the basic problem of relating the American and the German characters. Robert Osborne mentioned in his outro that viewers were disappointed not to see Clift and Brando in the same scene.

THE YOUNG LIONS is still an interesting film, despite the various problems.

About that Oscar: let’s not forget that Brando really wanted his first Oscar, too, having lost three times before he won for ON THE WATERFRONT. This was a sign that you had arrived in Hollywood. If Holden had won for SUNSET BOULEVARD, Clift might well have won for FROM HERE TO ETERNITY. Wonder how that would have changed his career?

Posted By Ben Martin : February 18, 2014 9:23 pm

The one thing i want to add here is an editorial comment on Brando’s performance in Reflections in a Golden Eye. It is so raw, so brave, so painful, I can hardly watch it. I believe Mr. Clift could have done just as well, yes, but we will never know. What I do know is that Brando deserves some kind of golden recognition for one of the all time great screen characterizations ever. {In my estimation he holds about six of the top 10 greatest screen performances ever committed to Hollywood films, but Reflections/Golden Eye is hardly ever mentioned.}

Posted By gregferrara : February 19, 2014 1:21 pm

It’s strange how the shifting Oscars work. I agree if Holden had won for SUNSET BOULEVARD, Clift would have won for ETERNITY. Would that have changed things? I doubt it. I think Clift suffered from anxiety and depression that wouldn’t be eased by an Oscar, even if he thought so.

As to Brando in REFLECTIONS, I agree, Ben. I think he’s great in that and like I said in the piece, I really like the movie even though I know a lot of critics don’t/didn’t.

Posted By robbushblog : February 19, 2014 4:23 pm

Thinking about Montgomery Clift always makes me sad. You have illustrated why above. If he had just kept working after FHTE he might have ended up differently. And George Raft might have been a bigger star if he hadn’t let Bogie have all of the great parts. So many “What ifs?”.

Posted By Muriel : February 21, 2014 3:47 am

I don’t think Clift would have done anything differently if he’d had some more success or had won an Oscar, because his addictions and mental problems were too overwhelming. Those were the root cause of his career decline.
Marilyn Monroe said of Montgomery “He is even more f’d up than I am.”

Posted By yogiboo : February 26, 2014 1:00 am

Re Monty in “Reflections”, From what I understand he was not altogether thrilled at being a gay man. That’s understandable given the times. I’m thinking his issues may not have allowed him to play this gay character. Who knows?

I think his post accident looks gave him a haunting quality that probably would have served him well in certain kinds of roles. I actually think it helped his performance in “Nuremberg”. Lord knows, though I wish he never had that accident.

Was he under the influence when he smashed the car?

Imagine if the fates had been kind to Monty, Brando and James Dean? It may have been too much Method Testosterone on the set but imagine a screenplay calling for 3 strong male leads with the likes of them in it?

BTW, I love Brando in Young Lions. He is riveting and the dye jobs makes it even harder to keep your eyes from him. I thought his accent was good. The thing is that he had such a different kind of voice.Very nasal. I think any accent for him was a bit weird.

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