Updated: Oct 20, 2021
One of Hollywood’s most celebrated relationships is examined anew in this recently released book.
Charles Casillo kicks off Elizabeth and Monty: The Untold Story of Their Intimate Friendship (Kensington, $27) with a moment that’s equal parts dramatic and downright frightening: when Montgomery Clift wrecked his car in May 1956 after attending a dinner party at Elizabeth Taylor’s home. Taylor heard about the accident soon after it happened and raced to the scene, where she found him struggling to breathe, blood covering his face. Instinctively, she reached down his throat and pulled out his broken teeth, opening his airway and ultimately saving his life.
If you’ve never heard or read much about the accident that forever altered Clift’s life and career, Casillo – who also authored 2018’s Marilyn Monroe: The Private Life of a Public Icon – brings it to vivid life partly to illustrate the deep connection between two of Hollywood’s most iconic stars. The high-profile pair quickly became best friends after meeting prior to filming 1951’s A Place in the Sun, though Taylor wanted much more, never denying that she soon fell in love with Clift, who did his best to hold the 17-year-old actress at arm’s length. In the painstakingly researched Elizabeth and Monty, their friendship is explored from that first meeting through the subsequent two films they worked on together — 1957’s Raintree County and 1959’s Suddenly, Last Summer — and beyond. And nothing is off-limits, from Clift’s homosexuality to Taylor’s own physical desires for Clift and other men; what Casillo ultimately has created is a juicy read that also explores how this seminal relationship changed them both.
Casillo spent an hour recently talking with Screen Chic both about working on the book and why the Taylor-Clift relationship continues to fascinate film and celebrity fans.
Screen Chic: What can you tell me about the decision to start the book with Montgomery Clift's 1956 accident? What was it about this seminal moment that you felt would make an ideal kick-off for the story?
Charles Casillo: From a writing standpoint, it’s a very dramatic moment, and it builds up anticipation in the reader to find out how each got to that point in their life. I also think it was a defining time in both their lives; Monty’s career was on the decline, but for Elizabeth, her life and career were on an upswing. So as a metaphor, it illustrates how each of them was changing in direction.
And for Elizabeth, she later would discuss that she didn’t know she had that kind of strength, she didn’t know what came over her. She had to fight her revulsion for blood to stick her fingers down his throat, but she did it totally on instinct. Later in her life she would think of that moment; it would occur to her in dreams, and it would haunt her. She believed she was his mother courage, and that it took blind faith to save him.
SC: Why do you think these two stars, each already famous in his or her own right, were initially drawn to each other for a friendship that extended beyond working together?
CC: Those kinds of clicks are rare; they happen maybe once or twice in a lifetime. But their backgrounds offered a lot of parallel themes: a strong domineering mother who was living vicariously through a child – that was one of the things they bonded over and one of the things they had in common. But there were also differences. To Elizabeth, Monty represented a great artist; onscreen she looked beautiful and then went home, but he influenced her into looking into a character and how you could use your own experience in a character. With that influence, she really became an actress in A Place in the Sun.
Monty, meanwhile, was a very complex person. A lot of his moods were very dark. So at the time, Elizabeth represented light; she made him see Hollywood more as a game that you could play. She didn’t ruminate or dramatize things. To him, she was someone who just represented fun, and he needed that, while he really liked playing the mentor role for her. She was very young, just 17 [at the time of filming A Place in the Sun], so he could help mold her into the woman and actress she wanted to be.
SC: How do you think each enhanced the other’s personality?
CC: Elizabeth had a very nurturing quality; she’d been raised by the studio from a very young age, but something about that experience brought out a very protective side of her. On the set of A Place in the Sun, [director] George Stevens noticed almost immediately that she seemed very nurturing and protective when it came to Monty; he really brought that out in her. And I think Stevens, to his credit, tried to capitalize on that feeling during filming – you can especially see it in that iconic scene in which she says, “Tell Mama. Tell Mama all.”
From Elizabeth’s perspective, she was very loyal. Once she was your friend, she was your friend 100 percent. We all know that she was beautiful and famous and loved, but one of the things that’s rarely discussed is that she had an incredibly good heart, particularly when it came to her friends.
SC: The book is quite well-researched and offers pretty deep details; what can you tell me about how long you worked on it and your research process?
CC: I would say I’ve been researching it for probably most of my life. When I was a kid, I was sort of outsider, sort of a misfit, and I became fascinated with old Hollywood; I felt like Cary Grant and Rita Hayworth were my first friends. I always read movie-star biographies, and then later, when I became an entertainment journalist, I would talk to people both professionally and off the record. From the time I signed the contract to handing in the first draft, it was a little more than 18 months, but really the book comes from a lifetime of loving movies.
