INTERVIEW: Filmmakers Robert Clift and Hillary Demmon talk ‘Making Montgomery Clift’

Family legacies run deep. Certainly this is true of celebrity families as well. Often times, a star’s persona focuses on one tragic detail or oversimplifies a much more complicated life. This certainly was the case of Montgomery Clift, who became a queer icon for seemingly fitting into the tragic gay narrative and meeting an untimely end.

The documentary Making Montgomery Clift seeks to craft a new, more full narrative, of the life of Montgomery Clift. Clift’s nephew, Robert Clift, and Robert’s wife, Hillary Demmon, poured through countless audio files and interviews to bring to life the version of Montgomery Clift they knew.

We sat down with Robert Clift and Hillary Demmon to discuss the film and the process of redefining the legacy of Montgomery Clift.

Christopher James (Awards Circuit): Obviously this is a very personal story for you, dealing with your family. You deal a lot with how your Dad had a lot of audio footage [of Monty]. Is that what inspired you to make this documentary?

Robert Clift

Robert Clift (Producer/Director/Cinematographer): I wish I could trace it to some exact moment. I really liked the idea of it being tied up to my Father’s archival materials.

Hillary Demmon (Producer/Director/Editor): Yes. Those definitely guided everything.

RC: I didn’t know I was a filmmaker or would be a filmmaker when I was a child. But I knew about the archival material. They were there in the basement of my house, in the attic, in the third story where my Father’s office was. I was curious and that certainly planted the idea in my head that there was something there. I was aware there was a discrepancy with how Monty was talked about in the family and the public stories that circulated around Montgomery Clift, the movie star. [These stories] pathologized his sexuality, describing a person who visited dangerous bars. [There were] lots of stereotypes and inner demons on whether he was attracted to men or women. Everything came down to this one thing. I was very curious about discovering what it was that separated these different takes between what my family felt, the hurt that was felt in my family, and the public persona.

HD: A lot of what we heard from family and loved ones is you had this man who was full of life and funny and joyful and had love in his life. Whether those partners were men or women, he was loved and lovable. We had all of that available to contrast with this tragic guy, alcoholic and closeted and destroying himself. How do you make sure that you’re getting a full person in your story? These archival materials helped flesh that out.

CJ: We are so accustomed to the tragic gay narrative… How important was it to both acknowledge [Monty’s] tragic death and the sad parts around it while making a different sort of narrative so it is not just the convention?

Hillary Demmon

HD: It’s so important to remember in biographical work and documentary work that you are dealing with people. People are never just one thing. Yes, Monty, as anyone, had difficult things come up in his life. He had a car accident… bouts of depression, issues with alcoholism [etc]. But you have to look at those things as what they are. They are stumbling blocks in life, not moral failings… As Monty says in the film, “I’m not just melancholy, I’m not just sad.” It’s part of one’s life if you are a worker. Monty was a worker. You have to let everything in.

CJ: Hilary, I know this was personal for you. You’ve also done a lot of work around labor and community organizing. What was different about working on a project that is both more personal and more wrapped up in Hollywood and a different subject matter? Did this make you approach the project differently?

HD: That’s a good question. I will say I have a bit of a labor bias. You look at Monty’s work, particularly those last 8 films (the post-accident films), and his labor gets erased. I hate seeing people’s labor made invisible. You have to see what people are doing. It matters, especially when people are putting their time, energy and passion into it, like he was. That being said, this is our family. I certainly felt very responsible to do a good job with it.

RC: The typical approach in biographical works is to find a psychological explanation for people’s behavior. Often that explanation is very simple. It still goes back to the mothering for some weird reason. [It’s] the one key, and we’re going to give that key and it sells because people want the key. And so it makes sense that [this oversimplification] happens. When you’re doing something like Hillary has done around labor, it’s not about the psychological person [and] the inner core of who they exist forever, the genius artist, which is more natural in terms of talking about Monty because those are the narratives exist. It’s more about how does this person’s life fit into a system as a worker. That is what Hillary’s work has dealt with before. What I find so interesting about Monty’s audio reels is he refers to himself as a worker. How many Hollywood stars do you hear refer to themselves as workers? It’s a very interesting thing to hear because so much of the mythology is around not being workers. [The mythology is about] the glamour, the nice hotels and drinking champagne. But they are working very hard and he was aware of being someone laboring as an actor.

