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Director took the test of time, and passed

A retrospective honors George Stevens, a master of many genres and creator of classics that still ring true.

September 26, 2004|Susan King | Times Staff Writer

George Stevens Jr. vividly remembers driving home with his father from the 1952 Academy Awards ceremony. Resting in between them on the front seat was his father's best director Oscar for his seminal drama "A Place in the Sun," which starred Montgomery Clift, Elizabeth Taylor and Shelley Winters.

"He smiled and said, 'We'll have a better idea what kind of picture this is in about 25 years," says Stevens, founder of the American Film Institute and the Kennedy Center Honors and an award-winning writer, producer and director in his own right.

"Gosh, now it's 50 years," he says. "It's from him that I absorbed the idea of the test of time."

"A Place in the Sun," based on Theodore Dreiser's novel "An American Tragedy," has influenced numerous filmmakers over the decades. "I have read over the years that James Foley says that 'A Place in the Sun' influenced him more than any other film," Stevens says. "Mike Nichols has always said that it was 'A Place in the Sun' that was his seminal influence. It's nice. What it really comes down to is how the films wear with audiences over time." His father, Stevens says, "was very conscious about that."

On Friday, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is kicking off a centenary tribute to the elder Stevens, who died in 1975 at age 70. Warren Beatty, who appeared in Stevens' last film, 1970's "The Only Game in Town," hosts the evening -- which will feature clips from Stevens' films and reminiscences from his son -- along with Sidney Poitier, David Mamet and Foley. Starting Oct. 4, the academy will screen Stevens' films every Monday through November.

Not only did Stevens win two best director Oscars (he also won for 1956's "Giant"), he helmed such classics as "Alice Adams," "Swing Time," "Gunga Din," "Penny Serenade," "The More the Merrier," "The Talk of the Town," "Woman of the Year," "Shane" and "The Diary of Anne Frank." He was president of the Screen Directors Guild from 1941 to 1943 and 1946 to 1948 and was well respected within the Hollywood community.

But his last films, "The Greatest Story Ever Told" from 1965 and "The Only Game in Town," were critical and commercial failures. And he was pooh-poohed by the French New Wave, which promoted the auteurist theory of filmmaking in which a director's personal stamp was visible in each film. Craftsmen such as Stevens and William Wyler were suddenly considered old-fashioned and took a back seat to the likes of Nicholas Ray, Sam Fuller and Anthony Mann.

"That's part of the reason we are doing this series," says academy curator Randy Haberkamp. "This is a director who, despite having seven films nominated for best picture and winning best director twice -- this is a guy who only now is getting a biography about him. How many directors may have more than one classic, let alone four or five and in many different genres and well crafted to their genre? Woody Allen quotes 'Shane' as one of his favorite movies, if not his favorite."

Stevens, who came from an acting family, began his career as a cameraman on Laurel and Hardy silent comedies of the late 1920s. "There aren't that many cinematographers who have been successful being directors," says Haberkamp. "When you look at the work of John Ford, William Wyler, Alfred Hitchcock or George Stevens, all of these guys started in their 20s or younger in the silent era, where it was all about telling their stories visually. That's why I think their films are so much stronger. People who have come along and invigorated film, like Coppola or Scorsese or Spielberg, study these films, and they all approach films visually."

Haberkamp believes the majority of Stevens' films are timeless. "You have 'A Place in the Sun,' where Shelley Winters is trying to talk a doctor into an abortion. And in 'Giant,' Mexicans are getting thrown out of a diner. Just the idea of those movies being done in the 1950s, my God, that was bold."

Stevens' career has two distinct parts: Before World War II he directed dramas, but he was primarily known for his comedies. After he served in World War II -- where he photographed the liberation of the Dachau concentration camp -- his films became weightier.

"I think the war gave so many of those directors a second act," says Stevens Jr. "It's hard to contemplate what George Stevens, Willie Wyler, John Huston or John Ford would have been [as directors] if they hadn't had those experiences in the Pacific and in Europe during the war."

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