Robert A. Clift & Hillary Demmon’s documentary Making Montgomery Clift is a biography of the iconic, troubled screen star who also happened to be Robert’s uncle. (The film plays the Newfest Film Festival October 30.)
Clift, of course, was the legendary ’60s star of Hollywood classics like The Misfits, A Place in the Sun and Red River. He scored an impressive four Oscar nominations in his short his career, with audiences swooning over his good looks and his brooding, mysterious sexuality. Though Clift publicly dated some of Hollywood’s hottest starlets–including Elizabeth Taylor, who became a close friend–rumors swirled around his sexual orientation.
With public scrutiny mounting, Clift turned to alcohol and drugs for relief. A car accident left Clift scarred, worsening his substance abuse. An undiagnosed thyroid condition, coupled with an addiction to alcohol and drugs, caused a fatal heart attack at age 45.
Robert, whose bears an uncanny resemblance to his uncle, and Hillary actually never met Monty; he died long before either was born. Robert grew up with Monty as a spectral figure–a source of pain to Robert’s father, Brooks, Monty’s only brother, who witnessed first hand Monty’s unraveling due to addiction and shame.
Yet after completing their film, the pair, who are a couple, believe they have cracked the code on Montgomery’s elusive personality and can set the record straight, so to speak, on Clift’s life, demons, career and, of course, sexuality.
Robert, Monty seems like a ghost. Your dad does too; this is, in many ways reconciliation between the two of you, or perhaps three. Your dad had the same issue—there was his brother, and then there was Montgomery Clift. He had trouble seeing them as the same person. At what point did you decide that you needed to make a film to exercise these family specters?
RC: I wish there was an exact point where I could say I decided. For me, it’s one of those things where if Monty is a ghost, it was kind of a very calm, subtle ghost in my life. I grew up in Washington, DC, a lot of people my age had never heard of him, and certainly not my classmates at 12 or 13 years old. But I was fascinated; my father was fascinated because there were books about him. I could read about him. It was around the house; we had all these raw audio recordings. I didn’t know what those were. I used to sneak down into the basement into the Monty archives and just try to figure it out. Over the years, what developed was this heightened sensitivity to the fact that the way people spoke about Monty in public, and what I was told at home by people that knew him and loved him, seemed to be kind of different. And also, there was a lot of pain attached to it. So nobody necessarily sat me down and said: “Listen, this is the story of Montgomery Clift.”
Right, that became your job.
RC: But everybody was very aware that there was pain associated with it…from Monty to Lorenzo [Jones, Clift’s late boyfriend] especially those two. So I’ve always wanted to know, and I would say that I knew this was a film I was going to make when I started making films. But I also knew the timing and the circumstances had to be right. So, in part, that meant I had to learn a lot more about the history of cinema. I have a PhD in cinema & media studies [from Indiana University]. I can’t speak more highly of Hillary. I’d say there were probably members of my family that felt more confident after they met her in allowing and trusting us [with this story].
HD: Trying to make this documentary and taking it to somebody outside early would have very much have changed the shape of what the film could look like. Because people knew one story—and if you know that story, you know there’s a lot of confirmation bias at work there. People want to hear that story told with some archival material. And so, we did this very, very independently. I don’t think anybody outside of us saw it until about year four. We really kind of hunkered down and made sure it was something we would like.
So exactly how long were you in production on this film?
HD: Five years. It took five years to make.
Wow. That is a labor of love. So Hillary because you married into the family, you have to accept the quirks.
RC: Tell me about it.
But to make a film about this sort of elusive figure: What fears did you have doing a film about Uncle Monty?
HD: It’s a big responsibility to make this film. I think we were both very aware that even if not everything was spoken that there was pain in the family. And you don’t want to do anything that’s going to exacerbate that pain.
Sure, especially with all the legends about Monty that grew up over the years.
HD: You don’t know exactly what happened in the past. And anytime you’re dealing with any family, everybody’s got some kind of baggage, quirks, whatever you want to call it. So I think we wanted to make sure that we were doing things respectfully, that it was well-researched, that we talked to people where they were at, and got to listen to what they had to say. I love this family. They’re wonderful, and I feel so trusted and loved knowing that everyone was willing to put themselves in our hands. I was the editor, and I do a lot of shaping there, so I really felt, not burdened, but the weight of that trust.
