- Montgomery Clift: Queer Star by Elisabetta Girelli
Movie stars and their relationship to queer culture and experience has remained a fruitful subject of academic and critical exploration for decades. Richard Dyer’s analysis of the much-discussed connection between Judy Garland and gay men; Patricia White’s examination of the resonances of female stars like Bette Davis and Greta Garbo for lesbian viewers; Michael DeAngelis’s exploration of the shifting significations surrounding male stars as they become identified with queer audiences—these are but a sampling of the attempts made by scholars to explore the connections between individual stars, the cultural conditions of their popularity, and the queer viewership that felt particular empathy, identification, or kinship with them.1
Montgomery Clift: Queer Star by Elisabetta Girelli enters into this long-gestating scholarly discussion through its focus upon the brief and memorable career of its titular subject, but it does so by focusing less upon Clift’s relationship to a queer fan base and more on the nuances of Clift’s on-screen performances and, to a lesser extent, his off-screen persona. Clift’s career was marked by dizzying highs (working with such titans of 1950s Hollywood as Elizabeth Taylor, Alfred Hitchcock, and George Stevens; receiving four Academy Award nominations in thirteen years) and tragic lows (crippling drug and alcohol addictions; the disfiguring 1956 car accident that permanently altered his professional and personal trajectories), and his actorly prowess and complex personal life—including relationships with both men and women—have been chronicled in wide-ranging biographies,2 as well as studies that focus more intently upon Clift’s star personae and its relationship to the cultural constructions of gender and sexuality.3 Girelli draws upon all of these sources but maintains that understanding the complexities of Clift’s filmic performances and their manifestations of ambivalent gender expression and multivalent sexual desire requires examining his entire career through another lens: that of queer theory. [End Page 90]
Why apply queer theory to Clift? For Girelli, three oft-downplayed aspects of the actor’s career become increasingly salient when doing so. First, it works to counteract previous scholars’ tendency to minimize the films that Clift made following his 12 May 1956 car accident in the Beverly Hills canyons, after which the actor’s physical beauty became forever altered in striking and—for some contemporary viewers and commentators—disturbing ways. Second, it helps to move beyond the limitations of the “fixed notions of homosexuality and bisexuality” through which Clift’s on-screen and off-screen persona has been previously analyzed (11). Finally, queer theory permits a more nuanced understanding of Clift’s sexuality than the polarities of “passive self-offering and overt sexual drive” that have tended to dominate prior critical discussions (11). Girelli sees queer theory as not only offering a more subtle and accurate vocabulary to analyze and evaluate Clift’s performances but also allowing her to push back against the aforementioned elisions within Clift scholarship, whose effects she sees as having some pernicious consequences. She posits, in particular, that the apparent equation by earlier scholars of Clift’s “sexual and gender subversion to youth, beauty, and overt erotic display” means that “any deviant identity linked to age, to a less-than-perfect face and body, and to ill health and pain, has been cast out or censored, because of its uncomfortable connotations”—a “process of elimination [that] points to an alarming hierarchy of subversion” and that, in Girelli’s eyes, “amounts to critical bigotry” (11–12). While often praising aspects of the previous work on Clift, Girelli seeks to utilize queer theory as a means of addressing these previously understudied elements of Clift’s career and, by extension, extending our understanding of Clift as an actor and public figure. “In his multiplicity of configurations, in his subversion of fixed identities,” Girelli posits, “Montgomery Clift emerges as a positive, creatively defiant figure, open to possibilities of being that challenge the poverty of societal normativity” (31).
In analyzing how his cinematic work illustrates this conception of Clift as a boundary...