2014, Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media
Jump Cut, No. 56, winter 2014-2015
Montgomery Clift, or, the ambiguities
by David Greven
Elisabetta Girelli, Montgomery Clift, Queer Star (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2014), $31.95, 248 pp.
Words fail most of us when it comes to describing the beauty of the Hollywood actor Montgomery Clift, but not Elisabetta Girelli. Her exhilarating and incisive book Montgomery Clift, Queer Star makes endless reference to Clift’s beauty without once seeming excessive or dull in this register. Clift’s beauty was linked not just to his appeal but also to the meanings of his stardom, which are carefully and provocatively analyzed here. Submitting all of his film roles to scrutiny, Girelli argues that Clift was a “queer star,” and the author herein claims something much larger and more wide-ranging than homosexual, gay, or even bisexual. Taking the idea of queerness almost to its breaking point, Girelli makes a strong case for re-reading Clift’s onscreen relationships with women for their transgressive sexual heat, the implication being that the celebration of Clift as a gay icon has diminished the equally salient matter of his hetero-cinematic relations.
While Girelli is persuasive, her argument does bring up some difficult and perhaps incoherent matters in queer theory, namely the broad uses of the term “queer” that have become so broad as to threaten to evacuate the issue of same-sex desire altogether, as I will touch on in below. Luckily, Girelli is equally attentive to and adept at elucidating the extensive homoerotic frisson, appeal, and significance of Clift’s screen work and onscreen relationships. Of special distinction here as well are her careful, sustained readings of Clift’s films made after his horrific 1956 car accident. As evil fate would have it, that accidedent had its greatest impact on his surpassingly beautiful face, leaving him, if not disfigured as commonly stated, permanently altered. “Constantly measured against his former looks, Clift now appeared out of sync with himself; this rupture became part of his total meaning as a star” (6).
Girelli locates her approach to Clift in classical queer theory, drawing heavily on the writings of Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick (on the multivalent meanings of queerness) and Judith Butler (on gender as a compulsory performance). Given the extent to which queer literary studies has eschewed Sedgwick of late (with a focus on a historical materialism seen as an alternative to the apparently more ominous tone of Sedgwick’s work), Girelli’s well-chosen uses of Sedgwick here are particularly welcome.
While respectfully noting the contributions of scholars such as Amy Lawrence and Steve Cohan, Girelli argues, “Clift’s disruptive screen presence has been narrowly explained, in terms of fixed notions of homosexuality and bisexuality” (11). “Clift’s persona is not reducible to neat labels or descriptions” (24). A fully realized understanding of the meanings of his persona “presupposes the abandonment of binary systems of classifications…the deconstruction of sexual stereotypes, including those of recent, gay-affirmative and bisexual labelings” (24). Unlike most previous scholars, Girelli insists we must focus on the post-accident Clift as well as the beautiful Clift before his accident. She links her queer approach to disability studies and the (uncomfortably) so-called “crip theory.” From a crip theory standpoint and through her reassessment of the post-accident Clift on film, Girelli critiques the assumptions made about an able-bodied subject by heteronormative structures of power. Girelli critiques the general dismissal of Clift's post-accident films as being centered in a bias against the non-able-bodied.
Red River (made in 1946, released in 1948), directed by genre auteur Howard Hawks, was the first Clift film to be shot, though not his first screen appearance, which was The Search (1948), directed by Fred Zinnemann. Red River is a Western set in the nineteenth century and co-stars Clift as Matt Garth and John Wayne as a man who adopts Garth. The film positions Clift crucially and foundationally as “a beautiful, erotically available boy” (36). Girelli counters the view of Clift’s languid sexuality here as passive; rather, she observes, “his slow, deliberate movements exude self-control” (39).
Girelli’s book makes its mark in queer-Clift studies through her painstaking evocation of and focus on his scenes with female co-stars. Describing the young star’s erotic scenes with Tess, the female lead of Red River, played by Joanne Dru, she writes,
“Matt is highly responsive to Tess’s erotic presence; he touches her neck and hair slowly and sensuously, then constantly shifts his position, expressing physical tension. His eyes rest on hers with desire…” (44).
