James Dean: Remembering the Screen Legend on What Would
Be His 85th Birthday Part Three
By: Ellis Nassour
“Dream as if you’ll live forever,” James Dean has been quoted as saying. “Live as if you’ll die today . . . If a man can bridge the gap between life and death, if he can live on after he’s dead, then maybe he was a great man.”
James Dean was asked to compare acting onstage to onscreen. “I don’t consider myself belonging specifically to either. Cinema is a truthful medium because the camera doesn’t let you get away with anything. Onstage, you can even loaf a little.
He noted he was a fan of the sophisticated Ernst Lubitsch and had high praise for Elia Kazan. “Then, there’s George Stevens, the greatest of them all.”
Even with only one film in release and the buzz from Rebel without a Cause previews, Warner Brothers was high on James Dean. Maybe not as high on him as Dean was quickly becoming on himself.
Stevens directed one of Dean’s favorite films, A Place in the Sun (1951), adapted from Theodore Dreiser’s epic 1925 novel and 1926 play An American Tragedy. The book had been adapted for the screen in 1931.The new version, set forward to the early 50s, co-starred Elizabeth Taylor, Shelley Winters, and one of Dean’s idols, Montgomery Clift, in the pivotal role of blue collar worker George Eastman [Clyde Griffiths in the novel], who feels he deserves better in life.
While working in his uncle’s factory, he dates a factory worker, then falls head-over-heels for a socialite. However, in a strong departure from the Code ethics of the time, he gets the townie pregnant. George plots murder to change his destiny. In the end, the factory worker’s death is accidental, but George is prosecuted, found guilty, and, in one of filmdom’s most poignant finales, goes to the chair.
Dean sat through the film numerous times. Some friends noted how he assimilated with the Eastman character.
At the time of Giant, based on Edna Ferber’s sprawling best-selling epic novel covering the life of a Texas cattle rancher Jordan Benedict Jr., his Virginia wife Leslie, sister Luz, and characters such as loner ranch hand Jett Rink, Stevens, 50 and an Army vet, had been Oscar-nominated five times for directing and producing; and had won directing honors for A Place in the Sun. He had worked with the crème de la crème.
Among the candidates for the role of Rink were Brando – and Robert Mitchum, Charlton Heston, and Montgomery Clift – this trio, ultimately, was considered too old to portray 21-year-old Rink.
Stevens met Dean during the Eden shoot, when he’d drop by and visit with the director’s assistant Fred Guoil, who shared his interest in cars. Dean was sly. He knew Giant was on the production calendar, but he never outright lobbied for a role.
When Eden was finished, Kazan invited Stevens to a screening. “The boy [Dean] was incredible,” Stevens has been quoted saying. “I’m not just talking about him as an actor – but it was his acting that made his personality [as Cal] so sensitive.”
Rink’s character was described as “tough…beefy.” This wasn’t James Dean. However, Stevens presented Dean with the script, stating, “See how you feel about it. See if it’s too far out for you.” The actor was back the next day. He stood before Stevens’ desk, shaking his head in his famed ambiguous way, put the script down, and said, softly, “That’d be a good thing.”
Kazan and Ray had put up with Dean’s temperament, drama, and shenanigans to the point of coddling him. Many in Stevens’ films called him “fearless” and observed he was never the least bit interested in his actors’ moods. He expected the same professionalism he would be giving.
The shooting script was estimated to have a run time of three and a half hours, with the majority of shooting to take place in June in Marfa, Texas, about an hour from the Mexican border and a three-hour drive from El Paso. Summer temperatures averaged 110-120 degrees in the shade. It would not be a pampered shoot. Dean would just be another cog in the reel, so to speak.
No sooner than production got underway, there was trouble. Because of post-production on Rebel, Dean arrived a few days late in Texas. Then, due to the production schedule, he wasn’t called for a scene for three days. The next day, after being called several times, he didn’t show. The following day that merited him an embarrassing reprimand in front of the company. Dean stood quietly, taking it, but from that day forward he made no attempt to be cooperative.
Dean didn’t mix with the company, with the exception of veteran actress Jane Withers, playing Bick’s jilted fiancé; and Mercedes McCambridge, who portrayed Rink’s champion Luz [Bick’s sister]. “We became such tight friends,” said Withers, “that I was doing his laundry and cooking for him. Sadly, Jimmy was insecure and so afraid to get close to anyone.”
Some thought this was a manifest of his quick rocket to fame, which he was ill prepared for.
