It was the evening of May 12th, 1956. Montgomery Clift, the 35 year old Hollywood heartthrob and major influence on actors such as James Dean and Marlon Brando, was in the prime of his career and well into filming the American Civil War melodrama, Raintree County. He was already a three time Academy Award nominee and had changed the face of Hollywood forever. Before Clift, Hollywood’s leading men were testosterone driven macho men such as Humphrey Bogart, Clark Gable and John Wayne. Clift had brought an emotional depth and sensitivity to his roles, the likes of which had never been seen before. This coupled with natural good looks which captured the hearts of women worldwide had made Clift an overnight success. Earlier on in the evening in question, Clift had attended a dinner party hosted by his Raintree County co-star and close friend Elizabeth Taylor and her second husband, Michael Wilding. Now, the star of such box office smashes as Red River (1948), A Place in the Sun (1951) and From Here to Eternity (1953) was laid in a crumpled heap of metal after his car had veered off the road into a telephone pole.
Moments after the horrific accident, friend and fellow actor Kevin McCarthy, who had been driving in front of Clift on that fateful night, on realising that Clift was no longer following him, drove back to check on his friend to find the Hollywood star slumped in the twisted wreckage of his car. “His face was torn away – a bloody pulp. I thought he was dead”, McCarthy later said. McCarthy ran back to Elizabeth Taylor’s home to fetch her, Wilding, Rock Hudson and Hudson’s wife, Phyllis Gates who all raced to the scene of the accident.
The events that followed have been subject to myth and mystery ever since. One report suggests that Rock Hudson pulled Clift from the car and Taylor cradled him in her arms, Clift choking and motioning to his throat. Two of Clift’s teeth had become loose and lodged themselves there during the accident. Taylor opened his mouth, forced her hand down his throat and pulled out the teeth. Whether this report is true or not, the longevity of this story is testament to the believed bond between Clift and Taylor, it being long rumoured by the Hollywood gossip machine that he and Taylor were an item. Clift also suffered a broken jaw and nose, a fractured sinus and several facial lacerations which would require plastic surgery. According to the report of what happened in the aftermath of the accident, when the photographers arrived, Taylor knew each and every one of them personally. This would seem to be true as not one photo of Clift’s broken face following the accident exists.
After a recovery period of just two months, he returned to the set of Raintree County to finish the film. Clift correctly predicted that the film would do well, despite the movie studio’s fears over profits, stating that movie-goers would flock to see the film just to see the difference in his facial appearance, particularly the right side of his face. Considering the horrific nature of Clift’s injuries, the work carried out on his face was miraculous for the time but the accident had left his face partially immobilised and his right profile considerably altered to the point where he was unrecognisable, a mess of angles which could not possibly have been restored to their former glory. Clift was already a heavy drinker. It has been suggested that this was because of a long held secret that he was gay, something which at that time, particularly as a Hollywood star, would have been scandalous. Following the accident, he became reliant on alcohol and pills for pain relief. He had previously heavily relied on alcohol and pills for relief from a bout of dysentery which had left him with chronic intestinal problems, setting the wheels in motion for the destructive behaviour which has since vastly overshadowed his reputation as one of the greatest screen icons of all time. Following the car accident that had nearly ended his life, Cliff’s health and physical appearance deteriorated beyond all recognition, bringing with it a change in behaviour which was at best highly erratic, until his death at just 45 years old on June 22nd, 1966.
On their classic 1979 album London Calling, The Clash paid tribute to Montgomery Clift on the song The Right Profile. During the recording of London Calling, producer Guy Stevens lent Joe Strummer a copy of a 1978 biography of Montgomery Clift by Patricia Bosworth, suggesting that Strummer might write a song about him. It has been suggested by some that Strummer saw a link between the alcohol and drug problems endured by Clift and the alcohol and drug problems that their producer was suffering at the time.
The title of the song refers both to the change in Clift’s looks following the accident, his ‘right profile’ being the side of his face most disfigured in the accident, and also to the way in which in films following the accident, Clift’s face had to be shot in ‘the right profile’ to avoid showing his facial disfigurements.
