> Zed Book Club / Elizabeth and Monty

Clockwise from lower left: Clift after his 1956 car accident, which partially paralyzed the left side of his face; Taylor in bikini for a promotional photo for "Suddenly, Last Summer" in 1959; Clift and Taylor in a steamy scene from 1951's "A Place in the Sun" and the book cover of Charles Casillo's Elizabeth and Monty. All Photos: Courtesy of the Everett Collection

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Elizabeth and Monty

Charles Casillo’s dual biography of intimate friends Elizabeth Taylor and Montgomery Clift charts uncanny parallels in the Hollywood stars’ personal and professional lives / BY Nathalie Atkinson / May 26th, 2021


You know how it is when you love somebody terribly, but you can’t describe why? That’s how I love Bessie Mae,” actor Montgomery Clift once said, using his folksy pet name for Elizabeth Taylor. This week, a lifetime after Clift’s untimely death in 1966 from a heart attack and a decade after the world mourned Taylor, who passed away in 2011, Charles Casillo publishes Elizabeth and Monty: The Untold Story of their Intimate Friendship.

“There’s no black and white answer to it, everything is shaded, but I do feel that Monty and Elizabeth shared a very special love,” the author says in an interview from his home in New York about the lasting and life-changing friendship that began on the set of A Place in the Sun more than 70 years ago. The remarkable friendship yielded a second movie together and thrived through ups and downs. There were Clift’s homosexual liaisons as well as the disfiguring car crash that changed the course of his career, and Taylor’s tempestuous marriages and increasing fame as Clift’s career stalled and he plunged further into alcohol and drug abuse. In this dual biography, their intertwined lives and careers are recounted with new and vivid detail, and their #FriendshipGoals are considered from all angles by Casillo, the author of Marilyn Monroe: The Private Life of a Public Icon and Outlaw: The Lives and Careers of John Rechy.

Elizabeth and Monty
“They are almost like reflections of each other; when they kiss, something incestuous and thrillingly forbidden throbs out of the screen,” film critic Peter Bradshaw wrote about the actors in a 201 review for the Guardian newspaper. Photo: Everett Collection

 

The Same, But Different

The book charts Taylor and Clift’s parallel and at times uncannily mirrored lives (both were raised by controlling mothers who lived vicariously through them, for example) in chronological order, until their paths converge as romantic leads in the cross-class tragedy A Place in the Sun (1951). At the time, each needed something from the other, Casillo argues. “Monty was always very complicated and complex, introspective and serious about everything, including his art,” he says. At 17, Taylor was a seasoned but uncomplicated star. “She was very comfortable with Hollywood, she looked at it as a thing to be played. Monty hated it, was uncomfortable with it, and I think that was one of the big draws to her,” he posits. “She was fun and didn’t look at acting as a tortuous thing you had to go through. Hollywood wasn’t the enemy.”

Elizabeth and Monty
In the summer of 1956, nine weeks after his accident, Monty returned to work on Raintree County with Taylor, where the cameraman tried to photograph him from his right side since his face was less damaged. Photo: Everett Collection

 

Why Not Both?

The book is shaped as a dual biography in part because Casillo found himself returning to facets of their lives revealed when he considered the famous friends together. When the violet-eyed beauty and the sensitive brooder met in 1950, their palpable on-screen chemistry paled next to what they shared off screen. Taylor was initially attracted to the handsome actor, but was swiftly rebuffed because Clift preferred men, yet Casillo suggests he was a subconscious prototype for Taylor’s attraction to a certain type of man. “I think that meeting each other when they did, the friendship that started and bonded on that film changed the direction of both of their lives. That’s the yin and yang,” he says. “They had a lot of shared experiences but they also had a lot to teach each other.”

Elizabeth and Monty
Taylor, Clift and Shelley Winters (right) in a publicity photo for A Place in the Sun, which was filmed in 1949 and released in 1951. Photo: Everett Collection

 

Ghosts of Hollywood Past

This summer marks the 70th anniversary of the release of the classic film A Place in the Sun, which made Clift a household name. One of the highlights of the book is the riveting fly-on-the-wall view of the co-stars as they shot scenes, with an analysis of their acting style and their on-set dynamic and camaraderie, some of it gleaned from interviews with Shelley Winters. “I grew up on Old Hollywood,” the author enthuses of his friendship with the late character actress. “Whenever I met or know someone who was part of that, I grill them,” he adds with a laugh. (Clift’s late acting coach, Mira Rostova, also shared remembrances.

The book is incisive on the politics and personalities of bygone Hollywood, an understanding Casillo credits to friends like the late screenwriter and film historian Gavin Lambert (Inside Daisy Clover, The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone), who was a long-time neighbour in Los Angeles. “I got a lot of good stories from him!” The late Skip E. Lowe, host of the long-running (and, fair to say, notoriously awful) TV celebrity talk show that inspired Martin Short’s character Jiminy Glick, was likewise “another constant conduit to me of famous people of the past.”

