Winter 2016

Stevens Family: The Family Business

The story of the Stevens clan—from George to George Jr. to Michael—spans the 80-year history of the Directors Guild. It is not only a legacy of indelible films, but one of respect for service and responsibility.


LIKE FATHER, LIKE SON: George Jr. with his dad. (Photo: Photofest)

Meetings would go on, and finally George Stevens would speak." This is what George Stevens Jr. remembers hearing about his father during his two terms as president of the Directors Guild. He chuckles now to think of it. It was a view so widely held, he recalls, that it was often repeated as folk wisdom among fellow directors. "Dad would wait. He was thoughtful and smart. He had a strategic way of thinking, and above all he had timing."

As founding director of the American Film Institute, George Jr. (DGA member since 1951) has wielded a less publicized yet profound long-term influence on how movies are made. His son Michael Stevens (DGA member since 2005) in turn led the Kennedy Center Honors to their present apex of showmanship and ratings popularity and was emerging as a gifted filmmaker in his own right until his death in October 2015 of cancer at age 48. The achievements of the Stevens family thrive in tandem with the DGA across generations.

The life and legacy of George Stevens are essential, not just in his role as a visionary filmmaker (A Place in the Sun, Shane, Giant), a winner of two DGA Awards and a Lifetime Achievement Award, but as a Guild hero to be cherished as the DGA celebrates its 80th anniversary. "He wasn’t at the first meeting," says his son, referring to the fabled gathering of a dozen or so directors at King Vidor’s house on Dec. 23, 1935, "but he joined immediately thereafter, served two terms as president, remained on the board and was active and interested in the Guild throughout his life." His contribution to this organization remains primary and enormous, particularly as he became its moral leader at a showdown in 1950, the low point of the blacklist era.

Conservative in his sense of duty to others—having dropped out of high school to support his parents, professional stage actors who moved from the Bay Area to Hollywood in the 1920s—Stevens was an ardent, lifelong liberal in terms of racial and gender equality. Strong, independent-minded women are represented in many of his films, starting with Alice Adams (1935). Nonwhite characters are treated without condescension or stereotyping.

Matters of prejudice—racial or political—always troubled Stevens. As a teenager working for Thomas Ince, he was appalled to discover that "most of the guys I knew were members of the Ku Klux Klan." The heroic portrait of that organization in D.W. Griffith’s 1915 The Birth of a Nation made it freshly, even wildly popular for a time. One night, climbing the hills above his family’s home in Glendale, California, Stevens gazed down on a sight he never forgot: "A tremendous parade of guys in white sheets, with a man on horseback in the foreground. They were burning fires and there must have been a thousand men." Later the dangerous artistry of Leni Riefenstahl’s 1935 valentine to Adolf Hitler, Triumph of the Will, moved Stevens to volunteer for frontline service in World War II despite his being old enough to dodge uniform and sit things out.

THREE GENERATIONS: (top) George Stevens Jr., Guild President Taylor Hackford, and DGA Awards Chair Michael Stevens at the 65th DGA Awards in 2013; (bottom) A family album snapshot of George Stevens Sr. with grandsons Michael and David. (Photos: (top) Byron Gamarro; (bottom) Courtesy Stevens Family)

Stevens served as DGA president just before entering the war, from 1941 to 1943, and again upon his return in 1946. Cecil B. DeMille—an ardent anti-Communist who identified unions with hammers and sickles—had been slow to join the DGA, but once Vidor wooed him into the fold, he set about stocking the board with like-minded cronies. This was a sleepy state of affairs until, at a carefully chosen moment when Guild President Joseph L. Mankiewicz was out of the country, DeMille forced a vote that would dictate that every DGA member sign an anti-Communist loyalty oath. The instant Mankiewicz discovered what had been done, he publicly opposed it, facing not only impeachment by the Guild but personal ruin.

John Huston, William Wyler, and John Ford rallied behind Stevens in coming to Mankiewicz’s aid. Each was a World War II veteran disgusted by what he saw as DeMille’s coup d’état, outraged that Americans should politically persecute other Americans after so many lives had been sacrificed ridding the world of Nazis and Fascists. The division in the Guild came to a head in a seven-hour meeting on Oct. 22, 1950.