CJ: You definitely see that in the film. One of the most interesting things, which I didn’t know [beforehand], was how Monty wasn’t contracted to a studio and existed outside of that system. Can you talk more about finding that out and more research you did around the system of Hollywood?

RC: My other life is as a film studies scholar at the University of Pittsburgh. A lot of my research deals with an area called “Star Studies,” which goes into the history of the stars in Hollywood… The thing that really got me arrived in the mail after we finished the film from my cousin’s collection of material (Monty’s sister’s son)… They sent us a folder of things they’ve found recently. One [piece] was one of the early contracts/offers that was offered to him around 1941 when he was in theater and a teenager. One of the earliest things that was offered to him was “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer.” I love that because when people talk about Monty turning down parts, they never bring up the parts where his career would have been cursed had he taken them. These contracts, and the one that we had, were seven years. You could not go to another studio, unless you got permission from the studio that you were with. And if they weren’t using you, you still couldn’t work. They owned you for seven years. And if they did want to use you, you had to act in as many movies and whatever movies they had you act in.

HD: And then you get typecast. If you look at the time he’s getting these offers, [he was] a young actor. [He] could start getting consistent income that’s reliable and consistent work. But, even then [he] didn’t want to get locked in. That’s a pretty mature decision to be making when you’re that young.

RC: Apparently his parents’ disagreed with him… In general, they thought “here’s a lot of money. Do you want to just act on Broadway? This is a lot of money.” His Father was a banker. As [Monty] says in the film, he’s always willing to gamble on his own taste.

HD: If he had entered into these contracts, you then become part of the studio’s publicity system as well. The publicity people have to churn out stories and give them to the press. You find lots of people who were in these basically studio arranged partnerships and marriages. You have someone like Rock Hudson who entered into a marriage. Not to knock him at all. Everyone had to do what they felt good with. For Monty, entering into something like that was something that was going to inhibit him in a way that he didn’t want to be inhibited. Turning down contracts, yes, is about his work. However, it’s also about his personal life and being able to conduct himself in the way he wanted to. That’s a big piece of independence there.

RC: To me that is probably one of the biggest ironies in understanding Monty’s public image. He is essentially associated with being a closeted actor who portrayed a heterosexual masquerade during his life. But a lot of what he did, including not signing these contracts, was to avoid getting locked into a heterosexual masquerade so he could have a love life as he wanted outside of the studio system. Maybe that’s one of the reasons why he was willing to gamble on his taste so much. It was certainly one of the reasons. That’s fascinating to me because one of his roles in cinematic history is the influence on other actor’s to embrace independence against the studio system. That’s one of the things he contributed to.

CJ: How involved were the other family members on seeing cuts, making an input?

HD: We sat people down for interviews. Interviews give you a real chance to sit down, reflect and really process your history… At first we didn’t even know if people wanted to give [interviews]. There was this background of pain in the family. As we say in the film, people [in the family] lost Monty twice. We weren’t sure if people would sit down with us, but then they did. As we talked through and fit pieces together, [we figured out] people didn’t talk to each other about this. The other thing that came out of those interviews was this understanding of what we were trying to do and getting support from the family members. The interview process is how we had everyone on board and people did know that they hadn’t necessarily talked to each other at a certain point. It was like “ok, here is the information and let’s get it assembled.”

RC: They trusted us to do the best we could do in synthesizing the bulk of materials. I feel fortunate that they trusted both of us in that regard. A number of people that were associated with the “new Monty” had declined interviews over the years. The reason [they declined interviews] was because no matter what [people] did, the same story comes out. I don’t know if people thought we were going to do something different. What they expressed was the hurt and the pain, not a coherent processing of that pain. And so many people didn’t talk to each other. One of the stories [from these people about] my Father was that he fought a battle that was not worth fighting and [he] got too preoccupied with it. There are a number of family members that thought… let it be. One woman that knew Monty very well that we did not interview [for the film]… [said], “Why bother. Why go through this again?”

HD: But, you know, you sit them down and reactive the issues and dive in. I feel like once people did dive in, there were all these missing pieces to collect and bring back together.

