Author’s First Note: I’ve added a tab to the top of the site called “Golden Age of Hollywood” Here you can find the full list of past posts, listed by category and alphabetical order. You can also find suggested reading and source material if you want to learn more.
Author’s Second Note: The plot of A Place in the Sun takes a surprising turn about halfway through the film. Spoilers abound in today’s discussion. I highly recommend watching it before reading today’s blog.
By the dawn of the nineteen-fifties, Hollywood had twenty years of talkies under its belt. The studio system of the previous two decades had produced many of our most beloved American films.
But things were changing—the advent of television and the post World War II retreat to the suburbs bumped the role of the movie theater from the center of American entertainment. Actors, directors, and writers had broken free of the restrictive studio system and had ever increasing freedom in the films they participated in. Hollywood films were becoming less assembly line products of the main studios and more individual collaborative projects.
And while all those stars who had built Hollywood—Garbo, Bogart, Gable, Crawford, and Davis—still managed to make some good films, there was no denying they were on the other side of the mountain of their careers.
It never stops surprising us that even stars can’t escape time.
Audiences wanted something new, and the fifties gave way to a new crop of fresh faces and a more realistic, less glamourous acting style that was brought to popularity in 1951 with Marlon Brando in A Streetcar Named Desire and Montgomery Clift in A Place in the Sun. Called method acting, it was developed by Lee Strasberg at his Actor’s Studio in New York City, and was eventually practiced by Marilyn Monroe, Dustin Hoffman, and Robert DeNiro.
In A Place in the Sun, Clift plays George Eastman, a poor relation who gets a low-level job in his distant uncle’s factory. He works hard and begins dating Alice Tripp (Shelley Winters), a salt-of-the-earth fellow factory worker.
Soon Alice is in love with George and dreaming of a future. George, however, is slowing moving up in the Eastman company and social circles. He catches the eye of socialite Angela Vickers, played by nineteen-year-old Elizabeth Taylor who looks and sounds so young you’ll hardly recognize her. George and Angela fall hopelessly and foolishly in love, as reckless as Romeo and Juliet.
George begins to see a glittering future before him—marriage to Angela, social acceptance, and wealth.
But there’s a massive fly in his ointment—Alice is pregnant and wants to marry. Shelley Winters received a well-earned Academy Award nomination for Best Actress (and might have won but for running into the buzzsaw that was Vivien Leigh in A Streetcar Named Desire.) Alice is clearly worth more than the whole lot of the Eastmans—she’s poor but would be the kind of wife that would stand by George through thick and thin.
If George refuses to marry—and she can sense his wavering—she’ll lose her job and her little apartment. A visit to a doctor who humiliates her (while George hides in the car) and refuses to give her an abortion gives her a glimpse into her future as a unmarried, penniless outcast.
Perhaps counter to the filmmaker’s intentions, Alice’s desperation to marry touched me deeper than any other emotion in the film.
With the promise of marriage, George takes Alice on a pre-honeymoon of sorts and rows her out onto an isolated lake with the intention of drowning her. When the time comes, he is horrified by the reality of murder and abandons his plan. But Alice falls accidentally into the water and ends up drowning after all.
We don’t see onscreen how hard George tries to save her, but we don’t doubt for a second he would’ve tried harder if it had been Angela going under.
Figuring he ought not let Alice’s death spoil his plans to wed Angela, George follows through with his original cover up plan.
The last third of the film depicts his murder trial, in which the defense admits he planned to murder Alice, but that the ultimate drowning was an accident.
The jury—and George himself—must deliberate on whether or not he tried hard enough to save Alice, or if he “committed murder in his heart.”
Rarely have I loathed a character as much as I did George Eastman. He is moody and overly sensitive, full of long silences and self-pity. He doesn’t have the guts to be a full out cad or villain—he wants what he wants without having to pay the price for it.
He threw away a good woman like Alice for beauty and riches that would fade with time.
But don’t mistake loathing for Eastman for loathing of the film. It’s compelling and the question of his guilt or innocence is visceral rather than logical.
Montgomery Clift garnered his second of three Best Actor Academy Award nominations (running into his own buzzsaw in the form of Humphrey Bogart in The African Queen.)
I couldn’t help but be reminded of Gene Tierney’s Ellen in Leave Her to Heaven, gleefully watching her disabled brother-in-law drown as she rowed a boat wearing sunglasses, a white coat, and gorgeous red lipstick.
There was a villain you could love.
The contrast between her and George Eastman’s frantic aborting of his own plan is a perfect showcase of the transition from the stylized, glamorous Hollywood of yore to the realism prized by the method actors.
My takeaway? I’m not getting in a rowboat with either one of them.
- Schatz, Thomas. The Genius of the System: Hollywood Filmmaking in the Studio Era.
Want more? Click here for an index of all posts in the series, as well as source notes and suggested readings.