Entertainment

03.01.14

A History of the Oscar Powerhouse ‘From Here to Eternity’

Sixty years ago, a film with a now-iconic, steamy beach scene and a smoldering Sinatra stormed the Oscars and cemented itself in Hollywood lore.

Sixty years ago, the clear favorite at the Academy Awards, with 13 nominations, was the film version of James Jones’s huge bestseller, From Here to Eternity. And it delivered, nearly sweeping the boards with eight winners, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Supporting Actor and Actress, and Best Screenplay. In the memory of millions who loved the film, though, it’s also remembered for the one Oscar it didn’t win.

The film starred Humphrey Bogart, Eli Wallach, Aldo Ray and Joan Crawford…almost.

Taking its title from one of Kipling’s “Barrack-room” ballads—“Gentlemen-rankers out on a spree, damned from here to Eternity, God ha’ mercy on such as we…”—Jones’s enormous novel (861 pages in my father’s 1951 first edition) had an enormous cultural impact. No other book had dared to deal with the seamier side of Army life. It won the National Book Award and is generally regarded as the most critically acclaimed novel to come out of World War II—though almost the entire story is placed before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.

Jones’s friend, Norman Mailer, who had his own bestselling novel about the war, The Naked and The Dead, wrote that “Of all the novels I’ve read by the writers of my generation, no other book gave me as much emotion.” 

Perhaps no other American film owes its success so much to casting, and From Here to Eternity featured one of the greatest rosters of film actors ever assembled.  And most of them were second choices.

When he was leaving, Cohn, who felt he had to maintain his public image as a tough guy, told Sinatra, “You tell anybody about this, you son of a bitch, and I’ll kill you!”

After Harry Cohn, head of Columbia Pictures, paid Jones the enormous sum of $82,000 for the rights, the hottest topic in Hollywood was who would play the leads. On December 3, 1952, Hedda Hopper, the most influential Hollywood gossip columnist of her time, wrote “It seems that every rugged actor in town, wants to play the part of Sgt. Warden,” the hard drinking career non-com.   For the coveted role of Kentucky-born, trumpet-playing Private Robert E. Lee Prewitt, Cohn wanted one of the studio’s young contract players, Aldo Ray, a Navy veteran. For Karen Holmes, the straying wife of the commanding officer of Schofield Barracks who has an affair with Warden, it was generally assumed that she would be played by Joan Crawford. For the role of Maggio, the brash Italian street kid from Brooklyn, Cohn was set on a brilliant New York stage actor named Eli Wallach.  

Bogart, though, wasn’t particularly rugged in 1952; already 53 years old, he would die of cancer less than five years later. Burt Lancaster, 40 that year and already a proven box office attraction from Jim Thorpe, All American and Come Back Little Sheba as well as adventure movies such as The Crimson Pirate, was a natural as Warden.

For Prewitt, the director, Fred Zinnemann, argued for Montgomery Clift, whom he had directed in 1948 in The Search, and had become a major star by stealing scenes from John Wayne in Red River and drowning Shelley Winters in A Place in the Sun.  Cohn was concerned that Clift would cost a hefty $150,000 while Ray would come much cheaper; Zinnemann threatened to back out of the project and got his way.

Joan Crawford had the inside track for Karen, though in 1952 she was six years older than Lancaster. Concerned that their age difference might be obvious to the audience, Crawford wanted to use her own cameraman. Zinnemann refused. Cohn deiced to make a daring move and cast against type. Deborah Kerr was best known for what she called her “duchess” roles in British films, (“I feel naked without my tiara,” she joked while posing for publicity stills.)  She was offered the part of the unhappy wife who rolls in the surf with Lancaster’s Warden in one of the most iconic scenes in movie history.

Kerr and Lancaster were well rehearsed, having become romantically involved during the shooting.

Eli Wallach’s screen test for Maggio was impressive, but Cohn’s wife Joan wasn’t convinced: “He’s a brilliant actor, but he’s not skinny and he’s not pathetic and he’s not Italian.”  Cohn often deferred to his wife’s judgment, but overruled her on this one and offered the part to Wallach. But Eli but turned it down and honored a commitment to play in Tennessee Williams “Camino Real” on Broadway, directed by Elia Kazan. Cohn relented, and the part of Maggio was awarded to Frank Sinatra after the Mafia cut off the head of Cohn’s favorite race horse and left it in his bed.

That is the most enduring myth associated with From Here to Eternity, courtesy of Mario Puzo in The Godfather. Some gossiped that Cohn hated Sinatra and didn’t want him in the movie—or so said a small time Mafioso hanger-on named Johnny Rosselli in his memoirs. Screenwriter Dan Taradash insisted that Sinatra’s being awarded the role “had nothing to do with a horse’s head.” In his biography, Frank, James Kaplan relates that when Sinatra was ill, the producer sat by his hospital bed for hours on end. When he was leaving, Cohn, who felt he had to maintain his public image as a tough guy, told Sinatra, “You tell anybody about this, you son of a bitch, and I’ll kill you!” 

What The Godfather got right was that Sinatra was indeed desperate at that point in his career. He was too old to play the kind of innocuous musicals he had made in the 1940s, and, as a grittier sound was coming into popular music, his record sales were in decline. By 1952 he could no longer afford a press agent and owed the IRS more than $100,000 in back taxes. He got the role of Maggio by sending Cohn a blizzard of telegrams (signed by “Maggio”) begging for a screen test while his wife, Ava Gardner, entreated Joan Cohn to give Frank a chance. Cohn did, but only after Sinatra agreed to a salary of just of $8,000. (Seven years earlier, when he made Anchors Aweigh with Gene Kelly, he received $150,000.)

