The death occurred today of blogger and philosopher of Marxism, Norman Geras (1943-2013). He was a great fan of actor Montgomery Clift, so it is perhaps fitting that he missed dying on Monty’s birthday by just a few hours.
One of my favourite films is Howard Hawks’ Red River (1948), which pitted John Wayne against Montgomery Clift. I came across an insightful review of the movie by Roderick Heath, here. The one aspect of the movie not mentioned in that review is the context in which the movie was made, immediately after World War II. At the time, the allies had large military forces being demobilized, with men – they were mostly men – returning with all deliberate speed to civilian life. Many of these men had played responsible and important roles in the war effort, roles requiring intelligence, personal initiative, courage, and the leadership of others. They returned to Civvy Street to find senior management posts occupied by the generation before them, and only subordinate roles available for themselves; they were often immensely frustrated. I once heard of a businessman’s club memorial dedicated To the Men Whose Sons had Given Their Lives in World War II, which sums up for me the self-regard of the elder of these two generations.
With this context in mind, I see Red River as a parable about the struggle between the two generations for the control of business and society in the post-war world. Clift’s caring and listening leadership style resonated much more with returning military men than Wayne’s deaf and inflexible approach, as it does also in the film with Wayne’s cattle drovers. In Japan and Germany, of course, the generation before had made a mess of things, and so there were greater opportunities in the post-war period for the next generation to take immediate charge.
From an article by David Bromwich about the movies of Howard Hawks:
The best actors of Hollywood films for three decades did a lot of their best work with Hawks. Grant and Bogart, pre-eminently, but also Cagney, Edward G Robinson, Hepburn (whom he introduced to screwball comedy), Barbara Stanwyck in Ball of Fire, Carole Lombard (who first showed her formidable power and comic range in Twentieth Century), and Montgomery Clift – a refined actor on the brink of being dismissed as overdelicate when Hawks gave him the second lead in Red River and offered tips on movement and gesture. For example, “the business”, as Hawks’s biographer Todd McCarthy relates, “of putting a strand of wheat in his mouth”; also “rubbing the side of his nose while in thought”. All the dynamic contest of that movie is there in the contrast between the voices of John Wayne and Clift, the loud monotone of command and the distinct but quiet utterance that suggests a reserve of conscience. All this Hawks must have heard at once and measured against the story when he saw the actors read for their parts.” (page 17, The Guardian Review, 2011-01-15)
It is hard to believe that someone who had been the leading male actor on the New York stage for a decade before he made his first film should have needed tips on movement and gesture, even from someone as great as Howard Hawks. Once again, Monty’s intelligence, contribution and agency seem belittled and minimized. Why is this, I wonder?
And, while we are wondering about his reception, why has Monty’s home city’s leading cultural magazine, The New Yorker, never published an article about him in its history?
Posts about Montgomery Clift can be found here.
Montgomery Clift is one of the silver screen’s greatest actors. I have written before about his intensely-naturalistic speaking style, with its pauses and false starts and mid-sentence hesitations and apparently improvised modifications on-the-fly. To speak as he did, in so many films, showed that this speaking style was probably not an artefact of all the screenwriters involved, especially when so few other actors in these or other films of the time spoke like that, but instead evidence of his own great intelligence and superb ear for speech.
Amy Lawrence has now written a fascinating book on his screen acting across his career, analyzing in detail what he did and how, and how he achieved his effects. By studying his own, hand-annotated personal copies of film scripts, for example, she is able to identify his particular contributions to the scripts and the dialogue of the films he acted in, and is able to demonstrate the artistry and diligence behind his naturalistic speech. And to show it, in many cases, as his personal artistry, as he worked to revise and rewrite dialog that was often originally stilted or unnatural.
