O Youth and Beauty! — ‘A Place in the Sun’

Italian poster. I like it better than the American version.

Italian poster. I like it better than the American version.

I first saw George Stevens’ “A Place in the Sun” (Paramount, 1951) when I was a teenager and fell crazy in love with the picture and almost everything about it. Except for Sophia Loren, I’d never seen a woman so extraordinarily beautiful as Elizabeth Taylor. I fell in love with her house up on Loon Lake, the Vickers and the Eastman mansions in town, the cocktail dances, the clothes, the big convertibles. But most of all, I fell hard for Montgomery Clift — it was a mad boyhood crush like I never felt before or since. I was completely besotted with him: I loved his gorgeous face, his haircut, his fantastic glen plaid jacket, his smile, his sadness — I loved everything about him except that strangely ugly voice. But much as I loved Monty and Elizabeth and “A Place in the Sun,” it was years — decades, in fact — before I was willing to put myself through it again. It was too damned devastating.

Montgomery Clift: Hello, Gorgeous . . .

Montgomery Clift: Hello, Gorgeous . . .

The picture, as you probably know, is based on “An American Tragedy,” but I’m not sure “A Place in the Sun” can properly be considered a tragedy. But since it’s supposed to be a tragedy, I’m assuming that, whether or not you’ve seen it, you know how it ends, and that’s how I’m going to approach the subject. But if you haven’t seen it, and you don’t want to know in advance how it turns out, please don’t read the rest of this until after you’ve seen the picture.

As for its being a tragedy — well, possibly it is, but I rather think it fails to qualify on one major and several minor counts. (I will pass over the latter.) To be sure, the Fates are lined up against the protagonist/hero George Eastman (Montgomery Clift), which is an essential feature of tragedy, and his downfall comes in consequence of a distinctly tragic form of error, known as hamartia (Greek:  ἁμαρτία). Over the past several centuries, the meaning of hamartia has been twisted into what many of us learnt in public school to call a “tragic flaw.” (Interestingly, in the King James version of the New Testament, ἁμαρτία is translated, with a fair degree of inaccuracy, as “sin.”) The original meaning of hamartia is neither “tragic flaw” nor “sin,” but simply “missing the target” or “wide of the mark.” It is something that’s neither bad nor wrong, per se, but can, under specific circumstances, lead to disastrous consequences — say, for example, you’re told to take a left turn where a right one is what’s wanted, and this error leads you directly and irrevocably over the edge of a cliff.  In this case, no tragic flaw or sin is indicated, but only a misdirection that sends you to your doom.

Monty and Elizabeth: When they were seen together at the studio, their incredible beauty often provoked laughter.

Monty and Elizabeth Taylor: When they were seen together at the studio, their incredible beauty often provoked laughter.

In the movie version of Dreiser’s novel, what sends the boy to his doom is his failure to swim in the right direction quickly enough to prevent an unfortunate girl (who capsized his boat) from drowning. He didn’t drown her, but he must pay for it. (God knows what Stevens would have done with the Hero of Chappaquiddick.) The predicament has the tragic essence, but its resolution fails to fulfill tragedy’s fundamental obligation to its shaken audience: catharsis. In “A Place in the Sun” there is no catharsis (κάθαρσις, in Greek), only a miscarriage of justice, the ruin of several lives and two young people dead: one by water, the other by fire, at the State’s decree and with a dominie mumbling prayers over him. Somebody owes me my goddamned κάθαρσις. . . ! Taken as a whole, “A Place in the Sun” is a ravishing, romantic, glamorous bummer.

Taylor was never called ‘Liz’ by her friends: she was ‘Elizabeth.’ She called him ‘Monty’; he called her ‘Bessie Mae.’ She loved the name.

Pauline Kael put it this way:

The conclusion of the film in which the hero (and presumably the audience) is supposed to be convinced that a man should pay with his life for a murder he didn’t commit — but wanted to commit — is bizarre. “Who doesn’t desire his father’s death?” asked Ivan Karamazov. Stevens and company would send us all up for it.

As usual, Kael sums it up brilliantly.

The last shot is of beautiful Monty Clift, with his gorgeous hair cut en brosse, on his way to the chamber where Old Sparky soon will burn his blood to ash and all his dreams to powder. And superimposed over this is the image of him in happier times with Elizabeth Taylor; they are kissing passionately, dreamily . . . What did Stevens have in mind? The crossing of the macabre with the semi-erotic strikes me as having distinctly necrophiliac overtones. At any rate, we can tell that George Eastman will fry with a boner.

Monty and Elizabeth: Love and death.

