Movie: 'A Place in the Sun'
Release Date: August 14, 1951
How It Got Made: 'A Place in the Sun' is at once one of cinema's great love stories and one of its great crime dramas, but getting it made was a struggle marked by bitter arguments before, during and after the production. Fortunately, the seamless finished product bore no apparent trace of the strife. Besides becoming an enormous hit upon its release 60 years ago this week, the film won several Oscars, cemented the stardom of Montgomery Clift and Elizabeth Taylor (and created the image of adult sensuality that transformed Taylor from a child star into an all-time screen goddess), made a star out of Shelley Winters, and influenced filmmakers for decades to come.
The film was based on Theodore Dreiser's 1925 bestseller 'An American Tragedy,' which was in turn inspired by a real-life 1908 murder trial. Dreiser's title came from his take on the crime as an indictment of America's unacknowledged social class hierarchy; indeed, the first person to take a crack at a movie version was the great Soviet director Sergei Eisenstein, who adapted it into a screenplay during his brief 1930 stint in Hollywood. Paramount Pictures rejected the script, in part because of Eisenstein's avant-garde montage technique and in part because of early anti-communist fears in Hollywood. Paramount did make the movie in 1931, with a new script and under the direction of Josef von Sternberg. Dreiser sued the studio, unsuccessfully, to prevent the release of this version, which focused more on psychology than class distinctions, and which Dreiser said distorted his characters beyond recognition. The movie flopped.
After Dreiser died in 1945, director George Stevens, a longtime fan of the book, tried to persuade Paramount to do a remake. The studio balked, remembering the earlier lawsuit and commercial flop. Stevens reportedly had to prepare his own lawsuit, alleging breach of contract, to get the studio to relent. Even still, Paramount demanded some changes, starting with the title. Accounts vary as to why; some say Paramount thought 'An American Tragedy' was too glum a title for a movie with a strong romantic element (the studio's preferred title was 'The Lovers'). Others say that anti-communist sentiment, soon to erupt into full-blown McCarthyism and the Hollywood blacklist, kept the studio from wanting to imply that there was anything anti-American about the movie. Stevens' associate producer Ivan Moffat came up with the new, more ironic title that eventually stuck. But the blacklist wasn't finished yet with the filmmakers.
Cast in the leads were 28-year-old Clift (then coming off the successes of 'Red River' and 'The Heiress') and Taylor, who, at 17, had yet to give a truly adult performance. He'd play George, the poor but ambitious social climber, she Angela, the spoiled rich girl of his dreams. As Alice, the third leg of the triangle, the factory girl George impregnates and plots to murder so that he can marry Angela, Stevens cast Shelley Winters. A rising starlet being groomed as Hollywood's next brassy blonde bombshell, Winters persuaded the filmmakers that she could play dowdy and mousy after spending two weeks riding city buses and observing Los Angeles factory girls.
Trained Method actors, Winters and Clift brought their discipline to a Hollywood that would soon be revolutionized by the new technique as practiced by Clift, Marlon Brando, and James Dean. In 1949, however, seasoned filmmakers like Stevens found it bewildering and irritating, especially since Clift had Russian-born acting coach Mira Rostova on the set with him at all times, and since he argued with Stevens over how to play just about every scene. Then again, the Method's emphasis on conveying intense emotions did serve Stevens' preference for shooting scenes with minimal or no dialogue, and for shooting extreme close-ups of the actors' faces.
The young Taylor also found it challenging to work with the meticulous Clift, but his intense dedication and probing emotional approach to his character inspired her to give a performance that was mature beyond her years. They displayed an intense romantic chemistry that seemed to continue off-screen. Gossip reports at the time (no doubt puffed up by the studio) even speculated that they were planning to marry. In actuality, despite Clift's flirtatious behavior, it's likely that no romance ever took place between Liz and the gay Monty. But they did become close and loyal friends.
Shooting began in October 1949 with lakeside scenes shot at Lake Tahoe, where it was so cold that the filmmakers had to hose the snow off the trees and the ground before filming. The perfectionist Stevens continued the shoot for another four months, exposing 400,000 feet of film. He and editor William Hornbeck then spent more than a year editing it (though some accounts say he was just biding time so that his movie would get a 1951 release date and not compete with fellow Paramount opus 'Sunset Boulevard' in the 1950 Oscar race).