In Nancy Sinatra’s book about her father, Sinatra, An American Legend, she quotes Burt Lancaster as summing up the demons that drove Frank to his best performance: “His fervor, his bitterness had something to do with the character of Maggio, but also with what he had gone through the last number of years. A sense of defeat and the whole world crashing in on him … they all came out in that performance.”

Another legend that has attached itself to From Here to Eternity involves George Reeves, who had suddenly become famous—much to his chagrin—as TV’s Superman.  In the 2006 film, Hollywoodland, Reeves, played by Ben Affleck,  is at a pre-release screening of Eternity, and when his character comes on the screen, members of the audience hoot and jeer, “Look, it’s Superman!”  The actor playing Zinnemann then cuts Reeves part to just a few seconds.  Actor and writer Jim Beaver, who has researched a biography of Reeves’s for years, has written,“It’s not true. Daniel Taradash told me personally that he did not write a single scene for Reeves’s character that was not in the final release.”

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From Here to Eternity proved to be one of the rare films that was hit with both critics and the public.  Nearly 30 years later, Pauline Kael called it “The movie of its year, and not just because it swept the Academy Awards but because it brought new attitudes to the screen which touched a social nerve.”

Its enormous success jumpstarted Sinatra’s career and solidified Lancaster’s stature as both an actor and leading man. Fred Zinnemann’s place in the Hollywood pantheon was assured as he won his second consecutive Best Director. (He won the previous year for High Noon and would win again in 1978 for Julia.)  Donna Reed, who, like Kerr, was cast against type in the role of Lorene, a prostitute in the book but a “hostess” at a “social club” in the film, had appeared in an Andy Hardy film and was best known for playing James Stewart’s small town wife in It’s A Wonderful Life. She took home the statue for Best Supporting Actress.

Yet, among film aficionados Eternity will always be slightly diminished as Montgomery Clift did not win.  Everyone connected with the film agreed that he was its heart and soul.  Sinatra, who was inseparable from Clift during the shooting, and Reed both credited Clift as their inspiration in acceptance speeches.  Zinnemann, presented with his Oscar, told the audience, “I couldn’t have won this without Monty.”

No credible reason has been offered for why Clift didn’t win. (William Holden won for Stalag 17.) Perhaps the voters were split between Clift and Lancaster, who was also nominated; perhaps, a Pauline Kael suggested, “Clift’s innovative performance was buried in the public praise for Sinatra and Lancaster.” Clift combined the ethos of the working class heroes of the Depression with the introspective acting style that changed American movies in the 1950s. Prewitt’s simple creed is expressed early in the film to Sgt. Warden: “If a man don’t go his own way, he’s nothin.’” (He never seems to notice, or perhaps doesn’t care, about the apparent contradiction between going his own way and being a 30-year man in the Army.)

Montgomery Clift’s Robert E. Lee Prewitt is one of the first truly existential characters in American film.

The day after the Oscar ceremony, Zinnemann’s wife Renee bought Clift a miniature gold bugle of the kind that his character, Prewitt, plays in the film. “This means more to me,” he told her, “than ten Oscars.”  Friends said he kept the little gold bugle with him the rest of his life.

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The film ends with Deborah Kerr’s and Donna Reed’s characters leaving Hawaii on a boat and tossing their leis into the ocean—the legend, Kerr tells her, is that “If it floats back to shore, you’ll come back some day.”

Like the leis, the story of From Here to Eternity keeps coming back. In 1979 the story was made into a six episode mini-series which included material that had been cut for the novel for the film. William Devane, Natalie Wood, Steve Railsback, and Kim Basinger played the principal lovers. They didn’t make viewers forget Lancaster, Kerr, Clift, and Reed, but they weren’t bad. And neither, on the whole was the series. The high point was 27-year-old Joe Pantoliano as Maggio.

In 2011, Jones’s daughter Kaylie was instrumental in getting her father’s novel back into print—or at least released as a digital book—in an edition which restored much of the material that Jones had been pressured to cut. To mark the fiftieth anniversary of the film’s premiere, a special Blu-ray disc was released last fall.  Last year in London, a musical version with lyrics by Tim Rice and rock musician Stuart Brayson opened in the West End based on the unexpurgated text in which the homosexual life of Honolulu is exposed and Maggio is a part-time hustler . The play closes next month, and there have been rumors that after some rewrites it may have a New York run.

For Jones, his first published novel was something of curse. Though he continued to publish novels, he never again enjoyed the critical or m success of From Here to Eternity. Many critics felt that in his other war novels, particularly The Thin Red Line (made into a well-received film by Terrence Malick in 1998), he reworked the characters of Prewitt and others again and again. Jones died in 1977 of heart failure.

Willie Morris, who edited Jones’s last book after his death, once told me of a pilgrimage he made to Hawaii to see Schofield Barracks, where much of the novel is set.  “As I walked the parade grounds I could hear that song Merle Travis sings in the film, “Re-Enlistment Blues.” Jones co-write the lyrics—“My hitch was up on Monday/Not a dog soldier no more …”

Joan Didion made her own pilgrimage to Schofield Barracks at the time of Jones’s death: “I wish that I could tell you that on the day in May when James Jones died someone had played a taps for him at Schofield Barracks, but I think this is not the way life goes.”