Clift wanted Betsy Blair in the Shelley Winters part. He was probably right. Winters had to fight to get the part (take a look at her interview below), but I think she fell into the same sort of trap Mary Tyler Moore, who was known for playing comic characters, fell into when she landed her first “serious” role in “Ordinary People.” Moore played the woman as a near-monster without the faintest tinge of humor — the actress’ anxiety about not being taken seriously led her to give a performance that’s so humorless it can’t be taken seriously. Winters was still a bombshell/sex symbol when she played poor, doomed Alice Tripp, and she saw the role as an opportunity to prove that she was A Serious Actress — not just a B-picture sex kitten. After this picture, she certainly became a heavyweight.

It’s a charming story, but it goes to the heart of what’s wrong with her in the role: she too earnestly seeks to be unattractive. Unprepossessing people don’t have to work at being unattractive — if they’re ambitious enough to want to love and be loved, they have to work to make themselves as desirable as possible. But Winters, wanting to get away from cheesecake, made sure the world knew she meant business: she played Alice Tripp as the Eternal Frump. Clift complained to a friend, “She played her tragedy from the minute you see her on screen. She is downbeat, blubbery, irritating.” Unfortunately, in Hollywood, this is exactly the sort of thing that’s called “brave” instead of what it is: a lousy, career-advancing, dumb-ass acting choice. It’s all about livening-up a stagnating career, not about giving a performance that best serves the story. And indeed, Winters was nominated for an Oscar for her “brave” performance, after which she was offered a much wider range of roles than the sultry glamour girls she’d previously been typecast as: now she played a wide variety of harpies, turbulent drunks, castrating Jewish mothers, brawling slatterns, bellicose barflies, matrons, termagants and tarts who couldn’t keep their stockings up, their skirts down or their wigs on straight.  But no more glamour girls. Excelsior!

Clift remonstrated with Stevens about Winters’ performance, but was overruled. Stevens told Clift he was “too sentimental.” Sentimental? What’s sentimental about wanting Alice Tripp to have a few qualities that George Eastman could possibly find attractive? As it is, he must choose between Angela Vickers (Elizabeth Taylor), a wealthy, sexy, glamorous, charming, educated, beautiful debutante and a snivelling, querulous, self-pitying factory girl with no education, conversation or interests other than her own miseries. Decisions, decisions . . . ! I imagine Betsy Blair in the part — sweet and homely, doing her best to be pleasant, pretty and interesting . . . and failing. That’s not sentimentality: it’s heartbreaking — and it adds complexity, ambiguity and drama to the story. One should feel as sorry for the girl as for the boy who got her in trouble. As it is, Shelley Winters (with George Stevens’ careful guidance) plays the first part of many in which audiences wait for her to get what’s coming to her.

Shelley Winters: 'Or maybe ya wish I was dead, is that it?' -- You got that right, sister.

Shelley Winters: ‘Or maybe ya wish I was dead, is that it?’ — You got that right, sister.

After I’d seen the picture a few more times, I became aware that it wasn’t George Eastman’s sad fate that I found so punishing — the horror of his predicament is not cathartic, but I find its remorselessness invigorating (like Hurstwood’s in “Sister Carrie”) — no, it’s the juxtaposition of the most glamorous love scenes ever put on film and the carping, sniffling dreariness of Shelley Winters: the way Stevens has conceived her character, she’s one of the Eumenides from “The Oresteia” dressed in a flea market blouse and a Republican cloth coat. Stevens described it to the American Film Institute this way:

The thing that interested me most about Place was the relationship of opposing images . . . Shelley Winters busting at the seams with sloppy melted ice cream . . . as against Elizabeth Taylor in a white gown with blue ribbons floating down from the sky . . . Automatically there’s an imbalance of images which creates drama.

Imbalance, yes; but drama? Not the way I look at it. Stevens seems to hold with Glinda the Good Witch’s observation that “Only bad witches are ugly.” It’s not enough that Alice Tripp is penniless and not as beautiful as Angela Vickers: Stevens makes her repulsive — a prim, soul-destroying scold. Yet when she dies, he wants us to blame gorgeous, ambitious George Eastman for having desired someone less excruciating and maddening . . . No, I don’t think it works as drama or as a fable with a moral. The picture isn’t critical of class and wealth in America (as I believe the novel is — though it’s been a long time since I read it), but rather a stern warning against the dangers of being poor and ugly (they get knocked up, make a mess of their ice cream and drown in ice cold lakes) and a grimmer warning against trying to jump across class lines (they go to the electric chair). It’s not the class system that’s at fault: it’s the lovesick fat girls and the handsome gate crashers.