Two documentaries, George Stevens: A Filmmaker’s Journey (1984) and DGA Moments in Time (2011), offer suspenseful accounts of that night. The former was directed by George Jr. and the latter by Michael for the DGA’s 75th anniversary. Although both films understandably express family pride, every witness interviewed—Mankiewicz, Huston, Fred Zinnemann, and many more—vehemently testifies that Stevens saved the night, and with it the Guild. In the weeks leading up to the meeting, he’d done patient detective work—revealing step by step how DeMille was subverting the Guild and the conspiracy against Mankiewicz. As Mankiewicz would later say, "George waited until the exact perfect moment" to spring his findings. His evidence was so damning that DeMille retreated to the back of the room while John Ford, who’d been silent to this point, proclaimed his support for Mankiewicz and tipped the scales, as Stevens hoped he would. "George brought all the influence to bear that he possibly could to … in fact, defend the Constitution of the United States," said Huston.

Stevens’ triumph didn’t end the blacklist, or loyalty oaths, but it reinvigorated the Guild so that power was in the hands of its membership, and it assured that the political agendas of individual members would no longer guide its actions. The focus returned to protecting directors’ creative and economic freedom.

"I drove 50 miles up the coast to Ventura and back that night, I was so exhilarated by our victory," Stevens would later say.

GUILD BUSINESS: President George Stevens at his desk for a board meeting in 1949, with many of the players who would figure in the blacklist meeting the following year. (Photo: DGA Archives)

George Jr., who was 18 at the time of the meeting, uses this moment in Guild history to make a witty pivot in A Filmmaker’s Journey. The film cuts straight from the showdown at the Guild to the climactic gun battle in Stevens’ next film, Shane (1953). This realistic yet mythic Western—its jarring pistol shots mixed for maximum volume—affirmed American heroism as it called into question our too-comfortable attitudes toward violence.

What his father saw during the war marked him forever, George Jr. said. "You take a sensitive man who thinks about life, like my father, and naturally he would come away deeply affected." Clips from the reels of wartime color footage that Stevens shot form the most startling and unforgettable sequence in A Filmmaker’s Journey, featuring the D-Day landings, where he was one of the first ashore; the liberation of Paris; the snowy ruins of bombed-out villages en route to the Battle of the Bulge; and, most unforgettably, the liberation of the death camp at Dachau. And yet, "We have to be careful not to oversimplify," stressed George Jr. "Dad came back from the war with his sense of humor very much intact. He was by no means gloomy—but had a different sense of his responsibilities."

Stevens worked hard to instill these values in his son, bringing him aboard his postwar projects. Although Paramount owned Jack Schaefer’s 1949 novel Shane and offered it to Stevens to direct, it was George Jr. who talked him into accepting the assignment. Fresh out of high school, he’d been helping his dad prep A Place in the Sun (1951), "breaking down Theodore Dreiser’s novel An American Tragedy," when he devoured Shane in an afternoon and urged his father to read it. "Why don’t you tell me the story," Stevens replied.

George Jr. joined the Guild as an assistant director not long thereafter. He worked closely with his father not only on A Place in the Sun and Shane, but also on Giant (1956). After two years in the Air Force making training films, he directed episodic television (Peter Gunn, Alfred Hitchcock Presents) until newsman Edward R. Murrow invited him to Washington as part of the Kennedy administration to take a leading role at the U.S. Information Agency.

"The family joke," Michael Stevens said in a 2013 interview, "is that my father moved to Washington in 1961 to get away from Hollywood."

George Jr. resists this characterization: "I never left the movies." At the USIA, "We made 300 documentaries a year." Foremost among these was John F. Kennedy: Years of Lightning, Day of Drums (1965), recently restored and still watched half a century later. "The American Film Institute came along after that. I thought it would need three years, and it took 12—but the creative life was always going to be my life." In addition to founding AFI and launching the Kennedy Center Honors, George Jr. distinguished himself as a director with A Filmmaker’s Journey; George Stevens: From D-Day to Berlin (1994)— another documentary that used more of his father’s wartime footage—and a made-for-television movie, Separate but Equal (1991), starring Sidney Poitier as Thurgood Marshall in a dramatization of Brown v. Board of Education, the Supreme Court case that ended school segregation. He was also a producer on Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line (1998).

