A Place in the Sun: The Perfect KissOctober 7, 2021 By Go Back
“In the love scene between Taylor and Clift, physical desire seems palpable.”
Ravishing might be the only way to describe it, and many believe it may be the greatest use of a close-up in film history. Certainly, it has made a lasting impression. Actor Richard Gere, when asked what his favourite love scene was, instantly named A Place in the Sun. In particular, he singled out the scene where Montgomery Clift and Elizabeth Taylor meet for the first time at a party held at her father’s mansion. Their chemistry and attraction is, as Kael accurately wrote, ‘palpable’ and nowhere is this more amazingly conveyed when the two dance in a closeup so tight only their faces – but what faces – are seen.
Said Gere: “The first one that comes to me is A Place in the Sun, the dancing kiss. It’s not a love-making scene but it’s just the most unbelievably beautiful, committed moment of a man and a woman connecting – Montgomery Clift and Elizabeth Taylor. Wow.”
Based on the sprawling ‘realist’ novel An American Tragedy Theodore Dreiser, Sun tells the story of the love that erupts between Clift’s George Eastman and Taylor’s Angela, a love that will ultimately spell doom for George and the heartache of a lifetime for Angela.
Pared down considerably from Dreiser’s tome, A Place in the Sun was a project producer-director George Stevens (Shane, Giant) nurtured for two years before going before camera. In the act of distilling the novel, Stevens focused on the story of George, a labourer in Angela’s father’s shirt factory. Trapped in an unhappy marriage (to Shelley Winters) and smitten first by Angela’s family fortune and then, fatefully, gobsmacked by her, George embarks on a journey that will ultimately lead to murder. (It was based on a rather sensational actual case which took place in 1906, in which a young man named Chester Gillette drowned his pregnant wife. For Dreiser, the case represented much that was wrong in America, especially the lust for status and wealth. What Stevens did was to reduce the story to its romantic (and tragic) essence.
Something of a perfectionist, Stevens had been in the business since the silent era. Intolerant of any distractions while shooting, his sets were typically so quiet you could hear a pin drop. And he would take a full year to edit the movie.
For the dance sequence, Stevens had the camera hold as tight to his stars’ remarkable faces as possible. (Taylor was only seventeen when she made the movie and Clift was 28.) When viewing rushes from the scene, Stevens had two projectors running simultaneously, one screening Clift’s side of the conversation, the other Taylor’s.
According to author Charles Casillo, whose book Elizabeth and Monty chronicles the lifelong bond formed first while making A Place in the Sun, “Now was Stevens’ chance to try to catch on film the sensual glow generated by the connection between Monty and Elizabeth. For much of this encounter, Stevens decided to fill the entire screen with their faces. Stevens edited the film so that as they slow dance, one ravishing close-up dissolves into the other.”
It didn’t hurt that Stevens cast two of Hollywood’s most beautiful stars for the movie, nor did it hurt that the connection between these two seemed absolutely genuine. And they were an unlikely pair: Taylor had been in movies since she was a child, but A Place in the Sun represented her first opportunity to really act. Her partner, the self-destructive but intensely gifted Clift was the consummate actor’s actor. He was as perfectionistic in his way as Stevens was in his, and it came as no surprise that Clift and his director were often a loggerheads.
Not so with Taylor and Clift, who connected while making the film and remained close until Clift’s premature death in 1966. Indeed, it was while driving away from a dinner party at Taylor’s a few years later that Clift lost control of the car and hit a tree. His face would never look the same again. Taylor even crawled inside the wreck to hold Monty until a doctor arrived.
They made two more movies together (Raintree County and Suddenly Last Summer, but neither managed to capture the lightning that between the two that was so strikingly evident during the dance sequence in A Place in the Sun. Partly this is due to Stevens’ brilliant direction of the sequence, and partly it’s due to the chemistry of the two leads. This, more than anything, is what lent the dance sequences its almost unbearable intimacy: there was something between the two that simply couldn’t be faked. It seemed to be as real as a scene from a movie could possibly be.