By careful exegesis, Lawrence is also able to debunk some myths. Clift’s shambling, addled performance as a courtroom witness in the late Judgment at Nuremberg (1961), for example, is usually presented as evidence of the drug and alcohol addictions he is supposed to have succumbed to following his near-fatal car accident in May 1956. This accident destroyed his face and left him in pain, and led him to taking pain-killers and to drinking. But, as Lawrence demonstrates, his court-room appearance in the 1961 film shows many of the same personal characteristics and mannerisms of his court-room appearance in A Place in the Sun, filmed in 1951 – “tightening his fists, flexing his fingers, pushing against the armrests with his elbows” [Lawrence, p. 212]. Clearly, the origin of Clift’s witness-box performance is not drugs, but acting chops. Speaking of the character played by Clift in Nuremberg, she says:
Peterson’s gestures are emphatic, not neurotic, but combined with his broken syntax and repetition of sentence fragments, Clift clearly suggests in his performance that the character is not in control of himself. But the actor is. When we see the recurrence of these gestures across time and roles, before and after the accident, it seems reasonable to call them choices characteristic of the performer. Clift is not a mess; he plays one.” [Lawrence, p. 213]
Lawrence also notices how Clift, throughout his career, often acts with his back to the camera, either fully or partially. These episodes usually signal that he is engaged in some intense, interior, psychological reaction to some event or person, as if he could better tell us what he is thinking by not showing us his face. That he would even try to do something so counter-intuitive, let alone that he usually succeeds, demonstrates the great actor Clift was.
I had only one, very small quibble with Lawrence’s book. She describes (on page 63) the scene in The Big Lift (1950) when Clift’s character, about to receive an award for helping in the Berlin airlift, turns and sees for the first time that the official award-giver is a beautiful woman. Lawrence does not describe Clift’s eyes as he suddenly sees this woman: his pupils dilate widely as an expression of his character’s plain delight. We know of course, that the actor Clift must have practiced and rehearsed this dilation until he could undertake it at will. But knowing this fact increases our admiration for his acting skills, since it shows the dedication and diligence he brought to the task.
Clift’s acting art was artless, and like all artlessness, took immense preparation, intelligence, practice, and persistence to achieve.
Amy Lawrence : The Passion of Montgomery Clift. Berkeley, CA, USA: University of California Press.
News today that an amateur art-historian, Barbara Webb, has identified the location which pre-Raphaelite painter John Everett Millais used as background for his 1851 painting of the drowned Ophelia. The location is on the Hogsmill River at Old Malden in south London. It’s a long way from Elsinore.
The after-life of this image has been immense, at least in the English-speaking world. For instance, a print of the painting appears on the wall of the room rented by George Eastman, the humble protagonist of George Stevens’ 1951 movie, A Place in the Sun, a film of Theodore Dreiser’s novel, An American Tragedy. I took the presence of the print on Eastman’s wall not only as prophecy of the tragedy to come, but also as a reference to Hamlet, since Eastman, as he is played by Montgomery Clift, is undecided between his two lovers and the two very different fates which his involvement with them entails.
Through painful experience over many years, I have learnt to avoid any movie with a script written by David Mamet. Hailed as a great American playwright and screenwriter by many, he appears to have – sadly – a tin ear for human speech and dialogue. His film characters do not converse or speak as we humans do. Rather, in some variant of a weird, artificial language I call americantheatrespeak, they declaim: their words are enunciated clearly and loudly, with neither pauses, nor stumbles, nor mumbles, nor muttering, nor cross-talk, all the while speaking in entire sentences and paragraphs, pre-composed and uttered with a formality that would provoke laughter if you heard anyone actually speak like that. It is not how we human beings speak, except sometimes in formal settings such as courts of law and important congressional or parliamentary sessions. After seeing Montgomery Clift, with his pauses and false starts and mid-sentence hesitations and on-the-fly mods, how could anyone think to write movie speech of the stilted, unnatural style of Mamet’s? In The Misfits, Arthur Miller wrote dialogue for Clift that played to his superb abilities, so we know it is possible for a theatre playwright to write natural-sounding speech for film. As I said, Mamet must have a tin ear.
