Making Montgomery Clift

"Making Montgomery Clift" is a documentary by Clift's nephew that casts a skeptical eye on the accepted version of the movie star's biography.

The legend of Montgomery Clift has been cemented in Hollywood lore. He was an incredibly talented, impossibly handsome young actor, part of the wave of actors that included Marlon Brando and James Dean.

But, the legend went, he was tormented by a secret he had to hide from the world — that he was gay — and lived his life in fear and shame, eventually self-destructing on alcohol and drugs. He died of a heart attack in 1966 at age 45.

It was a story told over and over about Clift. When I saw Clift in “Lonelyhearts” last week at the Wisconsin Film Festival, playing a sensitive newspaper advice columnist hiding guilt and shame about his own past, I unconsciously connected his on-screen anguish to what I knew about his personal life. “There’s something there that’s not on the page,” I said to someone after the screening.

But what if it wasn’t true? What if the only thing that wasn’t on the page was talent?

The engrossing new documentary “Making Montgomery Clift,” made by Clift’s youngest nephew, Robert Clift, and his wife Hillary Demmon, aims to correct the record. Digging into extensive archives of notes and recordings by Brooks Clift, Robert’s father and Montgomery’s older brother, the film makes a persuasive case that Montgomery Clift was not tormented by his sexuality. The movie star we see in the film is a funny, uncompromising and immensely gifted artist whose life, like all of ours, was too complicated to fit into any neat narrative box.

“This is not really a story about a man,” Robert Clift says in the opening narration. “It was about what his life was supposed to mean. Remember that.”

“Making Montgomery Clift” is not really a biography of Montgomery Clift’s life, but an exploration of how the myth of Clift as a “beautiful loser” was created, and why it persists. In a way, Robert Clift is finishing the work of his father Brooks, who worked closely with a biographer on a book that would correct the record, only to see his concerns sidelined in favor of the same old familiar tragic tale.

Above all, the movie celebrates Clift’s gifts as an actor, the four-time Oscar nominee’s ability to bring a new kind of masculinity onto American movie screens, one that was more tender and vulnerable. He was an independent thinker who refused to sign a studio contract, and would often mark up and change his lines in the script, sometimes giving himself less screen time if it made the movie better.

And, in recorded conversations with his brother and mother, he comes across as a very funny and warm man. There’s undeniably a tragic dimension to the life of a gifted artist dying at 45, and he did struggle with addiction. But “Making Montgomery Clift” makes a persuasive case that it’s not the tragedy we thought it was, and best of all will send us back to Clift’s indelible performances with new eyes.

“People who knew Montgomery and who loved Montgomery in my life say they recognize him in watching this film,” Robert Clift told an audience Monday at the Wisconsin Film Festival.

The Wisconsin Film Festival screened several of Clift’s films along with the documentary, including “Lonelyhearts,” “Freud” and “Suddenly, Last Summer.”

Rob Thomas is the features editor and social media editor for the Capital Times, as well as its film critic. He joined the Cap Times in 1999 and has written about movies, music, food and books.