SC: The book discusses these two people very often in parallel; what can you tell me about how you wanted that to work as the structure in this story.
CC: It’s definitely told as parallel roads up until the time they met. I was trying to lay out the sameness of their identities and experiences, and what they saw and recognized in each other when they first met. After they met, I wanted to show how that meeting caused the ultimately direction of their paths: from the first film to her first marriage and maybe also to her second one, which may have been a rebound from loving Monty. I think their first meeting in a way laid out the rest of their lives.
SC: Why do you ultimately feel that Elizabeth and Monty had such terrific chemistry together?
CC: It’s hard to describe chemistry. We’ve all felt it with, meeting at the perfect time and feeling that magical click that happens with some people. The two of them definitely represented a yin and a yang, and how they each sort of completed each other, and without question there is chemistry in that. But great relationships are also based on nurturing and growing together, and that’s what happened with them. And maybe there was an initial sensuality, but after the passion, the friendship stayed.
SC: It’s a favorite-child question, but what is the detail or anecdote you appreciate most in the book?
CC: My favorite occurs toward the end of Monty’s life, when he couldn’t get good work anymore, and Elizabeth stepped in and put up her own $1 million salary, which would be equivalent to $20 million today, so he could be insured on the set [of 1967’s Reflections in a Golden Eye]. It was an amazing testament to her friendship and her gratitude toward him and her love for him.
Because of that, he died hopeful instead of completely tragic and left alone. He went out on a positive note, because he was going to be making a big budget film with A-list stars. That’s a very tender detail to me. [Editor’s Note: Clift died of a heart attack in July 1966 before filming on Reflections in a Golden Eye began, and Marlon Brando took over Clift’s role.]
SC: The book also doesn't pull any punches about Monty's personal experiences, and it's very frank in talking about sexuality. What can you tell me about the desire to write a frank and honest account of his life, especially in exploring the feelings of guilt that he battled?
CC: I feel that if you can’t look at a person, if you can’t look at a genius’s darkness, then you can’t appreciate the light. I thought a lot about that when I was working on the book about Marilyn Monroe. Sometimes people aren’t given the full appreciation they’re due, and Marilyn is a perfect example of that, I believe.
Some of the things in this book were indeed uncomfortable to write about; I talk about Monty’s “endowment,” or lack thereof, for example. But when you’re talking about the factors that figure into his self-destructive behavior, and what it’s like to be the fantasy of millions of people, then you must look at how he may have felt inwardly, that he felt he was a disappointment. It becomes a scar. Monty was aware of what people were saying about him, and as uncomfortable as it is, if you want to understand him completely, then you have to examine it.
Ultimately the book is gossipy, but that was also Elizabeth’s life. She lived a life that was bigger than life, and you have to understand that to understand her as well.
SC: You mention it briefly, but how do you think his struggles ultimately impacted Elizabeth, both before and after his death?
CC: The major impact is that it drew Elizabeth into the world of AIDS research. She was the first major star to actually talk about AIDS and lend her name to the charity, and a lot of that was due to her commitment and fondness for Montgomery Clift. Had he lived, he would have been impacted by that as well. But he was not only her first real love romantically, he also her first real friend. I think she tried to recreate that relationship with James Dean and Rock Hudson and Michael Jackson, but Monty was her first and perhaps her truest friend, without question.
SC: Why do you think modern-day film fans still regard A Place in the Sun as an iconic and favorite film? And why do you think Raintree County didn't attain a similar status?
CC: A Place in the Sun is one of those films in which everything works; the casting is perfect, the script is moving, terrific, dramatic, and more than anything I think it’s the chemistry between its two stars. George Stevens was such a genius: You’re watching a drama on one level, but on another level, intuitively, you’re watching two people fall in love in their own way; soulmates are forming. Onscreen that is so rare, and it only makes it more beautiful and more touching.
With Raintree County, it’s just a bad adaptation of the book. Watching it very critically, the Montgomery Clift character is just so passive; he doesn’t really do or say anything. Elizabeth is great, she’s a very colorful character. When you’re watching Elizabeth and Monty together, they’re always watchable, but it’s just not the great film it really should have been.
SC: Finally, why do you think the relationship between these two high-wattage personalities is one that film fans continue to find so compelling?
CC: You know, it’s so fascinating to look at people who lived in a different era. Today everything is out there; you can be gay and get married, you can have an affair and tweet it out for everyone to read. But in those days, the stars retained a certain amount of mystery. There was no Twitter or Instagram, and they were able to compartmentalize their lives. I think both the glamour and the mystery of the old-Hollywood stars feels very alien to people today, and perhaps that’s among the reasons why it continues to draw our interest.
All photos courtesy of Kensington. Casillo's portrait by MP Prestie.