George Stevens Jr. adds history to the film academy library
BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. — American Film Institute founder and Kennedy Center Honors creator George Stevens Jr. is adding another chapter to film history by donating hundreds of items spanning five generations of his family to film academy’s Margaret Herrick Library and its archive.
The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences said Monday that Stevens Jr. will be contributing papers, letters, photographs and scripts from his life to the Stevens Family collection. The public collection of over 600 items will cover everything from his Hollywood beginnings working alongside his father George Stevens, the legendary director of film classics like “Woman of the Year,” to Washington D.C. where he worked with Edward R. Murrow at the United States Information Agency during the Kennedy administration.
Along the way he also founded the American Film Institute, in 1967 and the Kennedy Center Honors in 1977, which he produced until 2014. He made award-winning films and miniseries like the Sidney Poitier-led “Separate but Equal” and served eight years as chairman of the President’s Committee on the Arts and Humanities under President Barack Obama.
“I’m a great believer in the importance of history as it applies to motion pictures,” Stevens Jr., 86, of his decision to add his own papers to the Stevens Family collection, as well as items from his extraordinary family, whose contributions to the entertainment industry span the history of film.
His great grandmother Alice Howell was considered the “female Chaplin,” his mother was a Mack Sennett bathing beauty, his father was the Oscar-winning director of “The Diary of Anne Frank,” and his late son Michael Stevens was an Emmy Award-winning producer, and those are just a few of the names on the family tree.
Stevens Jr.’s previous donation of a wide-ranging record of his father’s distinguished career in 1980 helped turn the Margaret Herrick Library into an internationally respected resource, and has informed books like Mark Harris’s “Five Came Back” and Don Graham’s account of the making of “Giant.”
Collection highlights displayed on the film academy’s website include personal photos of Stevens Jr., including one of him standing alongside, Elizabeth Taylor, James Dean (who Stevens Jr. calls Jimmy) and his father in Marfa, Texas in 1955 on the set of “Giant.”
“That’s kind of a favorite picture,” Stevens Jr. said. “I worked with my dad on the script and then went in the Air Force for two years and came back and worked with him on the editing. That was the pace he was moving at!”
The collection is a treasure trove for film buffs, where an ordinary family photo could be on the set of “Shane,” at the Academy Awards in 1951, when George Stevens was nominated for “A Place in the Sun,” or during the Amsterdam production of “The Diary of Anne Frank” with cinematographer Jack Cardiff. Look closer and you’ll see Stevens Jr. being sworn in at the USIA, or speaking with Jacqueline Kennedy.
“It was a life-changing experience leaving Hollywood to run the motion picture service of USIA making documentary films,” Stevens Jr. said. “After President Kennedy’s death Jackie got all of these hundreds of thousands of letters and she wanted to thank the public and so she asked me to film something for her. I went to the house she was staying in Georgetown and we filmed a message to the people for her in 35 millimeter color.”
One particularly important item is a letter from John F. Kennedy that wasn’t even written to him, but just about his work. Dated October 21, 1963, Kennedy wrote to Murrow that “The Five Cities of June” is “one of the finest documentaries the USIA has ever done.” Stevens Jr. produced the short film detailing President Kennedy’s trips in June 1963, including his famous trip to Germany and his “Ich bin ein Berliner” speech. It would go on to be nominated for an Academy Award.
On November 23, Stevens Jr. went to speak to Murrow and was handed the letter.
“It had been in his hands three weeks earlier which was profoundly moving,” Stevens Jr. said, who tried to give the letter back to Murrow, but Murrow refused. “He said, ‘You made the film, you keep the letter,’ which is all you need to know about Edward R. Murrow.”
The stories run deep for each photo — there’s James Cagney getting an AFI Lifetime Achievement Award, but did you know he wrote his speech on a shirt board that you’d find at a laundry? Or that Stevens Jr.’s first big casting coup was getting Sidney Poitier to star in “The Greatest Story Ever Told” which would lead to a lifelong friendship with the actor?
Stevens Jr. is working on getting it all down in a book too, which he laughs is on track for publication in “early 2030.” It’s quite a life for someone who originally thought he wanted to be a sportswriter.
He thinks back to the documentary he made about his father nine years after his death in 1984, “George Stevens: A Filmmaker’s Journey,” which begins with a quote that he discovered in one of his father’s diaries.
“It read, ‘Life is a journey and it’s most interesting when you don’t know where you’re going,'” he said. “And that turned out to be true of mine.”