Miss Ferber, writing in her autobiography A Kind of Magic, noted, “James Dean was spectacularly talented, handsome in a fragile sort of way, and absolutely outrageous. He was an original. Impish, compelling, magnetic, utterly winning one moment, obnoxious the next. Definitely gifted, but suffered success poisoning.”
When due on set, Dean would be off befriending local ranchers, who taught him rope tricks, and spent such an inordinate amount of time with Taylor that most considered him an outsider. This may be part of his plan to get inside Rink.
“Jimmy stole Elizabeth away from us,” said Carroll Baker, in the role of Bick and Leslie’s daughter. “She went off mysteriously each evening with Jimmy, and none of us could figure out where they went.”
It was assumed they were having an affair, but, according to Miss Withers, Taylor “used was using her nurturing spirit to get to know Jimmy. She’d talk long and hard to him and attempt to get him to behave.” Taylor later confirmed there was no affair. “We’d just sit and talk into the wee hours.”
Dean was frequently spotted studying Hamlet, a role he announced he would be playing on Broadway.
Hudson, at first friendly and tolerant of Dean, even admiring some of Dean’s acting instincts, soon became wary of him. He knew about Dean’s personal life from gossip garnered from his intimate circle of homosexual intimates. Acting totally oblivious to Hudson’s stardom, Dean showed no awe and acted quite diffidently toward him.
“Dean was very unprofessional,” Hudson has been quoted. “[He had] attitude … He was hard to be around. He hated George Stevens, didn’t think he was a good director. He was always angry and full of contempt … and had no manners.”
When he became aware of the little “tricks” Dean used to attempt to be the center of attention and upstage him, Hudson was on his guard.
“Jimmy loved being a star,” said Miss Baker. “He wanted attention desperately and would do anything to get it.”
However, everyone was taken aback by “bad boy” Dean’s habit of urinating in public – on the set, even in Marfa’s town square.
Dean was “a hell of a headache to work with,” observed Stevens. “He had cultivated irresponsibility.”
To get the performance he wanted, Stevens would do retake after retake. This frustrated Dean, who thought he got it right the first time. The director learned to bait Dean with long conversations on how to do a scene – which, according to Miss Withers, “made Jimmy hopping mad.” That anger resulted in a unique theatricality jumping from the screen. After Stevens would yell “Cut!,” Dean often stayed in the moment, sometimes moody or sulking, and do the unexpected.
A scene in point is the one where Rink paces off the tiny parcel of the Riata ranch Luz bequeaths him. He is to end the sequence by making his way up to a windmill [one of the film’s iconic moments] to view the desolate vastness. Dean did it his unique way, with wide, exaggerated paces. Stevens told cinematographer William Mellor, “Stay on him! Keep the camera rolling.”
It must be said that much of what Dean did to expand not only the role of Jett Rink but also his transformation from farmhand to multi-millionaire was brilliant. Even Stevens, begrudgingly, admitted it when he viewed the rushes.
In July, the cast was on the Warner Burbank lot doing sound looping and interior shots. Again, Dean was a no-show – taking time to relocate from his Sunset Plaza Drive apartment to a bungalow to Bavarian-style cottage on Sutton Street in San Fernando’s Sherman Oaks.
Warners barred Dean from racing during production. In September, on the completion of his last scene, Dean used his advance to purchase his “dream trophy of success,” a silver gray Porsche Spyder with red bucket seats and red tailpipes. He nicknamed it “Little Bastard.”
Six days later, outside L.A. restaurant Villa Capri, Dean met visiting Alec Guinness and invited him to see his car, even go for a spin. Sir Alec, it’s reported, found the car “sinister” and told Dean, “If you get in that car, you will be found dead this time next week.”
On September 17, Dean did a public service announcement for the Highway Safety Committee. In his Giant costume and playing with a lariat, Dean, described as “a racing man himself – a real one, not a crazy one,” stated, “Take it easy driving. The life you save might be mine … I took a lot of unnecessary chances on the highway, then I started racing. Now, when I drive I’m extra cautious. I don’t have the urge to speed. People say racing is dangerous, but I’d take my chances any day on the track than on a highway.”
Dean didn’t do himself any favors with his comments about Stevens to gossip columnist Hedda Hopper. “I don’t take bullshit from anybody … I have talent and with just I would have done anything in the world for him … Nobody’s going to be allowed to step on me.”
He totally forgot protocol. He was the actor. Stevens was the boss – the director, the one who called the shots.
Back in Hollywood, Dean almost became a hermit. He had broken up with Ursula Andress and friends thought he might be depressed to the point of suicide. Dean came out of hiding to state: “I’m just dog-tired. Everybody hates me and thinks I’m a heel. They think I’ve gone Hollywood – but, honest, I’m just the same as when I didn’t have a dime.”
