- The Passion of Montgomery Clift
Amy Lawrence’s The Passion of Montgomery Clift is a monumental work that elegantly and captivatingly combines textual analysis in historical/cultural context, celebrity discourse analysis, and star biography. Quite remarkably, it succeeds at seamlessly integrating these elements while always keeping the concerns of each of them in the foreground. Organizing her study as an analysis of religious and spiritual discourse that has informed the construction of the star persona from the inception of his popularity until long after his death, Lawrence asserts at the outset that what distinguishes Clift from other stars who gained popularity in the 1950s is that “his canonization preceded his martyrdom” (3). Additionally, she argues, the discourse of religion has been deployed not only in star reception, but also quite deliberately in the construction of the star persona by the film industry, and most significantly, by Clift himself. In fact, another distinctive aspect of this fascinating study is the emphasis that Lawrence places upon Clift’s explicit awareness of his star image as well as his conscious and deliberate efforts to participate in regulating it—efforts that were challenged not only by his sexuality and the anticipated consequences of its public revelation, but also by the car accident that would alter the contours of his face along with his star appeal.
The study is organized around stages and manifestations of sanctity and religious devotion, in conjunction with individual and groups of films discussed chronologically. “The Face of a Saint” articulates the pronounced effects of Clift’s acting style and construction of masculinity upon audiences and fans early in his career in conjunction with The Search (1948) and Red River (1948). In conjunction with his performance in From Here to Eternity (1953), “Facing Persecution” confronts growing suspicions and threats of scandal over the star’s homosexuality, along with Clift’s self-conscious awareness of [End Page 34] the need to avoid or forestall scandal. “Mortification of the Flesh” centers upon the phenomenon of human suffering in versions of the star persona that emerged after the 1956 car accident, detailing Clift’s efforts to intervene at a moment when the face that once signaled the profound qualities of the performance within cinematic narrative threatened now to become the unmistakable sign of the irrevocably compromised condition of the actor himself. Exploring contexts that remove Clift from the narrative constraints of heterosexual performance through his roles as two very different doctors in Suddenly Last Summer (1959) and Freud (1962), “A Gay Martyr” discusses the actor’s queerness in conjunction with his positioning as a Sebastian-like figure through the narrative context of former films, and as bearing the brunt of blatantly homophobic director John Huston’s ire on the set of the latter.
Throughout the book, Lawrence maintains a balanced focus upon the object(s) of study, the critical discourses informing them, and her own very rich visual (and aural) experience of the star persona. She includes commentary that clarifies her own affective investment as a Clift fan and that defines her subject position in relation to the star; at the same time, even as she acknowledges that certain films or performances are not as resonant as others, she never privileges any of the star’s works as more or less important to the study on the basis of her preferences. For example, the last chapter of the book, entitled “Nothing Sacred,” features an extensive analysis of Clift’s last film The Defector (1966), which has received very little prior critical attention. Lawrence’s own connection to the star persona (on both the critical and affective level) is integral to the success of the study. It lends a sense of vitality to the work, as well as a distinctive passion and sensitivity that markedly contrasts with the sometimes harsh, judgmental perspectives of Clift’s biographers, critics, and directors. This connection infuses her writing with a lyrical, poetic feel, especially in sections describing her own deeply moving personal engagement with the primary material that she analyzes. For example, the final chapter offers an engaging discussion...