CJ: Looking at all the shots of the different sets of audio files, how much did you have to go through because it looked like quite a mountain?

RC: The mountain climber is Hilary.

HD: There was a whole archival process running parallel to making the film. When you get a collection of stuff, what turns it into an archive is processing it, organizing it, making sense of it, making a story in it. We are mere amateur archivists. But the sense had to be made out of what was there. That sense making process was running concurrently… The film, from start to finish,  [took] five years. The archival material-

RC: -still continues.

HD: Yeah, it’s not done.

RC: That definitely stretched the release time.

CJ: [Robert], you had heard about Monty your entire life. Going through all of [the archival footage] and hearing anecdotal stories [from the interviews], did Monty fit what you thought about him growing up? Were there any fun things that you heard that re-shaped what you knew?

RC: I’ve always been so hyper aware of not knowing Monty that it’s hard for me to say that I know Monty. I am aware that my way to Monty is through all the different second hand, third hand materials that he’s filtered through. I think the film is able to get to Monty by putting those materials in conversation with each other. I didn’t know what we would reveal. This historian came to [Pittsburgh] and had a great quote. “History… is not about each individual source. It’s about the conversation happening between the sources.” … [The sources in the film] are actual, literal, physical sources coming in and talking to each other. That’s how you sort through and eventually you have a good sense of Monty, in a way. His humor is a great example. … People say “he’s so funny.” … Then you have this phone call and you hear him talking to his Mother [joking] about going to dentist. Just every day stuff. That is the closest I’ve ever felt to knowing him. The thing that’s lacking is it’s not reciprocal. It’s like I’m listening in.

HD: I think when it comes to surprises, I think we both were surprised once we got a real taste of that humor. When we interviewed Jack Larson, he [said Monty off screen] was closer to Jerry Lewis on screen than he was to Montgomery Clift on screen. Jack told us these hysterical stories and we couldn’t fit all of them in the film. [It was] just zaniness…. Just goofy things. If all you have ever gotten to hear through Monty’s public image is that he’s this sad dude, you don’t get a sense that he’d be such a fun loving, joke loving guy.

RC: When people already have a frame or filter they want to apply those stories to, they can twist it very easily. In the film, when [Monty] is being asked-

HD: “Are you self destructive as a person?”

RC: And what does he say? You’re better at remembering verbatim.

HD: He’s telling the interviewer, “I don’t think that I’m aiming towards destruction.” He says, “I wouldn’t think of destroying myself. Aside from killing myself, I wouldn’t think of destroying myself.”

RC: It’s a sense of humor.

HD: Yeah, maybe it’s a dark sense of humor.

RC: It’s dark.

HD: But it’s a sense of humor.

RC: But if you’re a type that wants to fit him into this pigeonhole you can take that [quote] and support [your version]… Hedda Hopper had this question she would ask people. It’s kinda a stupid question but it sells, I guess. [The question was] “How would you describe your life in one sentence?” And Monty was not a fan of doing this publicity. His [response] was, “I’ve been knifed.”


RC: We can read that in different ways. Knowing his humor, it’s pretty clear to me he’s joking.

HD: Yeah.

CJ: Just to end on a fun question, what’s your favorite of Montgomery Clift’s performances?

HD: I’m going to be a contrarian and say “Freud.” That movie is bananas and I really appreciate that. And all of the background that happened off screen between Monty and [John] Huston…. I’m gonna say “Freud.”

RC: And Monty is that movie.

HD: Yeah, he’s in every scene.

RC: It’s crazy that movie, in some ways, leads him to being blacklisted from working in Hollywood for a number of years – the amount of work he put into it and how much he is in the film. But for me, right now, it is “[Judgment at] Nuremberg,” largely for personal reasons. It took me many years, even though I was told not to trust the narratives that circulated about Montgomery Clift, I still couldn’t watch that [movie] without thinking that is, in fact, my Uncle is going through that because that’s what people wrote. For us to find these archives [of him] talking to the director about the part and, to get back to this matter of labor, see his labor totally changes that for me.

The documentary “Making Montgomery Clift” premiered at the Los Angeles Film Festival on Sunday, September 23rd.