Reexamining the legacy of a legend with 'Making Montgomery Clift' at NewFest
New York City’s NewFest closes out tonight with Making Montgomery Clift, the final—and one of the best—films to screen at the LGBT film festival’s 30th incarnation. Directed by Robert Clift and Hillary Demmon, the doc is far from being your standard biopic of its famous subject. Instead, it’s an examination of the legacy of Clift—how it came into being following his death in 1966 at the age of 45 and what it gets wrong. There’s quite a lot in that latter category, as Making Montgomery Clift convincingly lays out.
First, the conventional wisdom: Montgomery Clift was a talented, gorgeous performer who—with James Dean, Marlon Brando and others—helped usher in a new style of American screen acting. All good, so far. Monty, soulful and emotional on screen, was also tormented by his homosexuality. A 1956 car crash left him a broken man, physically and emotionally. The decade between the crash and his death, characterized by an increase in substance addiction and a decline in the quality of his work, has been famously called “the longest suicide in Hollywood history.”
And an alternative version of Monty, laid out by Making Montgomery Clift: Montgomery Clift was open about his sexuality. He was not “tormented” by it. The man even had a sense of humor! Some of his favorite work came after that crash. Montgomery Clift’s story is not a tragedy of self-loathing, but a tale of a man who refused to be put in a box by the Hollywood system—only to be put into a different sort of box after his death, when he was no longer around to counter the narrative that began to calcify soon after his passing.
Luckily, what Montgomery Clift—and his brother, Brooks, who after Monty’s death adopted the role of the unofficial keeper of his late brother’s legacy—did leave behind was box upon box of photos, letters and recordings, both audio and visual. Hoarders of information both, Montgomery and Brooks would even go so far as to record phone calls without the other party knowing. That hunger for documentation passed to Brooks’ son, documentary filmmaker Robert Clift—who, with Hillary Demmon, took upon himself the years-long task of molding the invaluable resources left behind by his uncle into a vital film that should cause audiences at NewFest and beyond to question what they think they know about one of the most influential actors in Hollywood history.
Here follows a Q&A with Clift and Demmon in advance of its NewFest premiere and several days after its world debut in Los Angeles. The conversation has been condensed for length and clarity.
MAKING MONTGOMERY CLIFT trailer from Hillary Demmon on Vimeo.
Rebecca Pahle (FJI): Hollywood’s very obsessed with its own mythology, and this is a film that challenges that. Were you worried about how the film was going to be received in LA?
Hillary Demmon (HD): Yeah. Because it is this non-standard approach to a celebrity, we weren’t really sure how it was going to go over. And on top of that, too, it’s not seeking to be comprehensive. I think when people watch documentaries about people, they sometimes assume it's going to be [about their whole lives], and that's not what we were doing. I certainly had a few concerns about reception, but I think that people are getting it, so that's good.
FJI: Were you ever tempted to do a more straightforward biographical documentary?
Robert Clift (RC): No. Right from the beginning, we said to ourselves that we had to make a film that only we could make. Certainly, we weren't going to do something that would reinforce the mythology that already circulated around Monty. There was certainly a discussion of whether or not I should be in the film. How much I should talk about my own personal experiences, my relationship to people who knew and loved Monty. It was clear to us that we wanted to make the film unique, and to not offer this kind of celebrity biopic that often shouts at the top of their lungs “This is the definitive portrait.” They say it over and over and over throughout the whole film, and we see how it goes wrong. In order to pull that off, sometimes you have to essentially make the person into no longer a person. They become a stereotype, or they become something that people see as true because they’ve heard it before.
HD: What we were trying to do was remove some of the roadblocks that existed to be able to look at him in a different way, and to really look at what he contributed to the field of acting in American cinema. All of that had gotten kind of overshadowed.
RC: You see more of Monty, because you're not seeing through these fuzzy lenses. What you see is not going to be definitive, because that’s just impossible. People have to start with that as a premise. Sometimes when we're talking about certain types of biographies, especially about celebrities, they sell because they say ‘This is really, really, really, really, really, really, really, really who that person is.’
FJI: And then you have six different biographies all saying that same thing.
RC: With Monty in particular it becomes difficult, because it gets tied up with all these regressive politics. So that's a problem. And we didn't want to do that.
FJI: Definitely, the lens through which homosexuality and bisexuality are viewed has changed.
HD: We’re in a different cultural moment. And I think because we are in that different moment, it was a good time to reopen Monty’s [case]. Some of the things that we point out in the film don't feel true for younger audiences anymore. If you look at people who are our niece and nephew’s age—they’re 16, 17—they have more awareness of gender and sexuality, and they have a better understanding than some of the generations that preceded them. So this idea that somehow Monty’s sexuality could be pathology, that it could be ruining his life, that it was a sickness, that doesn’t feel right to younger audiences at this point. We’re in a different spot, where we can say ‘Here’s a person who was able to have a whole range of human experience. And yeah, not all of it was great. Some of it was not. But there was a lot of good and a lot of integrity, so let’s look at that.’
