Tell Mama All

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Matt Bomer, who lost the plum role of Christian Grey in the movie version of Fifty Shades of Grey, has landed an even better part—iconic actor Montgomery Clift in an upcoming biopic. Bomer is one of the most gorgeous men working in Hollywood today, but when I heard he had been cast as Clift, I first thought, Is he good-looking enough? Bomer is hot, but Clift’s beauty is timeless: “He was so gorgeous you could hardly look at him,” remembered his biographer, Patricia Bosworth. Elizabeth Taylor, Clift’s leading lady in A Place in the Sun, thought Montgomery Clift was the “most gorgeous thing in the world.” When she met Clift for the first time, her “heart stopped”—and a lifelong friendship began.

I was 18 or 19 when I helped him realize that he was homosexual, and I barely knew what I was talking about.

Director George Stevens cast Clift in 1951’s A Place in the Sun on the strength of the actor’s 1948 debut performances in The Search and Red River. Clift’s impact on audiences was electric. Journalist Caryl Rivers wrote, “I think every girl who saw him in the quiet dark of a movie theater of a Saturday afternoon fell in love with Montgomery Clift.” In Sun, Clift played George Eastman, a poor relation who falls hopelessly in love with Elizabeth Taylor’s Angela Vickers, an elusive rich girl. Stevens, who won a best director Oscar for Sun, filmed his beautiful young stars in intense close-ups. The camera’s intimacy heightens George and Angela’s longing as they confess their love for each other. It’s almost too much too bear. “Oh, Angela, if I could only tell you how much I love you. If I could only tell you all,” Clift wails. Taylor’s reply is the stuff movie legends are made of: “Tell Mama, tell Mama all.”

The teenage Taylor developed a deep crush on Clift, who was struggling with his sexuality at the time. Taylor told The Advocate in 1996, “I was 18 or 19 when I helped him realize that he was homosexual, and I barely knew what I was talking about.” Clift was thrilled to have a confidant and gave Taylor the nickname Bessie Mae. After receiving his third best actor nomination, for From Here to Eternity, Clift was off the screen for three years. In 1956, eager to work with Taylor again, he accepted the lead in Raintree County, a turgid Civil War costume epic. Leaving a party at Taylor’s Beverly Hills home, Clift followed actor Kevin McCarthy down the twisty canyon road but crashed into a telephone pole. McCarthy ran back to Taylor’s house and shouted to call an ambulance; Taylor ran down the road, climbed into the wreckage and cradled Clift’s bloody head. He began to gag and pointed at his neck—he was choking on his teeth. Taylor opened his mouth, thrust her hand down his throat and pulled out the loose teeth herself. Her love and loyalty to her wounded friend continued when she faced off against the press and photographers who had gathered at the accident scene. Taylor told them that if they dared to shoot Clift in this condition, she would never let them photograph her again. No pictures were taken. Thanks to her, Clift survived, but even after reconstructive surgery, his once beautiful face would never be the same.

Clift made eight films after the accident, including Suddenly, Last Summer with Taylor in 1959. Taylor’s husband Richard Burton wistfully told Clift, “Monty, Elizabeth likes me, but she loves you.” Desperate to help Clift—by 1966, his painkiller and alcohol abuse had rendered him too risky to hire—Taylor used her own salary as insurance so he could be cast in Reflections in a Golden Eye. Before its filming began, however, Clift died in his Manhattan townhouse, on July 23, 1966. He was only 45 years old. Acting teacher Robert Lewis called the decade between Clift’s car accident and his death the “longest suicide in history.” But I would rather give Taylor, Clift’s Bessie Mae, the last word on the most beautiful man in movies: “I loved him deeply. He was my brother, my dearest friend.”

Photo courtesy of Everett

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