Saturday, October 17, 2020

Monty Still Has ‘A Place in the Sun’ 1951

Elizabeth Taylor & Montgomery Clift, romantic dream team of 'A Place in the Sun.'

Montgomery Clift, who had co-starred in several hit films with veteran stars, but 1951’s A Place in the Sun was the classic that Monty carried and cemented his stardom.

A Place in the Sun is based on Theodore Dreiser's 1925 tome, An American Tragedy, which was loosely taken from a real life drowning death earlier that century. Some have criticized Sun for being too lightweight in comparison to the novel. True, but Paramount failed once before, filming a gloomy ’31 version of this doomed romantic triangle of the ambitious young man romancing a poor girl, and a socialite. Director George Stevens wanted to make serious points about our society’s values. Yet, he was realistic enough to know that a young love triangle would draw audiences and make the drama as a whole more palatable. This was especially so, after he started working with stars Montgomery Clift and Elizabeth Taylor, and saw the sparks fly.

Montgomery Clift, the ambitious young man torn between Elizabeth Taylor & Shelley Winters.

Despite the romantic triangle vying for screen time with the damning message on wealth and social status, Sun is still a rather dark romantic picture. Clift as the conflicted protagonist spends most of his screen time leading a double life, covering up, and is at least partially responsible for the death of the young factory girl he has impregnated.

Montgomery Clift at age 29, during filming of 'A Place in the Sun.'

Clift is incredibly intense and vulnerable in this film. With each major scene as George Eastman, he becomes so stricken with tension and guilt, sweaty and hunched over, that he looks like he's in physical pain. At his best, Montgomery Clift is the greatest of "the big three" method acting gods, IMO. Imagine instead James Dean or Marlon Brando as George Eastman. Both could have been quite interesting, but Monty's far less mannered than James Dean, and far more open in his emotional torment than Brando. Marlon often backed his rawness with brute masculinity. Not that there's anything wrong with that! But it was almost a buffer for audiences, where Clift let his vulnerability show freely, with no apologies.

Monty as George Eastman, attempting to articulate his motives.

Did you know that Elizabeth Taylor was the only actress to appear as leading lady to all three of the '50's "method actor" greats—Clift, Dean, and Brando?

Monty wasn’t keen on Hollywood, but he still seemed drawn to movies, and only occasionally went back to the theater. Whatever his mindset, Monty’s situation mirrors his character’s, in that Clift desired, but was uncomfortable in a wealthy world that Elizabeth Taylor inhabited with ease.

Elizabeth Taylor as a wealthy girl who embodies poor, lonely boy Clift's dreams.

A Place in the Sun was actually filmed in the fall of '49 and wrapped up in early 1950. Several reasons have been given as to why the film wasn't released until nearly two years later, in the fall of '51. One factor for sure was George Stevens, always a methodical director, became even more so in his post-war work.

Montgomery Clift, at the peak of his powers and youth in 'A Place in the Sun.'

Montgomery Clift wasn’t the only person who influenced Elizabeth on the Sun set. George Stevens was another important person in Taylor’s life with his direction of her at the beginning and ending of her adult box office stardom.  A Place in the Sun was her first serious drama in ‘51. Giant turned Taylor into a super star in ‘56. And 1970's The Only Game in Town was Steven's final film and the last time Elizabeth Taylor received her million dollar salary.

Clift as George, the first time he lays eyes on Elizabeth Taylor, as Angela Vickers.

Someone astutely said that Elizabeth Taylor's look in A Place in the Sun set the standard for brunette beauty for a generation. Taylor also met another pro on this film who would become a lifetime associate and friend: Edith Head. Edie's violet-sprigged dress became THE prom gown for at least one movie season.

Sexy and seventeen! Elizabeth Taylor in her first iconic film look.

Elizabeth Taylor was just 17 when she filmed A Place in the Sun. Her co-stars, Montgomery Clift and Shelley Winters, were both a dozen years older than her. In the scene where Winters’ character, Alice Tripp, hems and haws for an abortion from a doctor, and he asks the pregnant girl her age. Tripp replies 22, while Winters was 29 in '49. The difference was Monty had significant stage experience and Shelley had come up the show biz ladder the hard way. Both had significantly more life experience than Elizabeth. Taylor started in movies at age 10 and was a star in National Velvet by 12. Extremely protected by both her parents and MGM, Elizabeth once aptly said that she "was a virgin both physically and mentally." Yet none of that shows on film, which is a testament to Taylor's innate screen ability.