Discussing Clift’s role in The Heiress, William Wyler’s great 1949 film adaptation of Henry James’ novel Washington Square, the author observes that the film establishes Clift as “an ambiguous, yet undisputed object of erotic desire” (45). As Catherine Sloper, Olivia de Havilland gives a great performance as a shy, awkward woman who transforms into a hard, absolute revenger because Clift’s charming but mercenary seducer Morris Townsend seduces but abandons her once he learns that her wealthy physician father will cut her out of his will if she marries Townsend. Playing this nineteenth century dandy, Clift is “[e]laborately dressed in tight-fitting and frilly clothes, carefully groomed, with his hair and sideburns impeccably styled…a delectable sight” (47). Even Catherine’s cold, even sadistic father Dr. Austin Sloper (played memorably by Ralph Richardson), who does not believe that Morris could possibly desire Catherine for anything other than her wealth, “recognizes Morris’ erotic value” (48). For Morris, however, eroticism seems to be entirely “self-reflective” (49).
Girelli rightly focuses on the queer potentialities of Clift’s role in The Search, a beautifully made, moving, rather austere film (one’s tears are freely given rather than wrenched loose) about a U.S. soldier who befriends and all but adopts a young Czech boy in postwar Berlin. The boy is silent and terrified as a result of the loss of most of his family members in Auschwitz, and his mother has survived and now searches for him among refugee camps and ruins. Subversively claiming the film as a paean to “man-boy love,” Girelli evocatively draws out the queer valences in Clift’s soldier Steve’s relationship with the boy Karel (Ivan Jandl).
Of Clift’s almost disorientingly appealing presence in this film, the author observes, the “overall impression is that of a gorgeous-looking creature, whose gum-chewing and general banter do not manage to fully virilize. This ambiguous image is reinforced by the lack of heterosexual narratives,” as Steve is never shown to be involved in any romantic attachments with women (65). Indeed, he and a fellow soldier played by Wendell Corey come across as a gay male couple raising this lost, forlorn child who blossoms under their care, Steve’s especially.
Clift made several more films in his major, pre-accident period, the especially notable ones being A Place in the Sun (George Stevens, 1951), From Here to Eternity (Fred Zinnemann, 1953), and Hitchcock’s I Confess (1953). Girelli is particularly astute and compelling on evoking the homoerotic intensity of Clift’s onscreen relationship with Burt Lancaster in From Here to Eternity, a film based on James Jones’ novel, which, even in its expurgated form, contained a great deal of contraband information about homosexuality’s secret life within the military (the narrative climaxes in the Pearl Harbor attack). These stunning films demonstrate Clift’s peculiar, idiosyncratic, intense, multifaceted, and deeply brooding brilliance as an actor. Often linked to the other rebel males Marlon Brando and James Dean, Clift, to my mind, surpasses them in the skillful specificity of his characterizations—little wonder that Brando was so obsessed with competing against him. (A major disappointment is the scant attention Girelli pays to Vittorio De Sica’s frustrating but moodily fascinating 1953 film Stazione Termini, starring Clift and Jennifer Jones. Her obsessive, micro-managing producer husband David O. Selznick released an inferior version of De Sica’s film in the United States called Indiscretion of an American Wife.)
Sadly for Clift and for the movies, he suffered a horrific car accident in 1956 during the filming of the forgettable Civil War epic Raintree County (Edward Dmytryk, 1957), which reunited him with his Place in the Sun co-star Elizabeth Taylor. She played an instrumental role in saving his life, reaching into his mouth and pulling out the two teeth he was choking on at the scene of the grisly accident. She also successfully threatened the photographers swarming around his wrecked car and body that they’d never be welcome at the studio again if they took photographs of him in this condition. Given how extensively his face, which took the brunt of the impact of his car wreck, was injured, the doctors at the time did a fairly remarkable job of putting it back together—but the damage was undeniable. Clift no longer looked like himself. If he was not disfigured, he was also no longer beautiful, an undeniable shift having taken place. And it wasn’t just his face that was altered—his voice became lower, gruffer, his body movements slower, halting.