I now learn I am not alone in this assessment of Mamet. Adam Gopnik, in a New Yorker article about Damon Runyon, also notes Mamet’s formal, unnatural, language. Gopnik, however, admires it, for no compelling reason that I can see. Perhaps americantheatrespeak works OK on the stage, and people who see a lot of theatre don’t notice it when used on film. Yet, against that, Clift was New York’s leading theatre actor before he ventured onto film. But on film this style of speech is a disaster, as Mamet’s 2004 film Spartan demonstrates; no, Virginia, it is not the wooden acting or the unexplained gaps in the plot that make this film unwatchable, but Mamet’s stilted, wooden dialogue. Ditto for the other scalps on his film pelt: House of Games, Glengarry Glen Ross, etc. Someone else seems to be writing (or de-Mametizing) the script of The Unit, although even here (unlike, say, The Wire), people rarely pause, mumble or cross-talk.
POSTSCRIPT: Thinking some more about this, the issue arises because of what Gopnik calls film’s arch-naturalism. Concepts that could work perfectly well as theatrical productions often fail on film, as, for example, the black backdrops and absurdism of Derek Jarman’s 1993 film Wittgenstein, which was irritating in the extreme. We have a problem suspending disbelief for film, a problem we don’t usually have for the theatre. Perhaps the cause, as some film theorists have noted, is that films are akin to dreams, and dreams don’t require us (at least, not consciously) to do work ourselves to imagine whatever is missing from the production. We are happy to do this work when watching theatre (and when reading books and listening to the radio), but are less so for watching films or TV.
Adam Gopnik : “Talk it up: Damon Runyon’s guys and dolls.” The New Yorker, 2 March 2009, pp. 66-71.
Method acting (aka “The Method”) is an approach to acting in which the actor tries to recreate and inhabit the emotional and psychological world of the person he or she is portraying. The approach was originally created by the Russian theatre director Constantin Stanislavksi, and is premised on the actor not merely “acting”, but “being” the character. If done successfully, the method can lead to great authenticity in performance. But not everyone accepts this approach. There is a wonderful story of method actor Montgomery Clift, pictured here, on the set of Alfred Hitchcock’s 1953 film, I Confess, being asked by the director to stand by a window so that the cameraman could take a quick external shot of him looking through the window. Clift asked what his character would be thinking as he looked out the window. Hitchcock replied, Who the hell cares!, or words to that effect. The two argued, with Clift thinking that motivation and character was all, while Hitchcock just wanted his picture finished. (Hitchcock also preferred actors who left all the thinking to him, and so it is not surprising that he and Clift never worked together again.)
I believe the same authentic empathy is required for good marketing, and marketers have to fully inhabit the world of their target customers. If the target customers are the same social class or ethnic group as the marketers themselves, then such Method Marketing probably comes without awareness — marketers are selling to people like themselves. But often marketers are not themselves part of the target audience, and have to struggle to understand their customers and their environments profoundly. Global companies that do this well, such as Unilever, are often thought by others to have “gone native”, allowing local managers great autonomy. Local autonomy, of course, does not guarantee empathy with local customers, but it certainly is necessary.
A situation I have experienced several times is a company from a developed country launching a subsidiary in a developing market. The latest marketing technology is deployed, including customer database systems and marketing data warehouses, to support customer profiling, friends and family programs, affinity marketing, the whole shebang. All this advanced technology requires air-conditioned offices and needs people with advanced skills to deploy and operate. Even if these people are local (and many are), they too sit in the air-con offices in the downtown skyscrapers in the capital city. An environment less like that of the target customers is hard to imagine. Although local marketers, usually with relatives in the villages, the kampongs and the favelas, will quickly realize the authenticity challenges here, they often have a hard time persuading their western-world masters that a problem exists.
The strangest example I ever witnessed was a long-winded discussion in a start-up mobile phone company in a developing country in Asia about whether to bill calls by the second or by the minute. The intended target market were people living in rural towns and villages. No one in the room seemed to appreciate that most of the target customers did not wear watches.