Behind-the-Scenes Wisdom

Casillo is grateful to Dame Joan Collins, 88, who gave insight into classic Hollywood era and added context about the back-lot, B-movie Cleopatra she was meant to star in before it became the epic vehicle for Taylor. He also says talking to Angela Allen, 92, the celebrated Hollywood script supervisor who worked with filmmaker John Huston on 14 of his films – including The Misfits, starring Clark Gable, Monroe and Clift – was crucial. “Having dinner with her was one of the great experiences of being a film buff with someone whos still alive,” he recalls. “I beg her to write her memoirs! I keep telling her,‘Buy a tape recorder. These are great stories. You have to get them down, they’re part of history.’ When she asks me who would care I say, ‘don’t you ever watch TCM?’”

Straight to the Source

To explore the multilayered and uniquely magnetic relationship of their “very rich, very hectic lives,” the biography pulls from articles, memoirs, documentaries and unpublished letters, as well as original interviews. Casillo began a Clift biography nearly 20 years ago, but set it aside because, at the time, he felt that two notable biographies from the late 1970s by Robert LaGuardia and Patricia Bosworth already gave a full picture. That early research, including original interviews with friends and colleagues Diahann Carroll, Kevin McCarthy, Martin Landau and Farley Grainger, proves indispensable here.

Actor Jack Larson, Clifts former companion who died in 2005, “was really, really valuable, but he was of the era of not telling everything,” Casillo says. “Even when I spoke with him there were certain things that were sacred to him.” Other sources were more forthcoming, both because of how much time has passed since Clift’s death and a profound change in our culture. “We’re living in a tell-all era now, people tweet out their most personal details. There’s a different collective consciousness of celebrity right now,” he adds. “Secrets are really not secrets any more.”

McCarthy (Invasion of the Body Snatchers) knew another side of Clift and lived in what Casillo calls the actor’s “straight” world. “When they were friends, late in Monty’s theatre career but early in Monty’s movie career, that set of friends had no idea he was gay,” he explains. “Talking to both of them was very interesting to get a sense of those two very different and separate worlds that Monty inhabited. Like a lot of actors, he was very compartmentalized and felt very comfortable slipping from one world to another.”

Elizabeth and Monty
Ravaged and ill, Clift completed low-budget spy thriller The Defector in 1966 to prove he was fit to film Reflections in a Golden Eye with Taylor, but he died of a heart attack at 46 before filming began. Photo: Everett Collection

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

As Clift’s professional failures mount and he descended deeper into substance abuse, the book doesn’t shy away from recounting his outrageous behaviour and darker sexual escapades. “I feel so torn about things like that because you’re writing a biography and you don’t want it to be a valentine. You want it to be truthful,Casillo says, admitting that some of Clift’s exploits sometimes made him shudder a little. “And these are things that happened, people saw it, people were there. If you put it in you, are always going to get the feedback, ‘It’s so gossipy.’ Well, it’s part of who the person was.”

New York v. Los Angeles

Beyond the contrast in their personalities, there is Clift’s Method acting versus the early, cry-on-cue style Taylor learned as child actor raised in the studio system. Was Taylor’s Academy Award-winning turn as Martha in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? possible without the friendship with Clift? “I would really say no,” Casillo opines. Taylor may well have evolved on her own, but the author claims A Place in the Sun marked a turning point in her career. “It was after A Place that she really started to look at acting as an art form. Otherwise, she would have just continued in the studio system doing what she was doing. She was very successful at it, a lot of actors and actresses were. They had their personas locked, they could go in and phone it in, they knew exactly that they had to cry or deliver Expression No. 10 – that sort of rote thing. He broke her of the rote mold.” That’s not just a guess on Casillo’s part: Taylor often referenced Clift’s influence on her. Likewise, the book’s emphasis on Taylor’s impishness and her carefree nature also brings out (as the 2019 documentary Making Montgomery Clift similarly demonstrated) the so-called serious actor’s latent and often overlooked sense of fun.

Elizabeth and Monty
In later years, Taylor co-founded AmFar and devoted much of her life to raising money for AIDS research. Here she is attending a benefit with Elton John in 1991. Photo: Everett Collection

 

Lasting Legacies

When I ask whether their intense friendship was an influence on her later LGBTQ+ advocacy and, beginning in 1985, tireless AIDS fundraising as co-founder of AmFar (more than US$100 million at the time of her death), Casillo prefaces it by saying that Taylor’s appetite for life “and men and jewelry” sometimes overshadows the fact that she was a lovely person with a good heart. “She was actually very caring. If she had a friend she was extraordinarily loyal to that person. But I do think it was one of the driving factors. Monty was one of her first close gay friends, she had an affinity towards the gay community partially because of him.”

If Elizabeth and Monty leans into an analysis of Montgomery Clift, it’s because he seems largely forgotten, especially compared to Method contemporaries James Dean and Marlon Brando. “I find it so sad, especially because he was and is so influential to people in the business,” Casillo says, adding that he hopes the book will help Clift re-enter the mainstream cultural lexicon. Like Taylor, Brando lived to reinvent himself in every decade and as show business evolved. “There’s something about a person when they die at their peak of beauty and height of promise, like James Dean,” Casillo adds. “It seals their fate as being a legend and an icon. Monty, well, he went years past that. But he only lived to be a has-been.”

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