James Dean: Remembering the Screen Legend On What Would
Be His 85th Birthday == Part Two ==
By: Ellis Nassour
“Acting is the most logical way for people’s neuroses to manifest themselves, in the great need we all have to express ourselves,” James Dean said when asked why he turned to acting. “An actor’s course is set before he’s out of the cradle.”
On the occasion of what would be his 85th birthday and sixty plus years since his September 30, 1955, death, the fascination with Dean has never ended.
As an actor, even though those he worked with never knew what to expect, Dean was considered enormously charismatic, gifted, and intelligent. However, his ambition and belief that his instincts were always right undermined him.
The Immoralist co-adaptor Ruth Goetz [The Heiress] wasn’t in favor of hiring Dean. She felt his blond hair and the way he arrived to audition “made him woefully inappropriate” for the part of an Arab. Seeing his magnetism in rehearsals, she quickly became convinced he could handle the role. She relayed to colleagues that Dean “had the quality of sweetness and charming attractiveness and, at the same time, a nasty undercurrent of suggestiveness and sexuality.”
By the time the play closed, her opinion had changed: “The little son-of-a-bitch was one of the most unspeakably detestable fellows I ever knew.” Referring to him as “the little bastard” – a term he considered a compliment and later adapted as a sort of slogan, she reported that he wouldn’t learn his lines or rehearse, always arrived late, and ignored Daniel Mann’s notes. “He drove us up the wall.”
Mann greatly resented what he termed Dean’s “childish notions of what constituted real adult manhood.” He told David Dalton, a founding editor of Rolling Stone and co-author of James Dean: An American Icon: “[Dean] was a very disturbed, very compulsive young man. He defied the whole company … I would ask him to do what he was to do, try to communicate with him, but it was extremely difficult. He was a rebel.”
Englishman Vivian Matalon, a stage manager on the play [and later director of the 1980 revival of Lerner and Lowe’s Bridagdoon and a Tony and Drama Desk winner for the 1980 revival of Paul Osborn’s Morning’s at Seven] described Dean’s conduct as “really awful.” He later recounted the numerous times Dean attempted to seduce him.
Keeping in mind Dean’s modus operandi, there may have been method to Dean’s behavior and shenanigans. He was trying to get fired. There was the prospect for a much more rewarding career move.
He auditioned for Warner Bros. adaptation of Leon Uris’ novel Battle Cry, about young Marines in World War II who live for the moment in love and war, which was being directed by legendary director Raoul Walsh.
William Orr, Jack Warner’s New York representative, was incredulous at Dean’s audition get-up: “Jimmy came in unshaven, wearing a hat, boots, and full motorcycle regalia.” But when time came for the test – a love scene with a promising starlet, Dean “without a bit of preparation gave a reading that was the best I’d ever heard.”
The next day, Orr tested him for a larger role. He dispatched a letter recommending his casting. Dean didn’t get either role and went back to The Immoralist, which opened on his23rd birthday, February 8, 1954.
After Dean quit The Immoralist and was signed by Kazan for East of Eden, he packed his belongings in two paper bags, left his studio apartment on West 68th Street, and boarded a TWA plane for Hollywood. According actress Liz Sheridan [known for her role on Seinfeld as Jerry’s mother], one of Dean’s longtime steadies, “Jimmy signed for $10,000. His life was about to change. He’d no longer be bouncing from apartment to apartment, borrowing money, and sponging off friends.”
He left behind his New York “sponsor” Rogers Brackett, 15 years his senior,the “sophisticated and successful” advertising executive and former CBS director Dean met in Hollywood in 1951the very late 40s and whom was instrumental in getting Dean work in radio – and, in New York, a job as a “stunt tester” for TV’s Beat the Clock. Their relationship was supposedly a father/son one, but Dean was open to friends about it being a kept-boy scenario. Brackett “sponsored” Dean, buying him clothes and wining and dining him. He got his money’s worth by parading him around town, taking him to theater, ballet, even the Round Table at the Algonquin Hotel.
