To be the child of a successful parent is a mixed blessing, and to pursue the same career and to possess the identical name with “Jr.” attached borders on a curse. Just look at Frank Sinatra Jr.
George Stevens Jr., now 90 years old, writes beautifully about his dad, the director George Stevens, in his memoir, an account he can bring vividly to life because as a young man he witnessed the making of such classics as A Place in the Sun, Shane, and Giant. Some outtakes from Red Dog, as his dad affectionately called his son due to the hair color of his youth:
A Place in the Sun, starring Elizabeth Taylor and Montgomery Clift, based on Theodore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy
For college student Stevens, the highlight was sharing hamburgers and milkshakes with Taylor, herself not yet 18, but for the reader, it was his description of how his father, in the midst of editing the film, battled Cecil B. DeMille on DeMille’s spearheading of the recall of Joseph Mankiewicz as president of the Screen Directors Guild. Though Mankiewicz himself had signed the loyalty oath swearing that he or she “was not now nor had ever been a member of the Communist Party,” he fought against making all members do the same.
So began the battle over “naming names” and blacklists that sundered Hollywood, pitting directors such as Stevens and John Huston against DeMille and Frank Capra. The author’s account of the guild’s meeting at the Beverly Hills Hotel on an October evening in 1952, which lasted past two A.M. and resulted in the resignation of the full board, has dialogue worthy of an Arthur Miller play. The controversy not only killed friendships and jobs, but left scars that took decades to heal.
Shane, starring Alan Ladd and Jean Arthur, Stevens’s most famous film
The son fished the book out of a slush pile of proposals, read it overnight, and sold his dad on the idea. That the film got made is a miracle: its two initial stars, Clift and then William Holden, dropped out, and the studio felt the era of movie Westerns was dead. Stevens persevered, but not before developing a stomach ulcer on location shooting in Jackson Hole, Wyoming.
There are wonderful reminders of how improvisational Stevens had to be. Insisting that the character played by Elisha Cook, Jr. be shot close-range and fall violently backward, the director hid a mattress in the dirt and had a harness tied to the actor and yanked hard by three wranglers. And how did Stevens pull off the famous funeral scene for Cook’s character, when his dog is whimpering graveside as the coffin is lowered? Even taping a steak to the coffin left the dog unmoved. Only when his trainer climbed into the grave, under the coffin and out of camera range, did the talent respond as scripted.
Giant, starring Taylor and newcomers James Dean and Rock Hudson, based on the Edna Ferber novel
Ferber demanded so much money that Stevens worked for nothing in exchange for part ownership of the film. The Texas town of Marfa is now famous as an arts center, but in the mid-1950s its most outstanding feature was the 60-foot prop Victorian ranch house shipped from Hollywood and sitting in a sea of beach grass.
Taylor was sick much of the time, Dean was often late, and during postproduction he died in a car crash. The movie was also three and a half hours long, which was about 90 minutes longer than the studio wanted. Stevens again persevered, won an Oscar for best director, and, unlike others, wisely did not sell his share of the hit film’s rights.
Red Dog made a couple of attempts to direct his father’s kind of movies, and thought he had a deal with David Selznick to do Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter until he learned that Selznick’s wife, Jennifer Jones, then 40, would be playing the young adulteress Hester Prynne. Not only was the movie-studio business changing, but Stevens himself was drawn into politics, working for Edward R. Murrow and the United States Information Agency during the Kennedy administration. He stayed in the Kennedy orbit long after J.F.K. died, including producing campaign films for Bobby Kennedy.
So it is perhaps appropriate that Stevens is best known for producing the Kennedy Center Honors, which grew out of a TV gala in 1977 celebrating the 10th anniversary of the American Film Institute (A.F.I.), which Stevens had founded. A.F.I. already had its own successful annual tribute show, and to watch some of these shows on YouTube today (the Jimmy Cagney, Fred Astaire, and Alfred Hitchcock dinners are especially good) is to watch a master class in pacing, casting, and taste.
The first Kennedy Center Honors took place in 1978, and its first five honorees established the something-for-everyone template: Marian Anderson, George Balanchine, Richard Rodgers, Arthur Rubinstein, and Astaire. I still prefer his A.F.I. tributes, partly because of their singular focus in honoring one person and partly because it is painful to watch politicians making believe they care as much about the career of Sir Georg Solti as they do about Johnny Carson’s (both 1993 honorees).
One might think that producing two terrific tribute shows for so many years (Stevens stepped down from the A.F.I. shows in 1998 and the Honors in 2014) would produce much gossip about egos and mishaps. It is a measure of why Stevens is such a trusted showman that the spiciest bit we get is that at the first A.F.I. awards show, in 1973, which honored John Ford, President Richard Nixon lavishly praised a mildy stunned Gregory Peck backstage for his performance as Jess Birdwell in Friendly Persuasion, the 1956 William Wyler film. “You were excellent in that,” said Nixon, who had seen it 20 times and declared it his favorite film.
What could Peck say except “Thank you, Mr. President,” wondering why after so many viewings he had not noticed Gary Cooper played the role.
Jim Kelly is the Books Editor for AIR MAIL