Girelli does a heroically astute job of offering detailed analyses of Clift’s post-accident films, especially The Young Lions (Edward Dmytryk, 1948), in which he plays a Jewish American named Noah Ackerman and was paired up with Dean Martin and Brando (with whom he shares only one scene but without any dialogue; they are never in the same frame). She points out that “a new queerness” awaits discovery in these later films, and indeed her analysis leads one to seek them out anew.
I was especially grateful to encounter her wonderfully incisive reading of Suddenly, Last Summer (1959), which, in my view, is Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s most cinematically daring film. Tennessee Williams wrote the dazzling screenplay, based on his play. The film was denounced as homophobic in the wake of Vito Russo’s call for positive images in The Celluloid Closet. Russo's pioneering work retains a great deal of value, but its relegation of works like this film to the homophobic film canon did a serious disservice. For these reasons, I am thrilled to see Girelli’s defense of it here and evocation of Clift’s resistant masculinity in it.
Suddenly, Last Summer is one of the greatest films of the 1950s, climaxing in a terrifyingly lyrical, hallucinatory depiction of Elizabeth’s Taylor’s confession of what really happened to her homosexual-poet cousin Sebastian Venable, who uses her luscious bikini-clad body to “procure” the boys of Cabeza de Loco, Spain. (They cannibalistically devour him in retaliation.) Girelli also offers a master class in detailed analysis of a film actor’s performance in her reading of Clift’s work in the 1961 Judgment at Nuremberg, directed by Stanley Kramer, a heroic last great performance of fifteen minutes or so by the debilitated, painkiller-addicted and alcoholic actor, who was being trotted out as a sideshow attraction at Andy Warhol parties by this point.
I do not have the space to give this dimension of her argument its proper treatment here, but I find the premise of “straight queerness” both exciting and worrisome. I have made my own case for the potentialties of heterosexuality as a site of queer energies.[open endnotes in new window] But it is one thing to make the case that a particular artist, author or actor, can queer heterosexuality by denaturing and otherwise deconstructing it and, I think, another to make the claim, as Girelli does, that
“to queer hetero identities means to validate the deviations, contradictions, and possibilities inherent in relations between men and women. Heterosexuality can thus be reclaimed as subversive, as part of the nonessentialist discourse underpinning queerness” (176).
No doubt that this is a noble goal, but it has the effect here, as a central dimension of Girelli’s argument, of de-gaying Clift’s screen persona.
As noted, Girelli does a marvelous job of attending to same-sex desire in Clift’s work, and she would, I think, be disappointed to learn that I came away from her book feeling that the queering of Clift’s career she so brilliantly makes a case for has the effect, overall, of de-gaying his persona. The problem at work here, one certainly not exclusive to Girelli, is that the critic uses an established gay/queer reading of an artist as the template for what is then offered as a game-changing counter-reading of this established one. But what led to such established readings was a long and shifting process of appropriation and discovery.
The ways in which Clift became a homosexual icon are varied, complex, and the result of a genealogy of resistant readings of his ostensibly and purportedly straight screen presence. To then use this gay/homosexual iconicity as a belief that must be overturned by the presumably more radical, presumably infinitely more capacious and varied model of straight queerness is, for all of its myriad and compelling virtues, a form of rhetorical violence that, in my view, the book never fully recovers from.
The gay male love for Montgomery Clift is indistinguishable from a specific, historical discourse within which a gay canon of works, ranging from Melville’s novella Billy Budd to movies like The Wizard of Oz to All About Eve to What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? emerged. The more utopian and inclusive model of straight queerness offers the considerable benefit of allowing us to re-examine Clift’s heterosexual passions onscreen, but it also, in its very capacious utopianism, threatens to obliterate a gay/homosexual history of love for Clift. Luckily, love, in all of its myriad forms, is in the air throughout this complexly conceived, thoroughly engaging, and provocative book.
1. My book-in-process on Alfred Hitchcock films, Intimate Violence, makes the case that he subversively queers heterosexual relations. My book Gender Protest and Same-Sex Desire in Antebellum American Literature (Ashgate, 2014) argues that Nathaniel Hawthorne accomplishes a similar feat in his 1850 novel The Scarlet Letter. [return to text]
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.5 License.