Tuesday, March 8, 2011

A Place in the Sun (1951)

George Stevens’ 1951 A Place in the Sun leaves me with mixed feelings, but then I always seem to have mixed feelings about his movies.

It was based on Theodore Dreiser's 1925 novel An American Tragedy. Thankfully the movie drops much of the social commentary and concentrates instead on a personal drama. If there’s one thing that invariably has me reaching for the eject button it’s Hollywood movies that attempt social or political commentary. Apart from the tedium they tend to date very badly.

Montgomery Clift plays George Eastman, the son of poor but honest Christian mission workers. They belong to the poor but noble and hardworking branch of the Eastman family. As distinct from the rich but wicked and frivolous branch of the family. After his father’s death young George sets off to make his fortune. He pays a call on his wealthy uncle who controls the Eastman business empire. The uncle offers him a job at the mill, starting at the bottom but with at least a hint that if he does well he might well soon start progressing up the corporate ladder.

He befriends the plain but good-hearted Alice (Shelley Winters), starts an affair with her and gets her pregnant. By this time though the doors have started to open for him, even if at this stage they’re only open a crack. A promotion is soon in the offing and he is invited to socialise with the rich Eastmans and their friends. And he meets Angela Vickers (Elizabeth Taylor). It’s love at first sight for both of them. The rich folk are still suspicious of the uneducated and awkward poor relation but George is ambitious and is confident those doors will soon open wide. But what to do about his now unwanted working-class girlfriend?

Being a George Stevens movie the pacing can most charitably be described as leisurely. It could be described uncharitably as glacial. It looks wonderful though. Stevens was a meticulous and painstaking director and visually this methodology pays off. The movie has a feeling of rather stately grandeur to it. Stevens makes effective use of what was at the time an innovative approach to close-ups, especially in the love scenes between Taylor and Clift.

Stevens made two very bold casting choices. The first was Shelley Winters in the role of Alice. Winters at this time was still cultivating a glamour girl blonde-bombshell image but she was starting to hunger for meaty roles and she was prepared to shed the glamour to get them. And she wanted this particular role very badly. She does a splendid job.

The second bold piece was casting was picking Elizabeth Taylor as the female lead. Taylor was just 17 and this was her first really serious acting role and her first real adult role. As she herself says in the accompanying documentary, up to this time her leading men had been dogs and horses. It was a spectacularly successful piece of casting. Taylor’s mastery of her craft even at this tender age is awe-inspiring. She had the advantage of having never had an acting lesson in her life. She learnt by doing, and she learnt very fast indeed. She is by far the best thing about this movie.

Now we come to the movie’s biggest problem - Montgomery Clift as George Eastman. It was a highly influential performance, in fact one of the performances that really put Method Acting on the map. It’s a performance that has been praised to the skies. But it doesn’t work. Clift is much too distant. OK, he’s an alienated outsider, I get that, but he’s a dull and uninteresting alienated outsider. His tragedy fails to be compelling because the character is too blank, too stupid and too vicious. I couldn’t have cared less what happened to George Eastman. And one is never quite sure whether Clift is trying to emote or is simply suffering from indigestion.

Of course alienated outsiders were incredibly fashionable in the 50s (even more fashionable if they were inarticulate alienated outsiders) so the movie was adored by the critics.

So we have a movie that is mostly worth seeing because this is where the Elizabeth Taylor legend starts. Other than that it’s a bit of a hard slog.

The Region 4 DVD is packed with extras, the highlight undoubtedly being Taylor’s personal reminiscences about the making of the film.

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