Dean also left behind an on again-off again affair with strikingly handsome actor Jonathan [later John, as an author] Gilmore, which began shortly after the 18-year-old, five years younger than Dean, relocated to New York from L.A. in 1953. Gilmore had been represented by Henry Wilson, the power agent who nurtured the careers of Tab Hunter and Rock Hudson. One reason he left L.A. was because of Wilson’s “sexual pressures.” But not long after his arrival, he was pressured by Dean, who on first meeting became enamored and obsessed with him – a relationship detailed in graphic terms in Gilmore’s journals, which he shared with authors Paul Alexander and Donald Spotto for their biographies Boulevard of Broken Dreams: The Life, Times, and Legend of James Dean and Rebel: The Life and Legend of James Dean.
Dean’s actor friend Bill Bast, whom he first met at UCLA [and who was his later New York roommate at the Iroquois Hotel on West 44th Street], observed that Dean had “the capacity of meeting total strangers “and making them his closest friends on the spot – even those who did not care to become involved in his life.”
As close as they were, including having a sexual liaison, Bast found Dean quite secretive and, often, his motives suspect. “Jimmy was guarded, protective, and always testing you to see if he could trust you,” he told David Dalton for James Dean: The Mutant King. “I learned to avoid direct discussions of his personal life.”
In Rebel, Miss Sheridan noted, “Jimmy’s need for love was like a bottomless well.” Gilmore echoed that: “He latched on to people he liked, took what he needed, and was quick to drop them before they might drop him.”
James Dean-Rebel Without a Cause Inspriational Performance – YouTube
In Hollywood, waiting for production to start on East of Eden, Dean, an insomniac, spent nights on the Sunset Strip, often with his bongo drums. He met up with old friends, some of them former lovers – female and male.
Still, such was the enigma and magnetism of Dean that friends such as these remained loyal. Some, like Brackett, to the end of his life.
With his first Eden paycheck, Dean spent his wheels. He bought a Triumph Tiger motorcycle and, later, a 1953 red MG TD. He took glee in racing the cycle around Warner’s Burbank lot, scaring employees to death, and on the twisting curves of Laurel Canyon.
Dean’s rocky road through Hollywood was tainted with difficult romances. First, he fell head-over-heels for Italian actress Pier Angeli, “so awestruck,” one related, “he couldn’t get the nerve to ask for her phone number. His agent got it.” Their torrid relationship was not to be. The night they were set to elope, Angeli broke it off due to family pressure over gossip column mongering and the fact that Dean wasn’t Catholic. Dean was devastated. Angeli, in November 1954 married singer Vic Damone, a Catholic. Dean, sobbing, went to the church, waited across the street in pouring rain, and as the couple exited, revved his motorcycle and sped off. The marriage lasted four years before the good Catholics divorced. Eventually both remarried.
Amazingly, around this time, it’s been said that Dean was also having an affair with three-time Oscar-nominated actor Clifton Webb (The Razor’s Edge, Laura), who was 40 years his senior.
Warners purchased rights to psychiatrist Robert M. Lindner’s 1944 book, Rebel without a Cause: The Hypnoanalysis of a Criminal Psychopath, a groundbreaking attempt “to portray the moral decay of American youth, critique parental style, and explore the differences and conflicts between generations.” A full script was never done and the project was shelved.
For the film adaptation, Irving Shulman’s original screenplay, from director Nicholas Ray’s concept, bore no resemblance to the book. Rather it “offered social commentary and an alternative to previous films depicting delinquents in urban slum environments.” It became a story about emotionally confused suburban, middle-class teens on a journey through a turbulent universe of violence and delinquency.”
Ray, as charismatic, temperamental, and unpredictable as Dean, and the actor were a match made in heaven. Dean was billed opposite Natalie Wood, who’d been acting since childhood and with whom he first bonded with when, months earlier, they did a TV program.
Dean had tweaked his Eden character Cal to the point of living him in his daily life. Dick Van Patten (TV’s Eight Is Enough, numerous other roles) stated, “Jimmy was always searching for what was real.” Once, when asked how he’d play a bullfighter, Dean grabbed a bullfighter’s cape and a set of horns he carried about, ran into traffic, and strutted his stuff against the Yellow cab. Landau observed, “Jimmy’s the unexpected personified – always reaching out, searching. He goes directly to the heart of the matter.”
