Elizabeth and Monty: The Untold Story of Their Intimate Friendship
by Charles Casillo
Kensington, 389 pp., Hardcover, $27.00 ($36.00 Canada)
On sale May 25, 2021
Elizabeth and Monty opens not with a movie but with an incident. Arguably the most infamous incident of Elizabeth Taylor and Montgomery Clift’s relationship: Him lying on the ground in a pool of blood, her in a white satin cocktail dress fishing broken teeth from his throat.
It’s a gruesome affair, and to open a book about two of the most attractive people to grace the silver screen with it, is an act of titillating subversion. Elizabeth and Monty: The Untold Story of Their Intimate Friendship, from Charles Casillo, traces the famous friends’ early lives, platonic romance, and career trajectories leading up to and following Clift’s car crash on May 12, 1956, outside Taylor’s Beverly Hills home.
Clift’s crash came at a pivotal moment in both their lives: The two were filming Raintree County, their second of three pairings, both were Hollywood darlings, and both were changing the industry on and off the screen. Clift had altered Hollywood acting via the Method—favoring emotional truth and intense vulnerability over narrative necessity. Taylor, who practically grew up on-screen, was in transition from a girl next door to the woman the Vatican would denounce and condemn for “erotic vagrancy” six years later. And, at the age of 35, Clift was already on the back nine, the effect of booze and drugs taking hold. Taylor, 11 years Clift’s junior, was married to Michael Winding, her second of seven spouses, each one more famous than the last.
It’s all very salacious, and Casillo has fun with the details. Sometimes too much, but more on that later. Back to the crash, which comes almost 40 pages before the halfway point in the book. These pages move swiftly through a complicated event and catapult the rest of Elizabeth and Monty into high gear. From here on out, there’s more drinking, more drugs, more sex, more debauchery, more marriages, and more of Clift’s sloppy table manners. More than once, you might wonder if everyone in Hollywood is a functioning addict. Well, maybe not everyone in Hollywood, just everyone in this story.
The parallels Casillo finds between Clift and Taylor are suggestive. Both were products of stage mothers living vicariously through their children—Taylor’s mom, Sara, would stand behind the camera and coach her with hand signals—and both fell ill or injured at an early age that would later contribute to addictions down the line. For Taylor, it was a fall suffered while filming National Velvet. Under normal circumstances, she would have taken the appropriate amount of time to recuperate. But Hollywood is anything by normal, and Taylor worked too hard to get the part. She didn’t let on that she was hurt, working through the pain to finish the shoot. Years later, the spinal injury would rear its head again. As for Clift, a case of amoebic dysentery he caught in Mexico morphed into chronic colitis and got Clift hooked on “a great many pills,” turning him into a walking medicine cabinet.
Stories like this are a dime a dozen in Hollywood, and at times it feels like Casillo found them all and spares none. Here’s one from the filming of National Velvet: Producer Pandro Berman wasn’t keen on the 11-year-old Taylor taking the role, and the MGM execs agreed. “Although she was highly promising, she wouldn’t be believable as an adolescent,” Casillo writes. “They even pointed out that the petite Elizabeth was still flat chested.” To which Taylor remarked: “Don’t worry. You’ll have your breasts.” Four months later, she got the part.
Though it’s true Clift and Taylor were close, very close, large parts of Elizabeth and Monty read more like two biographies smashed together than a joint narrative. For the front half of the book, Casillo splits his subjects by the chapter—odd-numbered chapters for Clift, evens for Taylor—until their stories intertwine and bleed into one another. In the end, Taylor’s tale overtakes Clift’s, and Casillo follows suit.
Casillo does his best to find connections beyond the obvious, like Taylor having a dog named “Monty” long before she met Clift, but the most effective are the various echoes sprinkled throughout the book. Take Clift’s first meeting with Taylor while shooting A Place in the Sun. He joked: “How did you ever get into movies with a face like that?” A dozen years later, while shooting Cleopatra, a hungover Richard Burton set eyes on Taylor and thundered: “Has anyone ever told you that you’re a very pretty girl?” Burton, Taylor’s fifth and sixth marriage, would describe Taylor as “beautiful beyond the dreams of pornography.” Eddie Fisher, Taylor’s fourth husband, said similarly: “Sexually, she was every man’s dream. She had the face of an angel and the morals of a truck driver.”
Then there are the tidbits of backstage Hollywood, catnip for movie fans, like how Clift’s relationship with Jerome Robbins led to the inspiration behind West Side Story: “The couple was on Fire Island when Monty complained that the character of Romeo seemed too passive. He was wondering how he could bring him to life,” Casillo writes. And, finding out Alfred Hitchcock wanted Clift to play opposite Cary Grant in Rope, a theatrical retelling of the Leopold and Loeb murder with homosexual overtones. Both Grant and Clift turned down the offer because the roles cut too close to home, and Farley Granger and John Dall stepped in opposite James Stewart. To imagine that picture with Clift, Grant, and Stewart tickles the cinematic senses. Ditto for the idea of Clift playing the Joe Gillis role in Sunset Boulevard. William Holden ended up with the part (and knocked it out of the park), but the idea of a more malleable, more delicate Clift under Norma Desmond’s claws makes the movie all the juicier. But once again, as Casillo points out, it was too close to home: Clift was in a relationship with Libby Holman, a woman 16 years his senior.
That might sound a bit gossipy, and Elizabeth and Monty is, but not in a Kenneth Anger sort of way, more like People magazine: Inquiring but adoring.
Casillo’s interest seems to hinge on the private lives of public figures, and he finds plenty of material. That makes Elizabeth and Monty an easy read with plenty of familiar signposts to latch on to. But for those looking for a better understanding of how Montgomery Clift and Elizabeth Taylor etched their names in celluloid history, it might leave you wanting.
Elizabeth and Monty is available May 25, 2021, in hardcover from Kensington Publishing Corp.