George Stevens Jr. Looks Back on His Famous Director Dad – and His Own Work in Film (Guest Blog)

“To see John F. Kennedy, in color, walk into a room, was much more memorable than meeting any Hollywood star,” Stevens says

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His goal was to become the second-best filmmaker in his house. Well, George Stevens. Jr. accomplished that and much more.

When he was celebrated last week in Washington, D.C. — where Stevens has lived for many years — the joke became: Is there anyone who hasn’t met this man, now 90 and the author of a new autobiography? “I want to be George when I grow up,” three-time Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Tom Friedman said.  

Tom Brokaw, another longtime friend who will interview Stevens at New York City’s 92nd Street Y on Sunday, added, “George has written a wonderful book about his showbiz parents, especially his dad, who was a top-tier director in the ’30s and then took his skills to World War II.”

The elder Stevens enlisted and spent three years away from his wife and son, filming virtually every key event in that war. These included storming the beaches of Normandy, France, on D-Day and being among the first to witness the Nazi concentration camps. When he came home, returning to Hollywood romantic comedies did not feel right. He asked his son to work with him on one of his post-war projects. Stevens Jr. recalls visiting Otto Frank in Amsterdam, who told them that everything he owned that might be considered valuable had been confiscated during the war. Except for one seemingly unimportant, rather messy notebook that the two Stevenses held in their hands. Yes, that diary.

As he reveals in this powerful and plentiful book, “My Place in the Sun: Life in the Golden Age of Hollywood and Washington,” Stevens Jr. experienced other pivotal moments supporting his famous father on films. He found a script called “Shane,” and recalls how his father recast the 1953 tearjerking Western in 10 minutes to win over a reluctant studio executive.

Stevens Jr. had a spectacular career of his own, working with journalist Edward R. Murrow in Washington, co-creating the annual Kennedy Center Honors and perhaps most importantly, serving as the founding director of the American Film Institute. (His stories about dealing with AFI Lifetime Achievement honoree Orson Welles back in 1975 are classic.)

His is a bicoastal story that encompasses relationships with everyone from Elizabeth Taylor to Cary Grant to Katharine Hepburn. He had met virtually every notable by the time he moved to the nation’s capital. But none had the charisma of the president he soon befriended. “To see John F. Kennedy, in color, walk into a room, was much more memorable than meeting any Hollywood star,” he says.

The book helps us remember those who left their private lives to serve their country. It also captures how we are emotionally dealing with the tragedy of gun violence in places like Uvalde, Texas. “In ‘Shane,’ my father wanted to undermine the glamor of gunplay,” Stevens writes. “‘A gunshot, for our purposes,’ he said, ‘is a holocaust.’”  

Stevens long lived in the shadow of his father, who earned two Oscars for Best Director (for “A Place in the Sun” and “Giant”) in a storied Hollywood career. “Though he always said, ‘We’ll see how the movies hold up in 25 years,” his son says. But while Stevens Jr. has written a beautiful tribute to his dad, as well as to the art of filmmaking, he deserves some recognition of his own. No one has done more to ensure that classic movies are admired, endowed and preserved.