SOMETHING TO LIVE FOR (George Stevens, 1952)

In between the romantic swank of A Place in the Sun (1951), its moodiness attuned to signature dissolves and the forlorn cry of a loon, and the schematic Western Shane (1953), two of his worst, most superficial films, and with the crass, ugly Giant (1956) up ahead, George Stevens made one of his best films: Something to Live For. It reunited him with Joan Fontaine, with whom he had already made three films, including the disastrous musical A Damsel in Distress (1937), which taxed her childhood ballet lessons to a ridiculous breaking point. Fifteen years later, however, Fontaine and Stevens found themselves agreeably immersed in a delicate, melancholy drama about an unhappy woman—a more complicated version of the character that Susan Hayward had vividly played in Stuart Heisler’s Smash-Up: the Story of a Woman (1947). Jenny Carey, a stage actress struggling to make her mark in New York, is beset with personal and professional anxieties and insecurities; she is highly dependent on one man in particular, the famous stage director who once romanced her and now sadistically shadows and bullies her, and she is unsure of herself in the extreme, so much so that she has about her the air of someone who has unsteadily withdrawn into herself. Like Hayward’s Angie, she is an alcoholic; like Angie, she needs something to live for.
     This comes to Jenny, in this very quiet, poignant film, in the form of a recovering alcoholic whom Alcoholics Anonymous, by providential error, sends to support her, a woman, one exceptionally fragile, risky night. Allan Miller, whose imagination in advertising has dried up, ministers to Jenny and falls in love with her. At home, his wife and children wait; with every clumsy step of his, stay-at-home Edna worries that her spouse has started drinking again.
     I know, I know: Stevens targets the sidelining of American women during the repressive fifties; but Fontaine’s beautiful, profound acting captivates with a highly specific and real character. Moreover, Ray Milland, much more believable than in The Lost Weekend (Billy Wilder, 1945), gives here the performance of a lifetime, one without his trademark smirk. Both their characters are sympathetic. Too bad that Dwight Taylor’s script must have its hand forced by the reactionary moralism of the time, depriving the marital outcome of all suspense. By way of compensation, though, Teresa Wright completes the trio of superlative performances. Her Edna may be lying when she tells Allan that she also once wanted to be an actress—which comes as a complete surprise to him—but she chose marriage and family over this early ambition: “You can’t have everything, you know.” I have seen this film at least half a dozen times, but only upon my most recent revisit did I realize Edna may be lying. She knows she is fighting for her marriage; she knows she is fighting for her life.
     Victor Young’s music grazes the heart.

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