The song’s lyrics centre on his unrecognisable appearance and decline in the years following the crash. “Say, where did I see this guy?” asks Joe Strummer in the song’s opening verse, “In Red River? Or A Place in the Sun? Maybe The Misfits? From Here to Eternity?” The song goes on to tell a sad story of a sighting of the once revered Hollywood actor on 42nd Street in New York, “He ain’t got no shoes and his clothes are torn”, with people asking “Is he alright? … He sure look funny”, after catching a glimpse in his alcohol and painkiller induced disorientated and slurred state with his damaged ‘right profile’. On realising that the person in question is Montgomery Clift, Strummer tells the person either showing concern over or ridiculing the actor’s appearance (depending on which way you look at it): “That’s Montgomery Clift, honey!” During the filming of the post-crash film The Misfits (1961), Marilyn Monroe described Montgomery Clift as “The only person I know who is in worse shape than I am”.
Incidentally, the “42nd Street” mentioned in The Right Profile is an area of New York, near Times Square, which was home to activities considered unsavory, including peep shows and the like. A comedian, who’s name has long since been forgotten, once said of 42nd Street, “They call it 42nd Street because you’re not safe if you spend more than forty seconds on it”.
“I see a car smashed at night, Cut the applause and dim the light, Monty’s face is broken on a wheel, Is he alive? Can he still feel?” sings Strummer before detailing the dual addictions which would eventually kill the former film legend: “Nembutol numbs it all, But I prefer alcohol”. The song paints a sorry picture of Montgomery Clift, a former star tortured by his misfortune, obsessing over his dramatically changed appearance and looking back on his glory days: “He said, go out and get me my old movie stills, Go out and get me another roll of pills”.
In his films, Montgomery Clift had beautifully depicted characters that were desperate, drunk or deceived but his life was more tragic than any of his screen portrayals. Nowadays, we see Montgomery Clift as the archetypal embodiment of human suffering: The unfortunate Hollywood actor who had it all, changed everything and lost everything. The Right Profile is The Clash’s summary of the slowest suicide in Hollywood history.
In addition to The Clash’s The Right Profile, REM also wrote a song about Montgomery Clift, Monty Got A Raw Deal, featured on their 1992 album Automatic For the People. Monty Got A Raw Deal also centres around Clift’s crash and decline but is also thought to be about the way in which his homosexuality was repressed for the sake of his career. This seems fitting as Michael Stipe came out as gay in 2001 after years of speculation. Incidentally, the title of the song is also a reference to an American game show called Let’s Make A Deal hosted by Monty Hall from 1963 to 1976. The song draws parallels between Let’s Make A Deal audience members making arbitrary decisions about picking random doors or containers which may have contained either valuable or worthless prizes depending on the participant’s luck and Montgomery Clift’s luck (his “Raw Deal”) in the last years of his life, addicted to alcohol and painkillers and in agony because of injuries sustained in his crash, as well as being haunted by his inability to live an openly gay life.
Further to this, Morrissey, a long time fan of classic Hollywood, is thought to make a more subtle reference to Montgomery Clift on his song Let Me Kiss You, from You Are The Quarry (2004). The opening lyric, “There’s a place in the sun for anyone who has the will to chase one …” could be considered to be a nod to one of Clift’s most famous films, A Place in the Sun, using Clift’s disfigurement five years after A Place in the Sun, to tie in with the idea of physical repulsion in the chorus, “Close your eyes and think of someone you physically admire”. If we were to see the aforementioned lines in Let Me Kiss You as a reference to Montgomery Clift, they could also be suggestive of a gay relationship. Similarly to Stipe, there has also been much speculation surrounding Morrissey’s sexuality. It has been reported that Morrissey has admitted to being gay on a few occasions, although this is sometimes later rebuked by the singer. For example, in 2013, following the release of his autobiography which details a fondness for photographer Jake Owen Walters (although it never explicitly says they were lovers), he released a statement through his semi-official website True To You reading, “Unfortunately, I am not homosexual. In technical fact, I am humasexual. I am attracted to humans. But, of course … not many”.
Montgomery Clift’s career consisted of eight years of outstanding cinematic work followed by a full decade of terminal decline but the songs that he has inspired are testament to his ongoing appeal. This appeal may often lay in the fact that he represents the tragic hero; unfulfilled desires; the repression of one’s true self; battles with demons; undeniably brilliant ability struck down at it’s zenith by misfortune and unforeseen events; the worst case scenario of what happens when things go horribly wrong and the thought of what could have been: All more than worthy subject matter for inspiring great music.