A Place In The Sun

Dir: George Stevens, 1951. Starring: Montgomery Clift, Elizabeth Taylor, Shelley Winters. Classics.
A Place In The Sun

The "American dream." Many of the WWII GIs and their wives thought they were living it. It was the goal. A place of respect in society. Materialism. Love. It was all promised…Or so they thought. The flaws in the dream were gradually exposed throughout the '50s and especially into the '60s. One of the first to do so was the great filmmaker, George Stevens, a WWII vet himself (he shot some of the most important war footage ever recorded, the liberation of Paris and the Nazi camp in Dachau). Using Theodore Dreiser's 1925 novel, An American Tragedy, as a springboard, Stevens showed the horror of the ambitious dreamer (it was also made into a rarely mentioned film by Josef von Sternberg in 1931).

What is now considered Stevens' so-called American Trilogy begins with A Place In The Sun and then goes on to include his greatest masterpiece, Shane, and then James Dean’s final film, the overlong Giant. He would follow up the cycle with the touching, but stagy, The Diary Of Anne Frank, in ’59. Unfortunately his disastrous biblical epic, The Greatest Story Ever Told, in ’65 would more or less send him into early retirement as a director (he would pop out once more, five years later, for the Warren Beatty snoozer, The Only Game In Town). A Place In The Sun, in retrospect, is the perfect peek into the dark side of America in 1951. George Eastman (Montgomery Clift), a modest, steady young man, accepts a job from his rich uncle at a factory. He gets involved with a mousy co-worker, Alice (Shelley Winters), eventually knocking her up, a major inconvenience when he meets and falls for the boss’s wealthy, fast lane daughter Angela (Elizabeth Taylor at her most stunning). The two have an intense chemistry for each other. George gets a taste of the lifestyles of the rich and famous, but he is stuck with his whiny pregnant girlfriend who is basically blackmailing him into marriage. George will do whatever it takes to get rid of Alice so he can get his share of what he thinks the world owes him.

Interesting casting, ingenious maybe. For Taylor, the child actress, this was one of her first meaty adult roles, and she was very good. At this point she is maybe as beautiful an actress as there is. She would continue playing the gorgeous doll while evolving into an actress of deep resources with memorable performances in Steven’s Giant and A Cat On A Hot Tin Roof, all leading to an astounding performance in Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf, with her then husband Richard Burton. Unfortunately her tabloid fodder personal life and poor choices in film projects would limit the greatness she would obtain (the same could also be said for Burton’s disappointing career as well).

Shelley Winters, on the other hand, may not have had the star wattage of Taylor, but she did go on to have an exciting film career. Starting off as the glamour puss type, she knocked around Hollywood’s casting couches for a decade, before she finally scored a major success as Ronald Colman’s victim in A Double Life. This lead to moving between A and B pictures, usually representing the working class women. She would have an impressive resume, great roles in a broad range of films including, The Night Of The Hunter, The Big Knife, Lolita, Alfie, You’re A Big Boy Now, The Poseidon Adventure, and she played Ma Barker on the Batman TV series. She would win Oscars for her work again with Stevens in The Diary Of Anne Frank and for A Patch Of Blue.

But perhaps more fascinating and most tragic was the story of the actor Montgomery Clift. Apparently a deeply troubled guy, he was tortured by his homosexuality and childhood trauma, leading to extreme alcoholism and drug abuse. Nevertheless, his career started off so promising and his incredible good looks made him a Broadway star. In the early fifties he was on a level with Marlon Brando - both were considered the leaders of the next wave of new actors, theater trained at the Actors Studio in NY, method actors, who were able to tap into a deep well of emotion. Both, though masculine, had an almost feminine, emotional side to them as well, or at least were willing to show it. In ’51 Clift got his second of four Oscar nominations for A Place In The Sun. That same year Brando was nominated for what, in retrospect, is one of the most important performances of film history, A Streetcar Named Desire. Both thespians lost to a life achievement award recipient, Humphrey Bogart, for The African Queen.