QUICK STUDY: George Sr. (seated) and George Jr., who shot 2nd unit location footage, prepare for a day’s work on the set of The Diary of Anne Frank. George Jr. worked with his father on several films, including A Place in the Sun, Shane, and Giant. (Photo: Getty Images)

For Michael (middle name Murrow, after Edward R.), the legacy of the Stevens name was at first relatively remote. "My father had grown up in Hollywood and seen what his father went through," Michael said. "He wanted me and my brother David and our stepsister Caroline to have other choices than showbiz, if we wanted them. We grew up exposed primarily to journalism and politics." A political career was on Michael’s mind when he entered Duke University in 1985. Later he escaped to Paris to pursue a woman and write a novel, neither of which worked out, but at a movie theater on the Left Bank he discovered his grandfather’s films. "I saw The More the Merrier, and that opened my eyes to a whole new world of possibility."

The Stevens legacy was again passed down from father to son. After serving as associate producer on The Thin Red Line, Michael directed the feature Bad City Blues (1999), took over production of the Kennedy Center Honors show in 2003, and oversaw HBO’s coverage of President Obama’s inauguration in 2009. Michael directed, wrote, and produced more than 30 primetime event and concert specials. For the Kennedy Center Honors, he earned a string of Emmy nominations and wins. And he was chairman of the 65th and 66th Annual DGA Awards, in 2013 and 2014.

"Michael had so many of his grandfather’s qualities," says George Jr. "He was headstrong; he liked to think things through—after which he was extremely decisive. The great improvement he brought to the Kennedy Center Honors was a sense of narrative as the evenings unfolded."

DGA Moments in Time, made to honor the DGA’s 75th anniversary, was a particularly proud moment in Michael’s all-too-brief career as a director. "He delved into the history of the Guild," recalls his father, getting Clint Eastwood, Martin Scorsese, and Steven Spielberg to serve as on-camera narrators of important events in the life of the organization; its founding, battles for creative rights, and the showdown over the blacklist each form a chapter in the drama.

"Michael’s instincts were so good as a storyteller," says George Jr., "particularly his great grasp that it is images that tell a story." He invited his son to direct the HBO production of Thurgood (2011), based on the one-person play George Jr. had written and presented on Broadway. Michael then helmed a feature-length documentary about the great Washington Post political cartoonist, Herblock: The Black and the White (2013). Like his father and grandfather before him, Michael was, as he declared after completing that film, "committed to the concept of movies that stand the test of time."

Indeed, all three Stevenses have so reiterated this in interviews over the years that "To Stand the Test of Time" could appear on a family coat of arms. Certainly timing defines the creative nucleus of George Stevens Sr.’s body of work. It is an intangible yet precise quality that lives on in one classic film after another—in the deadly funny dinner scene in Alice Adams when a lacy headpiece worn by Hattie McDaniel simply won’t stay in place; and in Katharine Hepburn’s dubious kitchen skills playing off the brick-faced reactions of Spencer Tracy in Woman of the Year (1942). (Stevens’ own hooded eyes, stony countenance, and dry humor gave Tracy an ideal role model.) Even after World War II, when Stevens could not bear to direct another full-on comedy, an unbreakable spirit of buoyancy informs his observation of human experience—sometimes at its loneliest and most tragic. Think of Montgomery Clift in A Place in the Sun and James Dean as Jett Rink pacing off his meager landholdings in Giant. Stevens even brought a moment of comic relief to The Diary of Anne Frank (1959), when he stages a cat getting its head stuck in a small funnel while storm troopers lurk below. The result is both funny and nightmarish.

Stevens’ positive spirit was entwined with the history of the Guild, and his sense of duty and clarity of purpose were carried forward by his family. Was the secret to his gift ever articulated father to son?

"That’s such an important question," George Jr. says, after thinking it over. "I worked with my father. I saw how he dealt with people, how he drove himself. I learned to be a father from him, and I’ve been rewarded to see my sons Michael and David become such good fathers." If there is a secret, it is in the doing, he concludes. "We were each raised with the belief that fine films were the result of one individual’s point of view and control. That was the guiding principle of Dad’s life."

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