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Tragic life of Hollywood's beautiful one; More than 30 years after his death Montgomery Clift is still an enigma. Christine Barker looks at the life of a Hollywood legend.

Tragic The Tinsel Town pundits described his face as "the most photogenic since Garbo".

Although John Wayne, who helped him through his early days in film city, called him "an arrogant little bastard".

But physical beauty was only one part of the equation. It was Montgomery Clift's acting abilities that made him one of the screen's "Young Lions", along with James Dean and Marlon Brando.

Today only Brando is left. Both Dean and Clift died young after explosive, controversial lives in a world where excess was the norm. But if drink, drugs and affairs across the sexes were part of the Hollywood way of life, Clift harboured a secret still a taboo in those decades immediately after the war when California was welcoming back its heroes.

The guy with the green eyes and. near-perfect features was rampantly homosexual. As was his contemporary Rock Hudson. While Paramount set its formidable publicity machine to the task of turning him into their top international sex symbol - A Place in the Sun in which he starred with the equally beautiful Elizabeth Taylor was one successful vehicle in the campaign - Clift himself was trawling the gay bars in search of "trade".

It was actually on a visit to London in 1959 to film Suddenly Last Summer - once again with Elizabeth Taylor who remained one of his best friends - that he met Maurice Leonard, author of Montgomery Clift - The Compelling Biography of a Hollywood Enigma.

Leonard, today a television producer working with stars like Michael Barrymore, was then a young telephone operator at Clift's luxury hotel.

Clift arrived like a diplomatic secret and was fiercely guarded by his tigress of a secretary Marge Stengel. Living a completely reclusive life in his suite, he only left for the studios. But Leonard got through to him, was invited upstairs for a drink, and began an affair that lasted throughout the filming.

Nude and drunken forays along the hotel corridors were all part of the game - vodka was the preferred tipple.

The star was also injecting drugs. Not for the emotional high, but to contain the pain from the facial injuries that had occurred during his cataclysmic car crash three years earlier.

Filming had ended on Raintree County, yet another of the blockbusters he shared with Elizabeth Taylor. To mark the closedown of the set, Taylor and Michael Wilding, the second of her husbands, threw a lavish party.

Taylor, dressed totally in white, watched her guests get more and more drunk before the party finished at around 11pm. Clift set off home in his car closely behind fellow actor Kevin McCarthy. As usual Clift was driving like a maniac. At some point on the twisting canyon roads, he lost control and collided with a telegraph pole. McCarthy ran back to see what had happened. Clift was unconscious under the dashboard. The driver's seat was covered with blood.

McCarthy contacted Elizabeth Taylor. She arrived, still in the white frock, and cradled Clift's head in her lap. His face was a pulp. Within minutes the white dress was soaked through.

It took months of painful repair work to wire up the broken jaw, replace the shattered teeth and patch the long, jagged tears in the most beautiful male face in Hollywood. The results were never quite successful.

The pure profile remained swollen, the scars showed livid against the skin and the pain of the injuries was a continuing background to Clift's life.

But it did not prevent him making The Young Lions with Brando; Lonelyhearts with Myrna Loy; Suddenly Last Summer with Elizabeth Taylor; Wild River with Lee Remick; Judgement at Nuremberg with Spencer Tracy and Burt Lancaster; Freud with Susannah York; and finally The Defector with Hardy Kruger.

They were greeted with universal plaudits. Even with a shattered face, Clift was still one of the hottest properties around. One of the method actors - with Dean and Brando - who broke the mould of gentlemanly leading men starring in "happy ending" romances and comedies without a single pinch of satire.

Interestingly he never really wanted to go to Hollywood. He was born on October 15, 1920, at Omaha, Nebraska.

The son of middle class parents, his father was vice-president of a smallish bank and his mother had pretensions to fine breeding, Monty had an elder brother and a twin sister.

As children he and Ethel were almost indistinguishable, beautiful sexless siblings pampered by their totally impossible and overbearing mother.

Leaving her husband behind to foot the bills, Sunny Clift took her children on expensive European tours to prepare them for life among America's elite. Monty was special, a charming little gentlemen interested in languages, music, the theatre and the culture of Europe.

While Brooks, the elder brother, and Ethel eventually went to school, Monty stayed at home with tutors. By the time he was 14, Sunny was dragging him round the New York audition circuit.

His looks gained him small parts, Sunny acted as chaperone, and it was largely British actors like Alfred Lunt and his wife Lynn Fontanne who taught the budding thespian the classical arts of declaiming Shakespeare and speaking Ibsen.

Films were an entirely different medium. For them he had to communicate only with the camera. Mira Rostova, a Russian actress with progressive ideas, taught him the rudiments of method acting before becoming his lifetime mentor and coach.

He died of a heart attack in his New York apartment on July 22, 1966. He was alone in bed, his glasses still on the end of his nose. He was just 46.

The Misfits, the film he had made in 1961 with Monroe and Gable, had been on television. Somehow it seemed appropiate.

Montgomery Clift: The Compelling Biography is a Hollywood Enigma, by Maurice Leonard. (Hodder and Stoughton, pounds 17.99).
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Author:Barker, Christine
Publication:The Birmingham Post (England)
Date:Jan 7, 1998
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