Greatness is a slippery slope, especially when it comes to film. Movies that are praised upon first release can seem static and dated ten years on. That is often why films that win the Academy Award for Best Picture are often seen as poor choices later while other, less praised films are deemed more significant later on. Then there are films that are praised for their craftsmanship, emotional impact, and artistic value from their inception, and whose reputation continues to grow. Successful films often capture lightning in a bottle. In 1951, director George Stevens made A Place in the Sun, a film that caught the post-World War II malaise, desire, ambition, and desperation better than any film of its time.
|"Don't do anything hasty." |
Angela's father gives his advice to his daughter and her lover.
Based on the novel An American Tragedy by Theodore Dreiser, A Place in the Sun tells of George Eastman (Montgomery Clift), a working-class young man whose mother is dedicated to mission work for the poor and homeless. George, hard working but ambitious, hitchhikes from Chicago to go to work for his rich uncle, Charles Eastman, in his swimsuit factory. It's there George meets a lonely soul, the plain-looking Alice Tripp (Shelley Winters). The two begin to date--against company policy. During a plant inspection, Charles sees George toiling on the assembly line and decides to kick him up a rung in the factory. Invited to a party his uncle is throwing, George meets and is immediately smitten with Eastman family friend and socialite, Angela Vickers (Elizabeth Taylor). But complications arise when Alice discovers that she's pregnant with George's child. George, not wanting to lose Angela, wants to do right by Alice but wishes she'd just go away. Tragedy ensues.
|The lonely people: George and Alice, before he meets Angela.|
The Paramount Pictures' release was critically praised from the moment it hit America's screens in August 1951, and when the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences announced its nominees, A Place in the Sun received nine nominations, second only to Elia Kazan's A Streetcar Named Desire. Among its nominations were Clift for Best Actor, Winters for Best Actress, Stevens for Direction, Michael Wilson and Harry Brown for Screenplay, and the film for Best Picture. Place won in six of its nominated categories, losing Actor to Humphrey Bogart in The African Queen and Actress to Vivien Leigh in Streetcar. The biggest surprise of Oscar night 1952, however, was An American in Paris' win for Best Picture. Experts picked either Place or Streetcar to take the top prize, but Oscar had other plans. Obviously the 1951 films were a superior group, and tough choices had to be made, but I think Oscar fumbled when the Best Picture award was handed out. Much as I enjoy and admire Vincente Minnelli's musical, A Place in the Sun or A Streetcar Named Desire should have won. Only seven times in 89 years has a film won for screenwriting and direction while losing Best Picture as A Place in the Sun did (including, most recently, in 2002 when The Pianist took Screenplay and Director while Chicago won Picture).
|The beauty of a young Elizabeth Taylor: |
"Being exclusive? Being aloof? Being blue?"
Despite the questionable results at the Academy Awards, A Place in the Sun is widely acknowledged as a superior film and is still remembered for the doomed love played out by Montgomery Clift and Elizabeth Taylor. Their scenes crackle with sexual energy and romantic longing. Hyperbole aside, they may be the most romantic couple in cinema history. Like many great movie romances, George and Angela are not together at the film's conclusion, which is significant. Think of all the great love stories in film history--Scarlett and Rhett in Gone With the Wind, Rick and Ilsa in Casablanca, Norman Maine and Vicki Lester from A Star is Born, Tony and Maria in West Side Story, Hubbell and Katie in The Way We Were. It's the tragic love, the doomed love that lives on in our collective memory. The couples that stay together tend to skew comedic: Nick and Nora Charles, innumerable Tracy and Hepburn pairings. Romantic comedy ends happily; romantic drama ends, if not tragic, at least sad. And the most tragic movie love of all may be George and Angela.
Before World War II, A Place in the Sun's director George Stevens was known as an expert in light comedy. Such films as his Oscar-nominated 1943 war-time laugh-fest, The More The Merrier; 1938's screwball classic, Vivacious Lady; the rousing adventure, Gunga Din; and possibly his best known pre-war hit, 1942's Woman of the Year, the film that first brought Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn together. When the U.S. entered the war, Stevens was just one of the movies' greats who left a thriving career behind, joining the U.S. Army Signal Corps in 1943. What Stevens witnessed while in Europe changed his life and his art forever. Stevens was one of the first to view the horrors of the Nazi concentration camp, Dachau. The pure evil Stevens saw altered his worldview and, consequently, the movies he made. Stevens, always a somewhat stoic character, became silent after the war, according to his fellow director, soldier, and friend, Frank Capra. His wife, Yvonne, said the same thing, adding that upon his return from the war, Stevens played golf, all day, for seven months. Stevens wasn't sure he would or could make another movie again; didn't know if he had a future in Hollywood. After re-gaining some enthusiasm with his adaptation of Broadway hit I Remember Mama, Stevens found the story he'd been looking for, one that reflected his somber, sullen view of post-war America: Dreiser's An American Tragedy, published in 1925 and based on a real incident in 1908.