Eden cast mate Lois Smith, says “In East of Eden and, especially in Rebel without a Cause, what Jimmy did turned out to be what people wanted at that moment. For young people, he was someone recognizable.”
Martin Landau concurred. “In Rebel without a Cause, Jimmy represented that moment in time. His vulnerability struck a chord with young audiences. Where grownups had set styles, Jimmy stepped in. He represented teens unhappy with their lot and grappling with issues of the day.”
Dean’s character Jim felt betrayed and anguished by his bickering parents. Wood’s character Judy was convinced her father no longer loved her and to get his attention she must dress in racy clothes [only to be called a tramp]. Co-star Sal Mineo’s Plato’s family was abandoned by his father, leaving him to deal with all sorts of emotional fodder. Veteran actor Jim Backus and actress Ann Doran were cast as Jim’s parents. Dennis Hopper, Nick Adams, and Corey Allen were featured.
When production began, the Warner chief considered Rebel a B-movie project. It was being shot in B&W; then, realizing the hot property Dean was becoming, decided on Technicolor, requiring reshooting.
Tales of the production sounded right out of Peyton Place, Grace Metalious’ novel. There’d already been scandal in the Ray household when he discovered his 13-year-old son sleeping with his wife, tempestuous actress Gloria Grahame. But Ray wasn’t above scandalous behavior.
In 1954, when he was 43 and she was 16, he began an affair with Wood, who was thought to be having an affair with Dean but was actually sleeping with Hopper. When Ray found out, he gave nearly all of Hopper’s lines to another actor. [They reconciled later, with Hopper helping Ray, who’d hit hard times, get work as a teacher.]
Ray’s “truest love affair, although not a carnal one” was with Dean, who totally seduced the director. Their courtship wasn’t easy. “We sniffed each other out, like a couple of Siamese cats,” recalled Ray. “And the tension never dissipated.”
Dean delayed production holed up in his trailer “preparing.” He said, “I want what I do to be real.” Ray allowed indulgences other directors wouldn’t have – such as Dean’s insistence on using real switchblades in the fight scene at Griffith Observatory, which resulted in a neck gash. Still, the actor refused to switch to props.
The actor had a new friend, roommate, and lover: aspiring actor Jack Simmons, who turned the tables and became obsessed with Dean, doing whatever was asked of him. [He played Cookie in Rebel without a Cause, then disappeared from show business.]
Then, there was the matter of Dean and Mineo. Plato not only looks up to Jim as a father figure, but seems to have a mad crush on him. It’s amazing how one quite intimate scene of the duo made it past censors. Another scene, “thought to be too emotionally provocative,” was cut. The two were rumored to later have an affair.
The sequence of Jim returning home after the tragic chicken race to find his father on the floor in an apron picking up the aftermath of a dropped tray he was taking to his sick wife is one of the film’s pivotal moments. Dean, in a voice an octave lower, at first tries to bond with him, then reprimands his weakness.
Backus and Dean, a fan of his work in the Mr. Magoo cartoons, hit it off. “But,” said Backus, “you had to steel yourself for Jimmy’s intensity. In that moment when he pulled me up off the floor by my clothing, I could feel his disdain. He was so in character that I was happy he didn’t have his hands around my neck.”
The film was banned in New Zealand for fear “it would incite teenage delinquency”; but after protests, released a year later with scenes cut. In Britain, the film received an X-rating even with scenes cut. But, in 1990, Rebel without a Cause was added to Library of Congress’s National Film Registry for being “culturally, historically, and aesthetically significant.”
Wood and Mineo were Oscar-nominated in the Supporting category; and Ray was nominated for Adapted Screenplay, though Stewart Stern received screen credit. The film was BAFTA-nominated for Best Picture.
[Fans will enjoy Live Fast, Die Young: The Wild Ride of Making Rebel without a Cause by Lawrence Frascella and Al Weisel.]
End of Part Two