In the early years of the 1950’s, there were three performances that changed film acting forever. They were Marlon Brando in A Streetcar Named Desire (1951), James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause (1955), and Montgomery Clift in A Place in the Sun (also 1951). Brando and Dean are always mentioned in the pantheon of legendary performances, but Clift is forgotten. Why is that? We all know that Brando continued to do great work, On the Waterfront (1955), The Godfather (1972), Last Tango in Paris (1973), Apocalypse Now (1979), he even directed One Eyed Jacks (1961), and we know that Dean had only two other major roles on his resume besides Rebel (East of Eden, Giant) when his life was tragically cut short, but why do we always forget about Clift? He starred in Red River with John Wayne, and From Here to Eternitywith Burt Lancaster and Frank Sinatra. Out of the only seventeen movies that he appeared in before his tragic death in 1966 at the age of 45, Clift was nominated by the Academy Awards four times, and is only one of a handful of actors to receive a nomination for their debut performance (Red River). He was considered the only actor who was equal to Brando, and he was notorious for the lead roles that he turned down (Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard, Elia Kazan’s East of Eden) that gave actors like William Holden and James Dean their big breaks. What people do tend to remember about Clift are the problems he had. His shame of his bi-sexuality led him to be very depressed, fueling his alcohol and drug usage. A near fatal car accident in 1956(Elizabeth Taylor saved his life by pulling two of his teeth out of his throat) nearly destroyed his face, which had to be completely reconstructed by surgeons. The last nine years of his life were a downward spiral that resulted in his death. Marilyn Monroe was quoted as saying that Clift was “The only person I know who is in worse shape than I am.” Yet he leaves behind a small body of work that is virtually unequaled by any American actor.
The common bond between Brando, Dean, and Clift was that they were all Method actors. Brando’s performances were rooted in intensity (“Stella!!), and Dean could tend to over do it (“You’re tearing me apart!!!), but Clift’s performances were internal. A Place in the Sun is his best performance, and it’s the only performance that I’ve ever seen in which I could say that I could literally see the character thinking. Clift acts with his eyes, with subtle gestures that let you know the wheels are turning. There are only one or two instances that Clift lets the intensity boil over onto the surface, and the rest is all there bottled up. Younger movie-goers may not recognize the performance’s brilliance, but anyone with any interest in acting needs to see this film.
Enough about Clift for a moment. The movie is about a man named George Eastman (Clift). Eastman comes from a poor family, and takes any job possible to support himself. He gets an invitation to come and work at his uncle’s factory. Eastman’s parents are mission worker’s, but his uncle is a wealthy upper class socialite. While working at the factory, Eastman meets a girl named Alice, played by Shelley Winter’s, who he immediately becomes involved with. In a short amount of time, Eastman begins to move up the ladder at work, and he’s invited to his uncle’s house for a party. While there he meets Angela Vickers (a young and beautiful Elizabeth Taylor). Of course, Angela is the kind of girl that Eastman could see himself spending his days with, she’s wealthy and connected, where Alice is poor and struggling to make ends meet. Just when Eastman is getting in good with Angela and her family, Alice let’s him know that she is pregnant and if he doesn’t marry her she will be sure to spread the news to Angela and all her wealthy cohorts. Eastman is suddenly faced with a crisis, and must find a solution.
Director George Stevens’ use of close ups, and dissolves were quite revolutionary in 1951, but it’s the performances that keep this film together. Winter’s plays her role with the right mix of down home kindness and uncontrollable nagging. Taylor is a knockout as Angela. It was her first grown up role, and her talent on display here proved that she was a contender. In the end, though, it’s Clift who pulls you in. His character is quiet, shy, backwards, and ultimately pathetic, but you sympathize with him. He makes the character more of a victim than he really should be, and we feel bad that he makes the wrong decisions. The film threatens to go off the tracks with Raymond Burr’s tendency to ham it up as the persistent District Attorney, but Clift brings it back home.
The impact of this film is still being felt today with Woody Allen’s more serious work (Crimes and Misdemeanors, Match Point). Clift’s performance is still influencing actor’s today, just check out Benicio Del Toro in Traffic or Heath Ledger in Brokeback Mountain. This is a legendary performance by one of the greatest of all American actors, and this DVD is the perfect place to play catch up. The DVD has good picture and sound, and a couple interesting featurettes on director George Stevens with people such as Warren Beatty, Elizabeth Taylor, Frank Capra, and Joseph Mankiewicz. It also includes a commentary with Stevens’ son and Stevens’ associate producer Ivan Moffat. For those interested in great acting or just a great movie, I highly recommend A Place in the Sun.