Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Exceptional People: Billy Clift

"The sadness of our existence should not leave us blunted, on the contrary--how to remain thin-skinned, vulnerable and stay alive?"
--Montgomery Clift

The surname "Clift," has long been part of my own life and career.  Those of you who are regular readers of this site, and those who know me, are aware of the many years I've studied and written about the work and life of Montgomery Clift whose brilliant career and monumental contributions to the world of film and theatre are often overshadowed by the tragic turns of his personal life and his untimely end.  The Clift family history, in general, is an interesting tale of American success, ingenuity and, in some cases, yearning.  

Though I was never afforded an opportunity to meet, or even correspond with, Montgomery Clift who passed away in 1966, seven years before my birth, I have been fortunate enough to enjoy an association with a cousin of his, Billy Clift--an influential and ingenious fellow in his own right.

I was first aware of Billy Clift as being the personal hair and make-up man of Elizabeth Montgomery.  They were the perfect team, joking with each other about the coincidence of their surnames "Montgomery-Clift."  During this period of his life, of course, Mr. Clift worked with many celebrity clients, but Miss Montgomery was the benchmark of elegance, self-control and style, and Billy found a deep connection with the talented actress.  When Miss Montgomery's battle with cancer came to an end, Billy Clift was deeply affected by the death of his close friend and associate, and, soon found that his work was no longer as gratifying as it once was.  And, so, Mr. Clift sought to reinvent himself, to restart his life, and to continue to live the life of class and dignity which he spoke of with Miss Montgomery.  Packing up his belongings and his reluctant partner, Mr. Clift relocated to what he calls,the "sleepy town of Pacific Grove, in-between Monterey and Carmel, very cinematic."

The bucolic setting freed Mr. Clift to sort through the many feelings which had built up inside of himself during his time in Los Angeles, giving him an opportunity to make sense of his many thoughts and plans as well as make peace with the world around him.  This important and beneficial time in Mr. Clift's life soon spurred another transition, this time in the form of a move to San Francisco, a city of great significance to the Clift family.  Mr. Clift describes his affinity for San Francisco thusly, "I had always had a deep connection with [San Francisco]. My family ties with the Clift Hotel (founded by my great Uncle Fredrick C. Clift), the history of the city and a simple soul connection made this an obvious choice."

The relocation initially proved to be personally and artistically fruitful.  There, Mr. Clift completed his book, “Everything Is Going to Be Just Fine; the Ramblings of a Mad Hairdresser," (2001).  This joyful time was soon threatened when Mr. Clift was weakened by full-blown AIDS. His prognosis was negative, so much so, that at a point, Mr. Clift was released from the hospital so that he might die at home as was his wish.  

The day after his release from the hospital, Mr. Clift's doctor called his home to see if the critical patient had died.  Clift's caregivers informed the physician that he had not, and, in fact, that he wished to return to the hospital--but with one caveat.  Clift had a desire to either "die well or live well."  And, if he was going to live, and be treated, his doctors had to listen to him, to treat him, and not the syndrome.  As Billy describes the time, "Before I had so many things attacking me they were throwing the kitchen sink at me.. I knew that this was killing me more then the diseases."

And, listen, they did.  A year later, Clift had recovered enough strength to travel to talk about his book as well as lend his talents to work with the STOP AIDS Project, for which he served as a counselor for the PLUS seminars. Five years since the day Mr. Clift first left  the hospital, he finally began to feel that his body had recovered its former strength.  His experience staring into the face of death, reminded Billy how brave he truly was, and he soon tackled a dream which he'd often dismissed for himself--to become a filmmaker.  Billy tells me, "Growing up in Hollywood, it had always been a secret passion of mine to tell stories on film. I now gave myself permission to follow this dream. The most obvious was to take my book and turn it into a screenplay, but first I needed to learn how to become a director/writer and producer."  Living his own philosophy of "stop whining and learn," Mr. Clift tackled his first film project, a short titled "The Fairy Tale."   This led to the documentaries, "The Pure Eccentrics, San Francisco” and “The Jose Sarria Story."

With those successes to his credit, Mr. Clift returned to his initial goal of seeing his book “Everything is Going To Be Just Fine” translated into a feature film.  With the film almost completely financed, high-end stars signed, and everything falling into place, the stock market crash of 2008 changed everything.  The dream was suspended.  Billy allowed himself one day to grieve.  The following day, he began work on the screenplay, "Baby Jane?"  Fundraising followed, and, in six months, Mr. Clift was filming his first feature film.  No, it wasn't what he thought would be his first feature, but it was still the answer to a lifelong question.  The film premiered in 2010 at the Castro Theatre in SF to a sold out crowd, receiving rave reviews from Variety, Fangoria, SF Examiner and KCET to name a few. 

In 2011, Clift directed the film “I Want To Get Married” which went straight to world wide distribution.

Future projects include a return to Clift's family history.  Billy tells me, "I never met my famous distant cousin, Montgomery Clift, But I did know Brooks, his brother, who lived in Hollywood. Brooks would come for holidays like Christmas and thanksgiving dinners. He had an uncanny tone and mannerism that reminded one of Monty. He had dedicated his life to educating people on Monty’s career and talent."  Upon realizing his own goal of becoming a filmmaker, Billy knew that he could also further the dreams of both Montgomery and Brooks Clift.

I, personally, have always believed that Monty Clift has never been given his rightful place in Hollywood's pantheon of greats.  After all, without Monty, there'd have been no Brando, no Dean.  The face of cinematic acting would have been vastly changed had Montgomery Clift not paved the way for future generations of actors, giving them permission to create sensitive, deep, complicated characters.  As I previously stated, too often the confusion of Monty's personal life clouds the brilliance of his career achievements.  Yet, personal and professional lives are often tightly woven together.  And, I've longed to see a true depiction of Montgomery Clift's life come to light.  

So, I find it most pleasing that Mr. Clift is in development for a film about the life of his famous cousin, Montgomery, chronicling Monty's friendship with Elizabeth Taylor and culminating with the car crash during the filming of the ponderous picture, "Raintree Country" which proved to be the turning point in Monty's existence--both personal and professional.  

 Additionally, Billy is in development for the horror/fantasy “Alice In Zombieland”, and “Samantha”, a parody of "Bewitched" in the style of “The Brady Bunch Movie."  Billy adds, "I owe Elizabeth to wash away the memory from people's minds of that poorly constructed film starring Nicole Kidman."  Two films which will be completed in 2013 are  “Hush Up Sweet Charlotte”, "an almost-sequel" to “Baby Jane?” (in much the same way that, "Hush...Hush, Sweet Charlotte" was an almost-sequel to "Whatever Happened to Baby Jane") and a parody of the spy genre called “Mr. Las Vegas”, about two wacky spies who are hired by Wayne Newton to uncover a plot   to steal his title of Mr. Las Vegas.
That's quite a resume for a man who was sent home to die a dozen years ago, and a true testament to the strength and resiliency of the creative spirit.  When Montgomery Clift spoke of allowing oneself to remain vulnerable and stay alive, he could well have been speaking of his distant cousin--a man he never would meet, but who clearly keeps his keen and inspirational spirit alive.


Dashwood said...

Sounds like a man whose making the most of the gift on an extended life. I'm sure Monty would be very proud of him.

Will have to keep an eye out for his future releases.

Long life, health and much happiness to him.

Darcy said...

The Clift family history seems very interesting . I've long been a fan of Montgomery Clift's acting. I really think a biopic of his life would be something I'd like to see.
Billy Clift's life and death struggles and the courage he's displayed in dealing with them prove he's someone who's going to accomplish everything he sets out to do.