RC: And nobody else was going to listen to a hundred hours of my father’s recordings.
How did the family react when you said you were going to do this?
HD: They went for it. We didn’t know if they would
RC: We had no idea how they would react.
HD: Yeah. When you put a camera in front of people, it gives you an opportunity to have a very focused, deep conversation that you wouldn’t just have around the dinner table. And so I think that having the excuse of making a film that gives people the time to go go through their family basements for us.
Robert, your dad’s no longer with us, but his relationship with Monty made a strong impression on you. What sort of regrets or thoughts did he impart to you that were provocative in your head? [The film reveals that Brooks Clift, a former spy for the US, secretly taped virtually all of his conversations with Monty–and just about everyone else, one of his many eccentricities.]
RC: It’s funny, because my mother, jokingly—but in her normal way, very insightfully—said at the very beginning that she would title the film The Uncle I Never Knew, The Father I Barely Knew, and The Mother Who Made It All Happen…
RC: And she’s joking, but I had one eyebrow up toward my father. He died when I was young; they divorced. I came to know him better [through making the film]. But I was always—I’ve never really had some “pie in the sky” idea of his motives.
HD: I would say that there was a little bit of…
HD: Yeah, distrust, when it came to Brooks [Brooks Clift, Robert’s dad], because Brooks didn’t tell everyone what was going on during all of this…
Oh really? He was just as elusive?
HD: People didn’t necessarily know what was going on. Just with other family things, I think, as every family gets, there was a little of oh, I don’t know what this person’s up to, and I think that was a little bit of—
RC: Part of that was the pain there. That’s what we discovered. Part of that was the pain, and my older brothers knew a little bit more than I did. Part of that was the pain.
HD: I think Brooks probably started off as a somewhat unreliable narrator when we started going through the archive. And it wasn’t until we started going through systematically, listening to all these recordings, looking at his notes and seeing how everything unfolded that people didn’t know…what struggles Brooks had with this. The story that went out, he was actually struggling against.
You mentioned your mom, Rob, and we have to say her name. She’s the great Eleanor Clift [legendary political columnist, journalist and McLaughlin Group staple]. You mentioned that she gave you advice going into this. Obviously, she and your dad had a certain kind of relationship [Eleanor and Brooks married over her family’s objections and later divorced]. And she then too had a certain relationship with Monty. Did they ever meet?
RC: Oh yeah, they got married at his brownstone.
Oh wow. That definitely counts.
RC: One of the stories—
HD: I wish we could have included.
RC: Yeah, I wish. Unfortunately, everyone in my family thinks it’s hilarious, but nobody seems to really tell it in a way that that’s funny.
HD: Do the concise version.
RC: Ok, you want me to try it?
Tell us the story.
HD: Do you want to do it, or do you want me to do it?
RC: I’ll start it, and then I’ll pass it over. You have to understand the context. My father was married to my mother for 20 years. But he had been married multiple times beforehand.
HD: She was number four.
RC: And I’m the youngest of his children. But they’re getting married. He was 21 years older than my mother, and she was a secretary at the time. She had never gone to college. He went to Harvard. And his family had ideas, and her family had ideas, and both families were against this wedding. And so, they’re getting married at Monty’s, and there’s some tension. You know my mother’s family, they take the train in from Queens. And so the whole thing starts happening…you take over from here!
HD: So the whole thing is very tense. Sonny, Monty’s mother, as Eleanor tells it, looked her over and said, “Well, you look regal.” So anyway, they start the service, and they get to the point where the officiant asks, “Is there any reason this marriage shouldn’t move forward?” And it’s very tense. And Monty grumbles from the audience, “he smokes!” And everybody just loses it, and Monty sort of broke the tension for the day. He charmed Eleanor’s mother and gave her a little bit of wine, and she wasn’t a drinker. So she was in great spirits thereafter.
So what advice did she give you about broaching this rather sensitive topic?
