Few figures in film history - perhaps with the exception of James Dean and Marilyn Monroe - hold as much mystery as Montgomery Clift. Talented, raw and impossibly handsome, his life is one wrapped up in a series of enigmas, mostly around his singular kind of acting and the mystery of his sexuality. In ‘Making Montgomery Clift’, his nephew Robert Anderson Clift, along with co-director Hillary Demmon, attempts to use the Clift family archives to reconcile the legacy of his uncle and present a more accurate image of who he was and how he should be remembered.
As much as it is about Montgomery, the film is almost equally as concerned with Robert’s father and Monty’s brother, Brooks Clift. The archive the film makes use of is Brooks’, a chronicle mostly of his famous brother’s life and career, and the sheer volume of it is overwhelming. As Robert (acting as narrator) shows us, Brooks’ collection includes boxes of VHS tapes filled with tabloid documentaries, piles and piles of scrapbooks filled with clippings, and even recordings of phone conversations between various members of the Clift family, including Monty. What Robert and Hillary present is a kind of collage, the story of these two brothers constructed from the remnants they left behind. In that sense, there are similarities here to ‘Maria by Callas’ in the sense that the film is trying to give Clift a voice that he never had in real life. Unlike ‘Maria by Callas’ though, the hands of the filmmakers are much more apparent here, and often with problematic results.
Robert’s agenda initially seems to be with removing the question of Clift’s sexuality and the image of the tortured homosexual from Clift’s legacy, and instead place it more so on him as an artist, something Brooks spent his life trying to do after Monty’s death. It’s actually quite a lovely surprise to see how swiftly Clift’s sexuality is addressed, confidently reframing him as bisexual and taking it as fact. The only significant time devoted to it is to argue against the idea of Clift as a self-hating gay man in the closet, much of this gleamed by fans and biographers from Clift’s tremendous aptitude at playing complex or tortured characters. The film’s argument is that this was a sign of a great actor, not a troubled one, and the wonderful home video footage of a lively, funny and spirited Clift certainly goes a way to working against that. The image Robert and Hillary present is more one of a man frustrated with not being taken seriously as an artist, and the post-car accident decline of Clift, they propose, is more linked to that than with his sexuality.
This reframing, backed up by visual and audio evidence, is the strongest element of the documentary, but also where Robert’s bias is most in check. The issue with ‘Making Montgomery Clift’ is that, in other regards, it’s incredibly biased. Robert’s intention is so much to reclaim his uncle that there’s an almost antagonistic element to the documentary, especially when talking about Clift’s biographers, one of whom (Patricia Bosworth) is interviewed extensively. Robert tells us that Patricia is a long-time family friend and speaks warmly of her, but then presents evidence of conflict between her and Brooks about material in her autobiography. At no point does he speak with Patricia now about those conflicts and allow her to explain them from her perspective. The documentary turns on her so completely, but you can’t help but feeling this is driven by emotion rather than a need for the truth. So much of ‘Making Montgomery Clift’ feels unnecessarily defensive about Clift, which ultimately makes it a more inadequate portrait than it thinks it is.
The image Robert and Hillary present is more one of a man frustrated with not being taken seriously as an artist.
There’s also a large conundrum at the heart of the film that, while Robert identifies it, never feels fully explored, and that was the obsession Brooks had with recording private phone conversations. In the third act, the film suddenly turns its attention to Brooks and the evangelical devotion he had to his brother’s memory. The degree to which it dominates his life puts enough pressure on his marriage and family to collapse, and as Robert digs further into the archive, not only does he discover that Brooks’ obsession for secretly recording phone conversations extended to deeply private moments with their mother and he and his siblings, but that even Monty secretly recorded conversations. You definitely get the sense that Robert is unnerved by the discovery, but ultimately never feels the need to further interrogate the behaviour. In a film so determined to answer questions, leaving this one flapping feels oddly unsatisfying.
Perhaps that question solidifies though what lies at the heart of ‘Making Montgomery Clift’: how one wishes to have their story told. Brooks’ collection was an attempt to define the story of his brother, to have him preserved for posterity exactly as Brooks believed he should be. The same can be said for Brooks’ wish for himself, pedantically documenting his own life as if to preserve his own legacy as well. Consequently, the film itself feels like Robert Anderson Clift attempting to do something similar, making it less a statement on Montgomery Clift as the Clift family itself. Even with its shortcomings, the film is far more handsomely and intelligently crafted than you would expect from a "personal history" documentary (like the scattered and frustrating ‘Dear Zachary: A Letter to his Son about his Father’). The competent craft of the film is what ultimately lifts it above its bias and shortcomings, making it at the very least a competent and sometimes fascinating portrait of this cinema and queer icon. Those expecting a shattering exposé of the secret homosexual life of a legendary Hollywood star are going to be greatly disappointed by ‘Making Montgomery Clift’. Those wanting something more though may find nuggets of gold amongst the old boxes and faded newspapers.