music friday: soundtracks
directors i have obsessed over

a place in the sun (george stevens, 1951)

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:

 

Comments

Tomás

I've never seen the movie, and I'm just a general admirer of Taylor, but after reading this you got me thinking how easy it would be to teach a class about the films of Elizabeth Taylor. You get to talk about looks and talent, about classics of several eras, about great actors all around, and--always--about the stories after they yell 'cut'. That says something I guess.

Steven Rubio

I suppose this is Taylor's greatest acting job. While I think she indulged in too much scenery chewing later in her career, she never came across as anything other than a professional, which is one reason I prefer her to Monroe, whose acting never quite worked for me. Yes, her career would make a good basis for a class!

Karina Longworth does a podcast I enjoy, "You Must Remember This". She did an episode on Taylor and Clift (35 minutes):

http://www.youmustrememberthispodcast.com/episodes/youmustrememberthispodcastblog/ymrt-20-liz

Tomás

Since I haven't seen A Place in the Sun, I can't compare it her work that I have seen. That said, I always felt she knocked it out of the park with Virginia Wolf. I also have a soft spot for Giant. In both of those it's not easy to be great when most of the folks around you are equally great.

Tomás

What a great podcast! I've been listening all afternoon!

Phil

I was born in '61, so whatever I know about the '50s is after the fact. But if you asked me to sum up the decade in two romantic clips, I'd probably choose that one (which I've shown to my students a few times) and this:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qsBXV8i_ZLM

I suspect Hitchcock may have been influenced by the Stevens clip.

Steven Rubio

That's interesting what you say about "after the fact". I think it was Kael who said we all take a great interest in what we just missed ... like college kids in the 60s obsessing over Bogart. I was born in '53, but in many ways that means the 50s are after the fact for me ... I only have a couple of memories from then (one of Willie McCovey, another of Elvis).

I wrote my senior thesis on the 50s ... well, teenage culture in the 50s, because I wanted to write about Elvis. The only time I specifically chose a 50s movie for a class, it was a class based on that thesis, and I showed Blackboard Jungle. The kisses in that movie, if there were any and I don't remember, wouldn't have been the first clip I'd show :-).

For iconic 50s romance, how about any time Sal Mineo looks at James Dean in Rebel?

Phil

Funny you should mention that. I watched The Big Knife this past weekend, the Aldrich/Odets film from 1955. My dad's cousin, Nick Dennis--I mentioned him a couple of times when we did the Facebook countdown--is in it, playing Jack Palance's masseuse/trainer/sidekick. It seemed obvious to me that he was romantically in love with Palance (how he could fall in love with such an awful actor is another matter). When I mentioned all this on the ILX message board, I said "Nick Dennis gets the Sal Mineo role."

Steven Rubio

Man, this comment is full of great stuff! Nick Dennis ... va va VOOOM!

I never knew he was gay. Nick Adams, sure, but Nick Dennis ... that is cool.

But I have to take issue with your calling the great Jack Palance as an awful actor. One of my faves!

Phil

Just to clarify, I took the character to be gay; no knowledge of Nick in real life. And I should have limited my Palance comment to his performance in The Big Knife--don't think I've seen him in much else.

Steven Rubio

Well, in that case, I admit, Palance is pretty awful in Big Knife. His performances were, let's just say, variable. But he's great in Attack!, and he's his hammy self in a couple of made-for-TV movies in the early 70s where he plays Dracula, and Jekyll and Hyde.

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