However, there was cause for celebration. Due to his “overnight” orbit of popularity resulting from Eden and the buzz generated by the Rebel sneak, the studio signed their golden boy to a 10-picture contract at $100,000 a film, making him Hollywood’s first star to sign a million dollar deal. Dean noted to friends that he wanted to direct. One film he had in mind would be about Billy the Kid.
The next project would be Somebody Up There Likes Me, a bio-pic on boxer Rocky Graziano, which was to begin shooting in January. [Paul Newman eventually starred.] Dean was also set to star opposite celebrated actress Judith Anderson in a TV adaption of The Corn Is Green.
On Friday, September 30, Dean and his mechanic Rolf Wutherich had lunch with Dean’s father, then set off in a new Ford Country Squire station wagon for a race in Salinas where he was to drive his Porsche. They mounted it on a flat-bed trailer towed by a stuntman friend who followed them. Just outside Bakersfield, the drivers were ticketed for speeding.
They turned off the main highway onto Route 166/33, a popular short-cut for racers heading to Salinas, to avoid Bakersfield’s slow 25 mph downtown district. At then Route 466/33, they stopped for refreshments and met up with fellow racers and made plans for dinner that night.
Around 5:45 P.M. on a particularly long, flat section of highway near Cholame, CA, the mechanic allegedly urged Dean “to see what the Porsche can do.” It was unloaded. They sped away, leaving the station wagon in their dust. At the junction of Route 466 and 41, a 1950 Ford driven by 23-year-old Donald Turnupseed was headed east on 466. As he made a left turn onto 41 to head north, it’s said he crossed the center line of the two-lane highway.
Dean, reportedly driving at 85 mph, spotted him and tried a side-stepping maneuver.
With insufficient time and space, the cars collided. The Spyder was said to have smashed to the ground after two or three cartwheels – landing in a mangled mass in a gully where Wutherich has been thrown. Among the passersby stopping to help was a nurse who administered to Dean. She reported he had a weak pulse, and then was gone.
A half-hour later, there was a call received at Warners’ main gate from a woman at Paso Robles War Memorial Hospital, a small California regional facility off Highway 46 and Golden Hill Road, with news that Dean had been killed in an auto accident. It was there he was officially pronounced dead. [Dean’s body lay in the hospital morgue for three days before being shipped to Indiana for burial.]
The guard notified the publicity department. Stevens, Taylor, Hudson, and Withers were viewing Giant rushes when a production assistant burst in with an emergency call for the director. When he returned, he was ashen. He uttered the news in slow, grave tones, “Jimmy’s been killed in a car wreck.”
The room fell silent, except for a scream from Withers. Taylor and Hudson were incredulous. When Hudson began tearing up, he gravitated toward the door, exited, and walked aimlessly around the lot. Taylor, trembling and crying, couldn’t bring herself to believe her friend was dead.
The wire services sent word out to newspapers. Radio and TV programming was interrupted with new of the tragedy. Word also quickly spread to Dean’s favored hangouts, such as Villa Capri, Chateau Marmont, and Googie’s Diner, as well as
two black tie industry events.
The sense of shock and loss became even more intense with the release of Rebel without a Cause, which Warners delayed for several months; and Giant.
At the coroner’s inquest, Turnupseed, who miraculously walked away from the crash, told the jury he didn’t see the low Porsche because of the sun shining so intensely on him and reflecting off the car’s silver.
James Dean became the first actor to be Oscar-nominated posthumously. He received Best Actor nods for East of Eden and Giant.
Acknowledgements: Julie Harris, Lois Smith, Eli Wallach, Warner Bros. Home Entertainment, IMDB.com, and TCM. Sources: James Dean: The Mutant King – A Biography (1974, Straight Arrow Books) by David Dalton; Boulevard of Broken Dreams – the Life, Times, and Legend of James Dean (1994, Viking) by Paul Alexander; Rebel: The Life and Legend of James Dean (1996, HarperCollins) by Donald Spoto; and Live Fast, Die Young: The Wild Ride of Making
Rebel without a Cause (2005,Touchstone) by Lawrence Frascella and Al Weisel.
Commemorating James Dean’s career is a limited, numbered Blu-ray six-disc set, James Dean: Ultimate Collector’s Edition [Warner Home Video; SRP $100] with collectibles that include 48-page book, photos, posters, clips from Dean’s TV work, screen tests, three documentaries with remembrances and anecdotes from friends and co-stars.