|George Stevens directing his two stars.|
As the script evolved, Stevens slowly made the the film a romantic tale of false hopes and doomed love. According to Marilyn Ann Moss's fine biography of the director, Stevens skewed the story in George Eastman's favor by turning Shelley Winters' Alice into a shrew and and molding Taylor's Angela into a girl of fantastical beauty and romantic affection. Further empathy for George was generated via casting of Raymond Burr, then well-known for playing villains (and years away from his long-running gig as television's top lawyer Perry Mason), as the District Attorney eager to convict George of Alice's murder. With these elements plus Montgomery Clift's creation of a man whose life is being pulled out from under him, audiences are hard pressed not to be caught up in the romantic, tragic drama.
|One of the many scenes in which Elizabeth Taylor's|
nurturing Angela holds Montgomery Clift's George in her arms.
The story goes that night before the famous love scene was filmed--the one that confirms George and Angela's passionate devotion--Stevens was up until two in the morning rewriting to give the scene the vitality it needed. Stevens knew it would be the centerpiece of the movie. If this scene didn't work, the movie would fall apart, so it had to be extraordinary. When Taylor saw the new pages the next morning, she balked, thinking the lines ludicrous. "Excuse me, but what the hell is this?" she demanded. Stevens later recalled Taylor's outrage, stating she was "jumping into a sophistication beyond her years" (Taylor was only seventeen when filming began in 1949). The scene itself is one of American cinema's finest examples of passion. Stevens smothering close-ups of the lovers makes the audience a voyeur, inappropriately invading the privacy of their unexpected, frantic, intoxicating romance. "Are they watching us?" Taylor says suddenly as she turns toward the camera--nearly looking directly at it--before she practically pushes Clift onto the veranda and into their private moment. Both actors are marvelous in the scene, but Taylor especially owns it with the "[t]ell mama" line as well as her flirtation when telling Clift that they can have the whole summer together. Clift balks. Taylor says she could come and get him. Then she gives him a slight seductive smile and says, "You'll be my pick-up." It's an extraordinary moment.
As for Clift, it may be his best performance on screen, a list that includes four or five of the best performances ever captured on film. Clift's George Eastman is all hesitation and hunched uncertainty, a portrayal that seems like one of cinema's most blank of all time. Here is a man who is uncertain in everything he does. Witness his silence when riding in Taylor's car as she escorts him to the party at which they'll proclaim their great love for each other. It's only when Taylor coaxes it out of him that Clift can finally tell her how he feels about her. His emotion is like an overflowing river. This private love of two people is what I feel the film gets right. No one else can describe what two people--these two people--feel for each other. This is what still speaks to audiences. That sense of passion, of finding the one you love most in all the world, the feeling that you can never live without that person is what A Place in the Sun captures perfectly.
|George in the boat with Alice, wishing her dead.|
As for the actual crime in the film, it's shot far away. As the boat overturns, the camera cuts back to a long shot, with only the sound of the loons on the lake encroaching on the silence. The audience is left to draw its own conclusions as to whether George actually killed Alice or only had his wish fulfilled by accident. Certainly George wishes Alice would disappear so that he can be with Angela and live his dream life, but does wish fulfillment make him a murderer? This is the great moral dilemma of the film. One of the beauties of A Place in the Sun is that the film allows us to draw our own conclusions. As for me, I think George is innocent of Alice's murder, and I don't blame him for wishing her dead. George has found his place in the sun, though it came at the greatest human cost--both Alice's life and his own. I don't think George really minded about his own life, though. If he couldn't have Angela and the love he dreamed of, he would rather be dead.
Sources: Giant: George Stevens, A Life on Film by Marilyn Ann Moss
Montgomery Clift: Beautiful Loser by Barney Hoskyns
Montgomery Clift: A Biography by Patricia Bosworth