FJI: Do you think there’s a sense of homophobia in how Monty’s life is interpreted? That he was gay, so of course he had to be tormented by his sexuality?
RC: I wouldn’t throw that label out so quickly, because I think it is a part of different historical circumstances. But I would say that there were different ways to be in the closet, at that time. Monty wasn’t going to have a press conference! I think it's important to understand that Monty exercised his agency in order to protect his freedom to be attracted to or have relationships with whoever he wanted. That's one reason why he didn't sign a seven-year deal, because that meant a sham heterosexual marriage, and he didn’t want that. To take someone who’s constantly fighting against [being controlled by the system] and to say, ‘Oh, you know what, they were ashamed’—that’s twisted logic.
RD: And it's a really unfortunate irony, too. You have somebody who is trying to make space for himself to do what he wants, and that exact action is what people use of evidence of him having this torment.
FJI: You see in the film this room of archival material you had to work with—how much was there?
HD: Oh, man. There's a very long hallway in our house, there are shelves that go up to the ceiling, and they're all full of boxes. The last time we counted the boxes, which I don't think is the last time we got boxes, it was at forty. It's a lot.
FJI: I can’t believe all this primary documentation has existed for decades, and nobody did anything with it before now.
RC: Well, that's the crazy thing. People kept it. So there is a sense that they knew it was important in some way.
HD: There’s a certain analog competency, too. You have to have the equipment to play it, you have to keep up the equipment. It was a nightmare getting a lot of the equipment back up to running condition. It’s a lot of stuff to do. You saw in the film how many audio reels there are. That’s not all Monty. There’s a lot to just listen to and figure out, ‘Is this relevant or not?’
RC: We’re filmmakers, but working with film is different from working with digital cinema. The materials ran from the 1920s to the 1980s, across 8mm, Super 8mm, 35mm, 16, Super 16, audio reel-to-reel, audio cassette, VHS, Betacam. And I know I’m leaving some out. Some weird records I’d never seen. Photographs, of course. Incredible negatives.
HD: And the photographs were all different formats, too. You had prints, you had black and white negatives, you had color positive slides. And all of these black and white negatives were still tightly rolled in the little metal canisters. At least twenty of the boxes were just lined on the bottom with those metal canisters. So then it's a matter of getting all of that stuff digitally processed. Cleaning, scanning, restoring.
FJI: Did you have experience with archival work?
HD: We’re not archivists, but I was a photographer before I went into film, so at least on the photography front, I felt very confident.
RC: And I’m affiliated with the University of Pittsburgh, so we met with the archivists a few times.
HD: They were super helpful.
FJI: This is such an important collection, especially because with the lives of these famous actors, the same information keeps getting passed around again and again.
HD: Any time that you have the chance to broaden how you read history, or read lives, it's a good opportunity to take. On the most basic level, if we're talking about media literacy, it gives you a chance to really question what you're reading. Where are your sources? What are societal biases that might be playing a role here? How do we process this information, and what new questions can we ask of it? I'm in love with archival filmmaking now. It was an intense process, but there's just so much rich material to work with.
FJI: Of the amount of material that you had, what percentage of it would you say that you used?
RC: Very small.
HD: Especially when you’re talking about the photography element. We used twenty, thirty of the photographs in our film. There are hundreds of those little metal canisters, and each one of those has 27 photos. Hundreds of slides, stills, all of these prints. And the prints are great, because Monty was extremely detailed in his notes to the printer about how he wanted the shadows printed, how he wanted to highlights printed. Once we could get an aesthetic sense, from those notes, we let that guide us on how we digitally processed [other images].
FJI: Are you going to do something with all this stuff?
RC: We would love to do something, especially with the photographs. Because he had a really good eye. He was really into photography and had a wonderful sense of composition. I hope we can find a home for them.
FJI: I was looking at your filmography, and none of your previous projects have been on remotely the same subject.
RC: No, no at all. The last film we made together was about comedians, and I made two PBS projects, and I teach film media studies. The timing had to be right for this. And that meant the two of us working together, number one. And then it meant time to research. There's not enough research out there, in general. People just jump in. Especially with some biopics, people are just like, "That book did well! Let’s not do any original research. Let’s just take what that book said." There’s no extra thinking or researching or fact-checking or anything! And I’m going on a little of a tirade on that, because I hear it from my mother when it comes to journalism, because she sees it as something that is lost in journalism at the moment.