Elizabeth Taylor was 19 years old when A Place in the Sun was released. It was shot in 1949, when Taylor was only 17. This came after a lengthy period as an adolescent star, from National Velvet through Little Women. She was considered an exceptional beauty even then. By the time A Place in the Sun hit the screens, audiences had seen the still-teenaged Taylor in a few films, notably the two "Father of the Bride" movies. She was still known more for her beauty than her acting skills.
Montgomery Clift was a dozen years older than Taylor. He already had an Oscar nomination, along with his appearance in the classic Red River. He came to film after an extensive stage career ... he was more known for his acting than for his beauty. But he was indeed beautiful.
The beauty of the two stars of A Place in the Sun matters, because the audience gets so much pleasure out of their pairing that we gravitate towards them as a couple, which leaves Shelley Winters' Alice, who gets pregnant by Clift's George Eastman, as a third wheel. Winters was Clift's age, and had made a career for herself playing mostly blonde bombshells, a role she wasn't happy with. So when she tried out for Alice, she dyed her hair brown and dressed in nondescript clothes. She was the opposite of her image, and she got the part. But her effectiveness in getting the part, and then in playing the part, meant when she was on the screen, the audience was restless, wanting to see more of that beautiful couple. Not only that, but Clift and Taylor formed a great friendship that lasted until the end of his life ... not only were they good at acting like goony-eyed lovers, they really were close, if not lovers. Winters got her first Oscar nomination for A Place in the Sun (Clift got one, as well), but her character was very hard to like. I was reminded of Ethel Mertz. Vivian Vance was only two years older than Lucille Ball, but the combination of Ethel dressing far less stylishly than Lucy Ricardo, and Ethel being married to a man played by an actor who was 30 years older than the man who played Lucy's husband, meant that Vance was never allowed to have the good looks of Ball. In A Place in the Sun, Winters/Alice was not allowed to have any of the spark of either Taylor as Angela or Clift (or especially the two of them together).
I go into this in a bit of detail because I think it throws the film off a bit. Kael wrote, "The hero's jilted working-class girlfriend (Shelley Winters) is not allowed even to be attractive ... If Elizabeth Taylor had played the working girl in this production, then the poor could at least be shown to have some natural assets. But Shelley Winters makes the victim so horrifyingly, naggingly pathetic that when Clift thinks of killing her he hardly seems to be contemplating a crime: it's more like euthanasia." David Thomson adds, "The Clift-Taylor bond is often cited as an example of screen chemistry. And that leaves the factory girl (Shelley Winters) as not just plain, whining, and awkward but as someone the entire audience wants to see murdered."
This is especially unfortunate to the extent that A Place in the Sun retains any suggestions of class distinctions. However George Eastman's path from leather-jacketed worker to his social climbing was meant to be seen, it comes across as the only move a sane man would make: from dowdy Alice to the wonders of Angela. It's less that George wants to escape his class background than that he wants to get together in perfect harmony with Angela.
A Place in the Sun works, and works well. Taylor and Clift are so great together that we get sucked in. I'm just not sure it plays so well when thinking about it afterwards. #599 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of all time. 7/10.
I might as well post this clip ... everyone else does: