“Montgomery Clift always looked as though he had the angel of death walking along beside him,” remarked Alfred Hitchcock, in his characteristically macabre way. Clift, who would die at 45, certainly pushed his own chances of survival to the limits. He drove “much too fast, like a daredevil”, according to his friend Kevin McCarthy. On a warm May evening in 1956, just after leaving a party at Elizabeth Taylor’s Beverly Hills house, Clift raced off a steep, winding canyon road and smashed into an electricity pole. Photographs of the wrecked Chevrolet Bel Air sedan only make you consider how remarkable it was that he even lived.
“Monty’s face was torn away; it was a bloody pulp. I thought he was dead,” actor McCarthy told Film Talk in 2018. Clift owed his life to Taylor, who rushed from her home to help him. “In a strange voice, he told Elizabeth that his front teeth had been knocked out and they were stuck in his throat, choking him, and he asked her to get them out. Very gently she put her fingers down into his throat and pulled them out. Then the ambulance arrived.”
At the time, 35-year-old Clift was world famous for his Oscar-nominated roles in The Search, A Place in the Sun and From Here to Eternity. In their 1979 song The Right Profile, a track on the album London Calling, The Clash sang about that crash: “I see a car smashed at night / Cut the applause and dim the light / Monty’s face is broken on a wheel.”
Clift’s face was indeed shattered. His head was grotesquely swollen, his nose was split in two, his jaw was broken in four places, his cheekbones were cracked, two front teeth were missing and he had severe facial lacerations. “When I first saw him I almost went into shock,” the actor Jack Larson recalled. “the only feature that remained the same were his eyes – they were still glittering, but they were now brim-full of pain.”
In 1963, recalling the trauma, Clift blamed a long day’s shoot as the reason for being “half-asleep” when he crashed on a “dangerous road”. He said “I didn’t recognise myself” when he was shown his face in a mirror. Clift, who had been filming Raintree County with Taylor and Lee Marvin, was in the hospital for months. He had extensive plastic surgery. For a private man, it must have been agony to know that his physical appearance would be a source of national speculation when Raintree County was released in December 1957. Even writer Christopher Isherwood chipped in with his verdict that “Montgomery Clift has a ghastly, shattered expression… nearly all his good looks are gone.”
Adele Mailer, wife of the writer Norman, recalled meeting her friend for the first time since the accident when he visited their Greenwich Village home. “When I opened the door, I didn’t recognise him,” she said in 2001. “I was shocked. It was a different face. You see it in Raintree County; his face was all patched together. But the crash was something you didn’t talk about. You didn’t bring it up, and he didn’t bring it up.”
REM’s Michael Stipe also wrote a song about Clift, called “Monty Got a Raw Deal”, which dealt with the actor’s tribulations in the “Hollywood” system. Stipe told NPR that he met Taylor in 1997 at Elton John’s 50th birthday dinner at the Chateau Marmont in Los Angeles (the hotel where Clift recuperated after leaving hospital) and told her about his song. “She turned around, grabbed my arm and said, ‘The love that we shared then did not have a name then, and it doesn’t have a name now. It was the deepest love I’ve ever experienced.’”