RC: She didn’t give explicit advice, though I did have that title running in my head. And one thing I did learn from her that was applied to this film is the importance of reporting or research. Actually calling people, talking to people, doing what you can. Looking at multiple sources. She gave that impulse and desire to get to the bottom of things.
So, Lorenzo, I have to ask, are you close with him? Was he a figure you never heard about, was he someone you had a relationship with?
RC: So Lorenzo died.
HD: Just died.
Oh wow, ok…
RC: He died in July…um…yeah…he…
HD: He was a significant family member.
RC: He, um, yeah. He was my uncle through Monty. He was there since I was little.
That’s beautiful. I have to confess to you, I didn’t realize Monty had a boyfriend, let alone a live-in boyfriend. This is the first I’ve seen of his relationship with Lorenzo. I’ve seen, in the public record, mention of Lorenzo, but never an explicit, this is who they were. So in that way, it’s a beautiful testament to their relationship.
RC: He made sure I went to the Harlem Dance Theatre. He was closely associated with them. When Lorenzo was on his last legs, [famed dancer] Arthur Mitchell came to the house. Cecily Tyson came to the house. But um…
[His voice falters.]
RC: But yeah. I was with him when he passed, holding his hand. He loved us, and I would say that…people bring up Brooks a lot, but Lorenzo was really the one I felt most responsible toward.
HD: Lorenzo was kind of a glue among all of Brooks’ children. He kept in touch with everybody. He arranged Robert’s father’s funeral. He was very significant.
RC: He and my mother were close; they would talk all the time.
HD: He was important.
Why do you think he chose not to appear on camera then?
HD: When he was younger he was attacked by a dog, and he had some light scarring.
RC: But he was…
HD: He was beautiful. But he would never allow himself to be photographed. People would tell you. “no photos of Lorenzo.” But Cecily Tyson, she could sneak them in.
HD: If you’re Cecily Tyson, you get away with a lot.
When it comes to Monty’s biographers, how reluctant were you to include them? Because I noticed [biographer Patricia Bosworth] revises some of her points, and says that the publisher wouldn’t revise the manuscript. And this became an ongoing thing, also with Brooks, who would go to publishers and demand changes, and they’d never make them.
HD: We did all our interviews first. We drove across the country interviewing people. Came back, did our transcripts, pulled all that. We had gotten some of the archival materials on that trip. And those archival materials are really what became the driving informer for what the film would be. So I would say that when we were doing interviews we weren’t even sure what the direction would be. We really had to follow the materials, and that’s really what gave shape to the film.
There’s so much archival material, it’s almost staggering. I can’t image how long it took to go through it all—
RC: I’m glad you felt it though…
It’s hard to miss. That just draws the natural question then: what was it about the recording that your dad and your uncle both were so fascinated by, that they had to record everything?
RC: That’s a really good question.
HD: We can only speculate.
RC: One thing is that their parents recorded them. And that was in the ’20s, and home movies in that time were really unusual.
You two now have directed two feature films together [Making Montgomery Clift and Road Comics]. That’s trying even when you aren’t married. So my question is, how do you find you challenge each other? How do you reinforce each other? Do you feel competitive in the sense that you push each other to be better filmmakers?
RC: Listening is the most important thing. It doesn’t always work immediately, but in the end, our creative relationship thrives because both of us are willing to let go of our subjective investments — even if it’s not permanently — in order to sincerely hear the other person out. The process isn’t always smooth, there are inevitable bumps in the road, times when we swear the other person is mistaken, but eventually, what we’re talking about doesn’t seem to matter, and we feel closer, more connected, and creatively aligned.
HD: I think we’re lucky to like working together. I know it doesn’t work out that way for all couples in the arts, and I don’t think that says anything about their relationships. We just happen to be very creatively compatible, and I love it. Robert is my favorite person, and he’s brilliant, sensitive and supportive. I feel respected when we’re working together. I think we’re mostly on the same page creatively, even if the ways each we arrive there are different. That’s not to say we don’t run into conflicts when we work, but you just can’t take those too personally when they come up.
I know we’re on each other’s side, so that helps keep those normal creative growing pains in proper proportion.
The film plays the Newfest Film Festival October 30.