Fortunately, with DVDs, it’s easy to skip all the stuff I don’t like and disapprove of and soak up all the parts that I find wonderful. It’s doubtful that anyone ever photographed the beginning of a love affair with more exquisite dreamy romanticism than George Stevens. In “A Place in the Sun,” Stevens makes the act of falling desperately in love look the way it feels. Here’s George and Angela’s first conversation. George has been invited to his rich uncle’s house for a party. Feeling awkward and out of place, he retreats to the game room to be alone. Then Angela floats in . . .

“Wow! . . . Hello . . . !” she says by way of introducing herself. They don’t meet cute: they meet stupendous. Did any love affair ever begin more promisingly? Unsurprisingly, the gown she wears in that scene caused a sensation in the 1950s; copies and patterns based on it sold for years afterwards. Edith Head won the Oscar for Best Costume Design, Black-and-White for that year.

I stopped the clip at the point where George and Angela are interrupted by George’s Uncle Charles (Herbert Heyes), who has just given George a promotion at the factory. Uncle Charles tells George to call his mother (i.e., Charles’ sister) to give her the good news. Then the old man, who has no use for his pious Middle West sister, beats a hasty retreat back to the party. The scene continues . . .

That’s Anne Revere as George’s mother; she won a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her portrayal of Elizabeth Taylor’s mother in “National Velvet” (Metro, 1944). “A Place in the Sun” was the last picture she made before being blacklisted. Twenty years passed before she made another picture.

A few weeks pass, then Angela calls George out of the blue and invites him to a dance at her parents’ palatial home.

The disapproving gentleman is Shepperd Strudwick as Angela’s father; Frieda Inescort is Angela’s mother. Inescort made a career playing tart-tongued snobs and high society bitches. I’ve never understood their reaction when they see their daughter with the nephew of the richest man in town: the young man is an Eastman and he looks like Monty Clift . . . What’s their objection to him? If he’s not good enough for them, what are the rest of us up to? (John Simon once wrote of Strudwick in a late-career Broadway performance: “Shepperd Strudwick is respectable but dull.” That observation fits his entire career.) Here’s the famous scene that follows the parental opprobrium. To my knowledge, it’s the most ravishingly romantic scene in any picture. Franz Waxman’s score does a lot of the heavy lifting, but it’s also beautifully costumed, staged, acted and photographed.

Taylor, who was only seventeen at the time, fought with Stevens over the script in this scene, which he rewrote the night before he shot it. When he handed her the new pages, she glanced at them and demanded, “Forgive me, but what hell is this?” According to Stevens, “Elizabeth dissolved when she had to say, ‘Tell Mama.’ She thought it was outrageous she had to say that — she was jumping into a sophistication beyond her time.” But Stevens was adamant. As Patricia Bosworth described it in her excellent biography, “Montgomery Clift”: “He wanted to create a mood that was at once primitive and basic, ‘a kind of preordained meeting.’ ” I’d say he succeeded admirably.

“A Place in the Sun” was the beginning of a long and beautiful friendship between Taylor and Clift. For the rest of her life, she claimed that he taught her to act. A few years before she died, she recorded a seven minute appreciation of Clift’s career for TCM’s Star of the Month series. Most of those TCM Star of the Month shorts range between very good and wonderful, but if I had to choose, I’d say the one she did for Monty was the best of them all (with John Gielgud’s for Claude Rains in a very close second place). Alas, neither of those shorts is available anywhere that I can find. TCM’s website has Paul Newman’s appreciation of Elizabeth Taylor, but it’s merely workmanlike. At the end of Taylor’s appreciation of Clift, she says, in a voice choked with tears, “I miss Montgomery Clift. I miss talking with him and laughing with him  . . . He was so talented!  . . . and such a tragic figure! Oh, I loved him . . . !” She stops a bit short, composes herself and finishes with: “He was the best friend I ever had . . . and I think he’d say the same about me.” Often, when TCM shows a Clift picture — “From Here to Eternity” or “Raintree County,” for example — they run that video. I never liked Elizabeth Taylor more than I liked her in that little clip.

3 thoughts on “O Youth and Beauty! — ‘A Place in the Sun’

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  3. Shu-I Chen

    The 1931 silent film “An American Tragedy” has a tragically beautiful scene of the drowning incident. The lake water is shimmering in the sun, but the loving glances of the victim disappear in five seconds. She looks prettier than Shelley Winters, and the film suggests that her lover deserts her because of money, rather than lack of affection. For me, “A Place in the Sun” is less appealing than the 1931 version despite the charms of Montgomery and Taylor.

    Reply

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