Sometimes, it is possible for a documentary filmmaker to be too close his/her subject. Case in point: Robert Clift, the nephew of the late actor Montgomery Clift, co-directs Making Montgomery Clift with Hillary Demmon. It’s a film that isn’t so much a straight-forward biography of the deeply talented and game-changing performer, but instead seeks to clarify the record of his life and death as told in printed biographies, gossip papers, and slapdash TV docs, all of which seemed more interested in sensationalizing Clift’s life than painting a portrait of a gifted artist.
It certainly benefits the film that the filmmaker’s father (Montgomery’s brother, William Brooks Clift Jr.) took it upon himself to act as the family mouthpiece after the actor’s death in 1966. The two were close, so this only made sense, and he lent a great deal of information and hundreds of hours of recorded phone conversations (William recorded everything and not secretly) to one biography, written by Patricia Bosworth, who seemed interested in exploring the nuances of Monty’s career path and acting method. But as both William (who died in 1986) and filmmaker son Robert dig through the Bosworth’s research notes, they seem wholly dissatisfied with her version of certain events.
The biggest misrepresentation of Clift’s life that Robert seems interested in correcting is the idea that the actor’s sexuality caused him such anxiety for fear of being discovered that it led him down a self-destructive path that ultimately killed him. One friend referred to it as “the longest suicide in Hollywood history.” But the filmmaker (who also narrates the movie) makes a strong case that Clift was so protected by the studios, all of whom wanted to work with him, that he was never in danger of being publicly outed, that he lived quite openly as a gay man. If there was any downturn in his life, it was in 1956 when a horrifying car crash destroyed his perfect looks; allegedly he was relieved about this, and a fact that certainly didn’t take away from his talents as an actor.
Robert Clift’s deep dive into his uncle’s life (which is far from complete and skips over details of a great number of his best known films) comes with mixed results. There’s no denying that hearing audiotapes of Clift in conversation with various family members and viewing personal home movies is priceless material. We also get a great deal of insight into how much he rewrote dialogue from some of his most illustrious roles and truly took the time to make a character his own, with dazzling results (he was nominated for three Academy Awards). But myth-busting is a tricky business, especially when you enter a fact-finding mission with a clear idea in your head of what the results will be before you even start looking. Some of the “facts” being cleared up seem like micro-quibbling, while others seem quite worthy of a second look. The end result is undeniably fascinating stuff.
Perhaps the most telling sections of the film are separate interviews with two of Clift’s former lovers, including the late Jack Larson (who played Jimmy Olson in the 1950s “Adventures of Superman” TV series). His knowledge of Clift as both a person and an actor provides some truly impressive details. The picture painted of Clift in the film is a funny, vibrant, expressive person who valued his privacy and his craft equally, so it’s probably no wonder that his story has been told by other so inaccurately up to this point. After others printed the legend for so long, his nephew does an admirable job assembling the truth.
The film will screen in Chicago at the Gene Siskel Film Center on Friday, Nov. 2 at 2pm and 6pm; Saturday, Nov. 3 at 3pm; and Monday, Nov. 5 at 7:45pm.
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