How It Was Received: The film was a big hit, becoming the eighth highest-grossing movie of 1951. Clift's performance earned some of the highest praise of his career and spawned a fan club. Taylor astonished viewers with her grown-up sensuality. She'd played a young adult getting married in 1950's 'Father of the Bride' (a film shot after 'Place in the Sun' but timed for release to coincide with the starlet's real-life wedding to Nicky Hilton), but she hadn't turned on the full wattage of her sex appeal until now.
The movie was nominated for nine Oscars, including Best Picture, Best Actor, and Best Actress (for Winters). It took home six trophies, including Best Director, Best Editing, and Best Screenplay (for Michael Wilson and Harry Brown).
Co-star Anne Revere, who played Clift's mother, could trace her lineage back to Revolutionary patriot Paul Revere, but by 1951, she'd run afoul of the House Un-American Activities Committee and was blacklisted by the studios. Her name was purged from all publicity materials for 'A Place in the Sun.' She left Hollywood for Broadway and didn't appear in another movie for 20 years.
Long-Term Impact: The blacklisting didn't stop with Revere. Oscar-winning screenwriter Wilson was eventually blacklisted as well. He continued to write acclaimed and even Oscar-winning screenplays (most notably, for 1957's 'The Bridge Over the River Kwai,' with fellow blacklistee Carl Foreman) but didn't receive proper credit from the studios or the Academy until after his death in 1976.
The lawsuits continued after the film's release as well. In 1959, the estate of Patrick Kearney, who'd written a stage version of 'An American Tragedy,' sued Paramount, arguing that Kearney had retained the rights to the story. In 1965, Stevens sued Paramount and NBC over the network's plan to broadcast 'A Place in the Sun,' broken up by commercials. He argued that his studio contract forbade anyone from editing the movie without his consent, and that chopping up the film for broadcast would ruin the painstakingly wrought effects of his own lengthy edit process. The legal fight dragged on for two years, with the courts ultimately ruling against Stevens but awarding him token damages of $1.
To be sure, Stevens' editing really was one of the key elements of the film. His trademark technique, the overlapping dissolve (which could be traced back to Russian formalist filmmakers like Eisenstein and Dziga Vertov), created a narrative flow, a swirling rush of emotion, and a deliberate contrast of images superimposed on each other. The overlapping dissolve became popular among filmmakers in the 1950s and beyond. Jean Luc Godard made extensive use of it in his series 'Histoire(s) du Cinema,' even using it to contrast Stevens' own work as a wartime documentarian, capturing real human misery, with his work on 'A Place in the Sun,' capturing glossy, manufactured romance. Woody Allen, too, borrowed liberally from 'A Place in the Sun,' sometimes shot for shot, for 'Match Point,' his hit 2005 drama about a social climber who plots to murder his blonde girlfriend in order to marry a brunette society beauty.
By the time of Stevens' lawsuit, he had followed 'A Place in the Sun' with two more classics of Americana: 1953's 'Shane' and 1956's 'Giant' (which reunited him with Taylor). Wilson was working on the script for the original 'Planet of the Apes,' while his 'Place in the Sun' writing partner Harry Brown had co-scripted the original 'Ocean's 11.' Among the acting talent, Raymond Burr, who played the prosecutor, had gone on to play the most celebrated defense attorney in TV history, Perry Mason. Winters had proven all too well that she could play dowdy and mousy and spent the rest of her long career specializing in playing hausfraus, harridans and jilted lovers. She won supporting Oscars for two such roles, in 1959's 'The Diary of Anne Frank' (directed by Stevens) and 1966's 'A Patch of Blue.' Even Mira Rostova, Clift's acting coach, went onto a long and successful career as an acting teacher, whose pupils included Alec Baldwin, Jessica Lange, Jerry Orbach and, uh, Madonna.
As for Clift and Taylor, their friendship lasted the rest of his short life. They worked together on two other films, and she famously saved his life after his 1956 car crash. (He was leaving her house at the time, and she saved him from choking to death by pulling his broken teeth out of his throat.) By the time he died in 1966, he'd been nominated for four Oscars, including for such classics as 1953's 'From Here to Eternity' and 1961's 'Judgment at Nuremberg.' Taylor, who'd go on to win two Oscars (for 1960's 'Butterfield 8' and 1966's 'Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf'), would pass into legend, spending most of her adult career as Angela Vickers, the accessible yet unattainable goddess she'd played during her first pairing with Clift.
How It Plays Today: With Taylor's passing in March, 'A Place in the Sun' seems all the more poignant now for its portrayal of two impossibly gorgeous young people who thought they had limitless potential. For anyone too young to remember why moviegoers spent decades swooning over both Liz and Monty, this is a good place to start.
Follow Gary Susman on Twitter @garysusman.