Elizabeth's maternal quality was a Taylor character film constant, whether the recipient was a horse, dog, or leading man.

A trait that George Stevens focused on in Taylor was her maternal quality. Notice how many times Taylor cradles Clift in A Place in the Sun, as if she's mothering him. That she pulled this off and the "Tell Mama all" scene as a teen is most remarkable. A few have written that Stevens wisely avoided the movie clichés of great romance. In Sun, Angela's always on the periphery, and the first time George sees her, she doesn't even notice him. 

Shelley Winters is Alice Tripp, a factory girl who falls for Clift's restless George.

For Shelley Winters, who was playing sexy tarts with hearts, Sun was her big break as a serious actress. Like Cher later in Silkwood, a strong director required Winters to leave her glamour and ego at the door. Shelley wore little makeup, stopped bleaching her hair, and bought clothes off the rack, some even borrowed from her sister. While she knew the role was a winner, Winters’ ego as a woman was rightfully hurt, as Shelley was held up unflatteringly as a comparison to a gorgeous teenage Taylor. A wag once said, "George Stevens brought out something in Elizabeth Taylor that would make men kill for her, and something in Shelley Winters that made men want to kill HER."

Shelley Winters about to go into full whine mode in the row boat!

Director Stevens implies to great effect. How did that first night with George and factory girl Alice get by the censors?! Or when Alice goes to the doctor after she becomes pregnant? Even implied candor got censored back then. And yes, this was the first of many movies where water was not Shelley Winters' friend!

If looks could kill. George listens to Alice's oblivious plans for their married life.

It's been said that the wonderful Anne Revere, who plays Clift's pious parent (and also played Taylor's mother in National Velvet) was greatly edited out of her place in the sun because she was blacklisted. I question that, because I'm not sure how much more she would have fit in the over two hour film. You see her when George calls her after he’s connected with wealthy relatives and again when he's in trouble for murder. Since she lives afar, where else would she have fit in a scene? 

Anne Revere plays Clift's religious mother, who visits him on death row.
By the time 'A Place in the Sun' was released, Revere was blacklisted.

The only performance I found less than stellar was Raymond Burr as the district attorney. Glowering menacingly, he becomes more threatening to the point of his histrionic breaking of the oar in the boating accident reconstruction scene. Also, having watched a lot of Perry Mason in the last year, I was surprised how much heavier Burr was in his early years as the heavy.

Elizabeth Taylor & Montgomery Clift became best friends on this film.

Clift and Taylor became fast and famous friends, and often looked for vehicles to perform in. They reunited in the ill-fated 1957 epic Raintree County, where Monty endured his near-fatal car accident. They appeared two years later in Suddenly, Last Summer. This film was a triumph for Elizabeth and Katharine Hepburn, with Monty on the sidelines, who was hard to cast at this point.

Clift's George Eastman, whose dreams have ended on death row.

Taylor and Clift were to reunite for 1967’s Reflections in a Golden Eye. The role of the closeted army major seemed ideal for Clift, with Taylor reprising her bitchy southern belle persona. Clift was considered uninsurable at this point, and Taylor shut up the studio suits by offering her million dollar salary as insurance for Monty. Everyone was amazed, including Monty. Sadly, Clift died at 45, before filming started. Monty was replaced by Marlon Brando. And Taylor was obligated to make a movie that she had agreed to do, for Monty's sake. How fitting it was that Clift and Taylor first met at the beginning of his stardom, and that Elizabeth was one of the few who stood by him to the end. Monty only made a handful of films, with a few that are bonafide classics. For that, Montgomery Clift will always have his cinematic place in the sun.

Life and art often blurred for Elizabeth Taylor, but who was always there for her dear friend Montgomery Clift.

