A Place in the Sun
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Theodore Dreiser's 1925 novel, An American Tragedy, was based on a real-life murder of a poor, pregnant factory girl by her social-climbing fiance. It had been filmed by Joseph von Sternberg in 1931, starring Sylvia Sidney, Phillips Holmes and Frances Dee. George Stevens' 1951 version, A Place in the Sun, focused more on the developing romance between the man and the rich girl, and changed the poor girl's death to an accident, but maintained the psychological motivations and class distinctions of the novel.
George Eastman (Montgomery Clift), the poor relation of a wealthy manufacturer, arrives at the factory and asks for a job. Acutely aware of his lowly position, he longs for the beautiful, rich Angela (Elizabeth Taylor), while drifting into an affair with factory girl Alice (Shelley Winters). When Angela returns his love, George tries to break with Alice, but she demands marriage, and he sees only one way out.
Stevens cast Elizabeth Taylor, not yet 18 and lushly beautiful, as Angela. Stevens claimed he had never seen any of her films, but knew she had exactly the quality he wanted: "Not so much a real girl as the girl on the candy-box cover, the beautiful girl in the yellow Cadillac convertible that every American boy sometime or other thinks he can marry."
Shelley Winters wanted to break out of silly blonde bombshell roles and prove herself a serious actress by playing Alice. But Stevens, knowing only her sexpot image, refused to consider her. Finally, the director agreed to meet her, and Winters showed up for the interview sans makeup, wearing dowdy clothes and an unflattering hairdo. Stevens barely recognized her, and agreed to test her if she would allow herself to be photographed just as she was. Winters agreed, and won the role.
Montgomery Clift was already one of the most important young actors in films, and had been nominated for an Academy Award for his first film, The Search (1948). Intense and neurotic, Clift was ideal for the part of George, but he relied heavily on his acting coach, Mira Rostova, to shape his performances. This infuriated the autocratic Stevens, who could not bear anyone but himself guiding the performances. Throughout the production, Stevens never spoke to Rostova or acknowledged her presence, and instructed his assistants to keep her out of his sight. Clift found Stevens inflexible, and dismissed him as a "craftsman," rather than an artist. But Clift's performance was one of his best, and earned him an Academy Award nomination.
Clift's co-stars, however, blossomed under Stevens' direction. The director insisted on extensive rehearsals, during which he would have the actors run through the scene without speaking their lines, only communicating them non-verbally. Winters later wrote in her autobiography, "He was the greatest director I ever worked for. He made me understand that acting, especially film acting, is not emotion, but thinking."
Elizabeth Taylor had been a film actress for most of her life, but had never worked that way before, and her performance deepened. She had developed a schoolgirl crush on Clift, and fancied herself in love with him. Clift, a homosexual, could not love her romantically, but the two became intimate friends. Stevens observed the intensity of the relationship, and often rewrote dialogue to reflect Taylor's growing maternal tenderness towards the neurotic Clift. Their scenes together throb with barely suppressed emotion, and the rapturous close-ups Stevens uses heighten them even more. One morning, however, Stevens handed Taylor and Clift newly written lines for a love scene, and at first Taylor reacted indignantly to what she had to say. Yet it turned out to be the most breathtakingly romantic moment in the film. In enormous close-up, responding to Clift's inarticulate attempt to declare his love, Taylor whispers passionately, "tell Mama...tell Mama all."
Location shooting took place at Lake Tahoe in October. The weather had already turned cold, and crews often had to hose off newly fallen snow before the actors could pretend to be cavorting in the summer sunshine. Taylor gamely wore a bathing suit and swam in the frigid lake. Later, Winters and Clift refused to go into the water during the drowning scene, and demanded that their doubles do the stunt. Without a word, Stevens, in a heavy coat and boots, jumped into the cold water. Then he got out, and began giving Winters and Clift directions on how he wanted them to play the scene. They did the stunt.
The perfectionist Stevens spent two years working on A Place in the Sun, nearly a year of it editing the 400,000 feet of film he'd shot. The film opened to nearly unanimous acclaim, and was a huge box-office hit. It shows up on most lists of the best American films of all time. Stevens won an Academy Award for best director, and the film also won Oscars for screenplay, cinematography, editing, score and costume design. It was nominated for best picture, but lost to An American in Paris (1951). Clift and Winters were also nominated for best actor and actress.
Producer/Director: George Stevens
Screenplay: Michael Wilson, Harry Brown, based on the novel An American Tragedy by Theodore Dreiser, and the play by Patrick Kearney
Editor: William Hornbeck
Cinematography: William Mellor
Costume Design: Edith Head
Art Direction: Hans Dreier, Walter Tyler
Music: Franz Waxman
Principal Cast: Montgomery Clift (George Eastman), Elizabeth Taylor (Angela Vickers), Shelley Winters (Alice Tripp), Anne Revere (Hannah Eastman), Keefe Brasselle (Earl Eastman), Fred Clark (Bellows), Raymond Burr (Marlowe).
by Margarita Landazuri