Sister Celluloid

Where old movies go to live

TINTYPE TUESDAY: At Home (and on the Floor) with Montgomery Clift!

Welcome to another edition of TINTYPE TUESDAY! This week: a slightly early 95th-birthday tribute to Montgomery Clift.

Before Stanley Kubrick began telling stories with moving pictures, he told them with still-lifes, as a $50-a-week photojournalist for Look magazine in the mid to late 1940s. Some of his early photo essays were staged (I know—you’re shocked!), but as he matured, so did his work. His subjects included boxers like Rocky Graziano, musicians like Frank Sinatra, actors, artists, and everyday New Yorkers.

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In 1949, he was tapped to do a study of Montgomery Clift, who, after years of terrific work on the stage, was suddenly an “overnight success” in Hollywood.

Earlier that year, Clift  was nominated for a Best Actor Oscar in his first film, The Search; he was so natural, one reporter had asked director Fred Zinnemann, “Where did you find a soldier who could act so well?” Soon after, Red River (which had actually been filmed first) was released to raves, and The Heiress lay just ahead. But Kubrick, never one to put actors on pedestals, titled his photo essay “Glamour Boy in Baggy Pants.” He dropped by the actor’s Manhattan apartment earlier than expected—and the baggy pants he was met with were striped pajamas.

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Would you scold him for drinking milk out of the carton?

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Clift was completely comfortable with the camera…

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…but he loathed dealing with the media one on one. So for part of the shoot, he asked Kubrick to compromise and meet him at his friend Kevin McCarthy’s apartment. McCarthy was happy to run interference; an amateur photographer himself, he also showed off his kitchen-turned-darkroom. (Bonus points for the satin-piped blanket, a staple of every midcentury home, covering the door!)

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The two had grown close while working on Broadway in Chekov’s The Seal and later studied together at the Actors Studio. Clift spent many evenings with McCarthy and his wife, Augusta Dabney—usually ending up on the floor with their son, Flip.

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“Monty was wonderful,” Dabney later remembered. “He made everyone feel special, everyone he met.” And some people felt free to walk, or ride, all over him…

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…which is thirsty work.

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McCarthy and Clift remained sporadically close for much of Clift’s brief life. In 1956, it was McCarthy who was driving the car in front of his friend, trying to guide him through the treacherous Hollywood Hills on that near-moonless spring night when Clift lost control and smashed his car into a telephone pole, shattering his face, his frame and his fragile psyche. He battled severe depression and addiction to painkillers for the scant 10 years that remained to him. “He was a terrific actor, a most charming and intelligent person, brilliant in every way,” McCarthy later recalled. “It was so awful the way his life deteriorated.” Mercifully, some photographs are sturdier than those they capture.

TINTYPE TUESDAY is a weekly feature on Sister Celluloid, with fabulous classic movie pix (and usually a bit of backstory!) to help you make it to Hump Day! For previous editions, just click here—and why not bookmark the page, to make sure you never miss a week?

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