George Stevens Jr. had a charming early life: As the son of director George Stevens, he attended the Oscars before he was a teenager, dined with Elizabeth Taylor before either of them turned 20, helped his father on the set of ” Shane”, driving with James Dean in his ill-fated Porsche Spyder, and even running second unit in Amsterdam for her father’s film “The Diary of Anne Frank”.
Not surprisingly, Stevens Jr.’s new memoir, “My Place in the Sun: Life in the Golden Age of Hollywood and Washington,” is filled with hugely entertaining anecdotes, featuring legends from Katherine Hepburn to Cecil B. DeMille. If it were all about celebrity encounters, though, the book would have felt like a sweet concoction of names.
Stevens Jr. not only uses his father’s story, which also includes “A Place in the Sun” and “Giant,” but also historical footage shot on D-Day, in Berlin, and at the liberation of Dachau, to illuminate where they are. their own values. He came from. He too lived a full and fascinating life of his own once he moved away from the considerable shadow of his father. (Stevens Jr. was never bitter, saying “the most satisfying job I’ve ever done was making the documentary ‘George Stevens: A Filmmakers Journey.'”)
Stevens Jr. began producing 300 documentary shorts for Edward R. Murrow at the Information Association of America during the Kennedy administration. The films included one about the March on Washington, the Oscar-nominated “The Five Cities of June,” which tackled everything from the struggle for integration to John Kennedy’s famous speech in Berlin, and the Oscar-winning “Nine from Little Rock”. ”
Determined that film be taken seriously as an art form, Stevens Jr. founded the American Film Institute, creating an institution that taught, celebrated, and preserved motion pictures. He also founded the Kennedy Center Honors and produced events like Barack Obama’s inauguration in 2008. Along the way, he became close friends with Bobby and Ethel Kennedy, winning Emmys for writing and producing “The Assassination of Mary Phagan” and for write and direct “Separate But Equal,” and wrote a play about Thurgood Marshall.
Stevens Jr. recently spoke via video from his front porch in the Georgetown area of the capital. Now 90 years old, he exuded an understated charm as he reminisced about his and his father’s accomplishments. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Q. Your book is full of fascinating stories. Were you aware of trying to make it more than just a series of funny anecdotes?
There was a lot of discovery in writing the book: there are certain moments in life that you remember but when you look back on them, they have a consequence that you didn’t understand.
I remember coming home from the Academy Awards with my dad after he won for “A Place in the Sun.” Oscar was in the seat between us and said, “We’ll have a better idea of what kind of movie this is in about 25 years.” He had a feeling that movies needed to stand the test of time. He didn’t realize that he was talking to the future founder of the American Film Institute, for whom the test of time, in terms of the Life Achievement Award and the preservation of classic films, became a defining trait. So looking back, there’s a meaning I didn’t attach to it when it happened.
Q. You worked for your father on movies like “Shane” and “Anne Frank” before leaving Hollywood for Washington. Were you worried about escaping that “son of George” label?
I wondered if I would be able to operate at his level or if I would dedicate my life to becoming the second best film director in my family. But he was so wonderful and he had such regard for his ability, his taste and his intuition, so he enjoyed what he was doing. He wouldn’t have traded that time for anything.
He wasn’t planning on going to work for John Kennedy and Ed Murrow. I turned Murrow down once. It was a roll of the dice. I went to see Murrow in Washington. He said that he really wanted my decision at the end of the day. I walked to the Lincoln Memorial where I would later film the March on Washington and produce the Millennium Show on New Year’s Eve 1999 and then the Obama Inaugural Gala in 2008. Then I went up to the Washington Monument. When I got to the top, I just said, “Okay, let’s go.” It was not calculated in any detail.
Q. You made some powerful movies for the USIA but ultimately they are all pro-American, whereas at the time the Kennedy administration, the FBI and the CIA were involved in some less than nice action at home and abroad. Were you worried about being part of a propaganda machine?
I was fueled by having Ed Murrow as my boss, seeing his ease of leadership, purpose and integrity. He embraced the word propaganda, which comes from the propagation of the faith, and said we would tell America’s story warts and all.
That made it very easy for me to accept that we were doing the right thing. I was working with him and had such faith in the Kennedy presidency. And I was young, I don’t think I had any skepticism. The first time I felt it was after Ed left and there was pressure to make a movie about Vietnam. He had believed in Kennedy’s strategy there. But there came a point during Lyndon Johnson’s presidency where we were asked to do this film and I wondered what was going on in Vietnam, so it was time to move on.
Q. How long did you feel it took until you achieved your goal of having cinema taken seriously as an art form?
When I got to Washington, the only directors people really knew about were Alfred Hitchcock and DeMille because they were in the public eye. When Congress introduced legislation to create the National Endowment for the Arts, it included painting, poetry, and literature, but not film, which is America’s indigenous art form. I called Senator Hubert Humphrey and said, “How can you not include a movie?” So he added it.
We started AFI in 1967 and I would say that around 1980 the climate had changed. It wasn’t just because of AFI, of course, but I think in those years the awareness and appreciation of cinema, and of the people who made movies, not just movie stars, quadrupled.
Q. You became close to Bobby Kennedy. Do you think his assassination is ultimately more detrimental than his brother’s or Martin Luther King’s to the future of America?
As hard as it is to imagine anything worse than those murders, I think Bobby’s death was a greater tragedy. Part of it is because he was the last of the three, so it felt like a point of no return. But it was also because he had the qualities that would have allowed him to unite the working class, the poor, the youth, to unite the whole country.