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  1. Good tribute to a great actor. He was always one of my favorites. A Place in the Sun was he best movie I think but I pretty much liked him in all his movies. He was such a great actor. As for his personal life he always seemed to me a tortured soul especially after his accident. 45 was way to soon for him to leave us but I don't think there was any stopping him on that path.
    As for the movie APS, it did have a really good moral. My husband would say look at Elizabeth Taylor who can blame him while I felt he got what he deserved. I don't think George Eastman was in love with Alice Tripp but you can't help think why did he have to do away with her? But I guess back in the day that's what a decent man would do, marry his pregnant girlfriend, and George after romancing Angela Vickers did not want to do right. Today that whole case would have been a slam dunk in 24 hours. George was so sloppy and obvious!
    Kudos for Shelley Winters sans the whole make-up/glamour going full bore on dowdy/dumpy - a true actress. Who cares if ET stole the show with her breathtaking beauty. Shelley stole the whole picture. She should have won the Oscar as well as Monty but then Vivien Leigh's Streetcar was hard to beat and going up against Bogie?..well?? I did love African Queen. Interesting to wonder how Brando and Dean would have portrayed George Eastman.
    Still to this day this is a good movie to watch. Moral of the movie? Make a deal with the devil and you'll get what you deserve!

    1. Hi Biz!
      There were several drowning deaths of women that Dreiser based his story on. George was a symbol of somebody disaffected by his overt religious upbringing and sought something the easy way he couldn't truly attain, was my take on the source story. And I've read that Clift regarded his character as an amateur player and played him that way. Shelley was one of the few actresses who truly went unglam when the role called for it, no cheating, as often the case. As for ET, what I find remarkable, aside from her classic beauty, was that she held her own with two actors a dozen years older than her. She was literally a kid living at home at 17, whereas Clift and Winters were almost 30 and far more worldly. Funny for her stardom, ET always fared well in ensemble pictures, like this, Giant, Cat, and Virginia Woolf.
      The moral of this movie still applies. How many times do we see stories of men and women offing their partners or children to pursue a secret life they've been living?
      Cheers, Rick

    2. I agree on all points. Shelley was a one hell of a tough actress winning two Oscars. I loved her in A Patch of Blue. Yes Liz did hold her own but then she grew up in the Hollywood system. She was at her peak here in this movie in both beauty and stardom. The 50's were her reigning era...the starring roles, her marriages, widow, and scandal up until Virginia Wolf. And beautiful Montgomery Clift...he struggled between doing right and wrong in this role. What a wonderful actor. Do we have any that can compare today? Still, this film remains ageless in it theme and morale.

  2. in shelley winters's autobiography, she wrote that stevens would not even let her test for the part, because she was known as a glamor girl. he could not find someone acceptable and he finally gave her an appointment. she showed up without makeup and dressed for the part. she just sat in the corner and he finally recognized her as shelley winters and gave her the part. but this article says george was 'partly responsible' for her drowning. in the story, he hit her in the head with a camera. probably a kodak, seeing as he was playing george eastman.

  3. I've read both of Shelley's memoirs, and while she liked to embellish her anecdotes, I can believe this one. Winters is totally unglamorized in "Place." I've never read the book, but in the film version, it seems ambiguous to me whether he actually played an active role in killing her or just let her die. Personally, I thought the latter.
    Cheers and thanks for writing,

  4. Thanks for the mention of Anne Revere as George's mother - she is like his conscience come to life, although he tries desperately to deny and avoid it. Earlier in the film, Angela's father insists he call her on the phone, and it is painful to watch him do it. Even when she comes to see him on death row, you don't sense any love or tenderness between them; she's a reminder of all the "bad" things George has done - sleeping with a factory girl, getting her pregnant, his murderous intentions - that he now has to pay for with his life. But while George accepts his fate, he really doesn't show much real remorse, because he still is fixated on dream girl Angela and his dreams of success, of his "place in the sun." Monty's acting choices are perfect here - tense, haunted and desperate all the way through.

    1. Exactly. Monty was quoted as saying George wasn't an especially sympathetic character. But we can empathize with him, as someone who is trapped by his social standing, and makes poor choices to escape...
      And Anne Revere was always good, wasn't she?
      Cheers, Rick