When James Dean emerged for his three film iconic run he was considered a cross between Clift and Brando. Dean himself was said to proclaim his worshipfulness of Clift and Brando. Strangely, decades later, it's Brando and Dean’s faces that still appear on posters and t-shirts. Once a rival to the two other mumbly actors, now Clift is almost forgotten.

Starting from 1948, for almost twenty years Clift made 17 films and only a handful of them stand the test of time today. Of course besides his one masterpiece, A Place In The Sun, there’s the Howard Hawks Western, Red River, playing John Wayne’s adopted son. Many Wayne aficionados would consider it one of the fat cowboy's better pictures. He followed up Red River with a great little gem, The Heiress. Clift played a conniving playboy preying on a naive Olivia de Havilland. Though de Havilland won her second Oscar for it, the film is largely forgotten, as is Elia Kazan’s nifty ecology film Wild River which is not available on DVD or VHS. Though Clift got an Oscar nom for From Here To Eternity the movie is mostly remembered as the film that established Frank Sinatra as a real actor (or for the famous shot of Lancaster and Kerr getting jiggy on the beach). Monty’s (that’s what his friends called him) played a tortured priest in Hitchcock’s I Confess, unfortunately it turned out to be one of the masters least memorable efforts of the '50s. He had no scenes with Brando in The Young Lions, and the movie was a bore.

Hoping to repeat their electric on screen sexual chemistry again, Clift and Taylor would reunite twice more and, like most of his efforts, were not able to find the magic again. Raintree County was supposed to be a lavish Gone With The Wind type of Civil War spectacle, but it plays more like an overacted Petticoat Junction. While Suddenly, Last Summer is more of a showcase for Taylor, it was an overwrought Tennessee Williams potboiler that often plays like a "Best of Tennessee Williams" (Southern manners, sexual dysfunction, closeted homosexuality, etc.). Clift was smashed up bad in a famous car crash after leaving Taylor’s home, which left much of his face paralyzed. His good looks were never quite the same, though his hairstyle more or less never changed throughout his career (intensely parted on the right).

Clift would end up self-destructing on booze and pills, dying at the age of 45. Though before his death he did manage to eke out a couple more interesting performances. The Misfits is rather boring but interesting for the off camera drama, it being the final film for both Marilyn Monroe and Clark Gable. Clift was excellent as Sigmund in Freud. Other than A Place In The Sun, Clift’s most memorable performance may be his extended cameo in the WWII courtroom drama, Judgment At Nuremberg. On screen for less than ten minutes, Clift is riveting as a witness to Nazi atrocities. Clift unfortunately ended his too brief career with a forgettable Cold War film,The Defector, in ’66.

By now Clift is more remembered for his car accident and off screen problems. A Place In The Sun is his most important film and defines his career best. Though it has some pacing problems and a rather melodramatic ending, it’s still extremely powerful. The noose that Clift’s George Eastman has around his neck - the weight he carries on his shoulder, trying to be someone he isn’t, trying to escape a woman he doesn’t love, the American dream laid out in front of him and he can’t quite get to it - is painful to watch. George has to pay a heavy price for striving to live above his station in life, for dreaming of being more then he should be and, well, for killing someone else’s dreams. A Place In The Sun, though painful at times, still has power today. It says something about us all that no matter how much films change and evolve, that American dream stays the same. And generations later we can still understand what drives George to do what he does.

____________________________ A Place In The Sun won six Oscars: Best Director, Best Film Editing, Best Black and White Cinematography, Best Black and White Costume Design, Best Drama or Comedy Score, and Best Screenplay. It was nominated for an additional three Oscars for Best Actor (Montgomery Clift), Best Actress (Shelley Winters), and Best Picture.

Posted by:
Sean Sweeney
Jun 2, 2010 6:14pm
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