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Review | How George Stevens Jr. bridged two worlds: Hollywood and Washington


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By most lights, George Stevens Jr. should be a train wreck.

As the only son of legendary director George Stevens, having grown up in the Hollywood colony at its most rarefied, Stevens easily could have sledded through life on his father’s coattails, dining out on his family connections with the likes of Jean Renoir and Omar Sharif.

Okay, Stevens did literally dine out with Renoir and Sharif (and many, many others). But as he writes in “My Place in the Sun: Life in the Golden Age of Hollywood and Washington,” he also forged a wholly unexpected and enduringly fruitful path of his own. As the title of his memoir suggests, Stevens has assumed pride of place in two cities that have become metonyms for aspiration, idealism and their own unique manifestations of power. Over the past half-century, Stevens has become a key figure in navigating those hothouses, sometimes behind the scenes, but always with a shrewd eye and bracing lack of cynicism.

Stevens begins his account with an introduction to his ancestors, all of whom were show people in the gloriously raffish tradition. His paternal grandparents, Landers Stevens and Georgie Cooper, were both actors; his maternal grandmother, Alice Howell, was one of the most gifted comediennes of the 1920s.

Growing up in the comfortable Los Angeles neighborhood of Toluca Lake in the 1930s and 1940s, Stevens led a charmed existence, taking swimming lessons at a nearby club (he was once saved from drowning by Olympian Johnny Weissmuller) and eventually attending the tony Harvard School with such peers as Robert Wagner, H.R. Haldeman and Buck Henry (then Buck Zuckerman). Meanwhile, his father was embarking on what would become one of the most consistent and stellar directing careers of the era with a string of masterfully crafted early films: “Alice Adams,” “Swing Time,” “Penny Serenade” and the criminally underrecognized “The More the Merrier,” to name just a few.

George Stevens père also went to war, heading up the motion picture unit of the U.S. Army Signal Corps toward the end of World War II. In other words, he cast an almost impossibly imposing shadow: Stevens fils, by then entering his teens, might have been forgiven for throwing an epic Oedipal tantrum.

Instead, he began assisting his father on his productions, observing as his elder gave Elizabeth Taylor and Montgomery Clift discreet notes on their performances in “A Place in the Sun” or blocked a climactic shootout in “Shane.” “Dad never seemed to instruct me, or to offer bromides or paternal pearls of wisdom,” Stevens writes. “It was his example that formed me.”

Although he never says it explicitly, Stevens sought to bring his father’s principles — a rigorous work ethic, integrity and respect for the audience — to bear on his own career. His path took a hairpin turn in 1962 when, at an impromptu meeting at Sam Goldwyn’s house, Edward R. Murrow invited him to join the U.S. Information Agency. As the head of the agency’s Motion Picture Service, Stevens formed a murderers’ row of visionary filmmakers, including Charles Guggenheim, Terry Sanders, Haskell Wexler, William Greaves and Carroll Ballard. Stevens oversaw the production of groundbreaking documentaries, including Guggenheim’s Oscar-winning “Nine From Little Rock” (1964), about the desegregation of an all-White high school. He also became part of Washington’s liveliest social circles, developing close friendships with Kennedy administration insiders Arthur Schlesinger, Richard Goodwin, Averell and Marie Harriman, and Robert and Ethel Kennedy.

Stevens relates his journey with a relaxed, anecdotal tone. Any other writer casually mentioning yet another fun evening with Elizabeth Taylor, or recalling when he introduced Carl Sandburg to Marilyn Monroe (“You’re not the trouble with the world,” the poet purred to the starlet), or sharing affectionate notes from Jacqueline Kennedy, might seem insufferable. But this is the life of George Stevens Jr., who as his narrative unspools seems to have been born to bridge cultures that might be miles apart — literally and figuratively — but have held each other in mutual fascination for more than a century.

Of course, both Hollywood and Washington have long since left their respective Golden Ages behind. As Stevens recalls forming the American Film Institute, helping conceptualize the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, and later co-creating and producing the Kennedy Center Honors, it feels as if he’s conjuring a vanished age of collegiality and a certain kind of class in entertainment and politics. “Part of Washington’s charm in those days was that people weren’t preoccupied by money,” he writes of the early 1960s. “People were measured by their ideas, interests and accomplishments.”

“My Place in the Sun” is not a particularly tough or probing book: Stevens doesn’t settle scores, reward prurient curiosity or delve into any darker psychological dynamics that might have animated his relationship with his father, who died in 1975. But that might be altogether fitting for a filmmaker who knew that character is best revealed through action, not dialogue. Recalling when his father subtly gave his blessing for young George to leave L.A. for Washington, Stevens writes, “It didn’t occur to me at the time, but he was teaching me how to be a father.”

Ann Hornaday is The Washington Post’s chief film critic. She is the author of “Talking Pictures: How to Watch Movies.”

Life in the Golden Age of Hollywood and Washington

University Press of Kentucky. 518 pp. $34.95

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