COLUMN SEVENTY-TWO, JUNE 1, 2002
(Copyright © 2002 The Blacklisted Journalist)
Myth-Shattering Biography of an Icon
THE JAMES DEAN STORY
(Copyright © 1975, 1995 Ronald Martinetti)
JAMES DEAN'S ARRIVAL in Hollywood in the spring of 1954 was unobtrusive.
Elia Kazan had already made clear to the studio that
he wanted no buildup for the young actor, and his presence went totally
unnoticed by the Hollywood press.
quickly found a place to live, sharing a small fifty-dollar-a-month apartment
with Dick Davalos, another young actor who was in the movie.
The apartment was above a drugstore in Burbank, right across the street
from Warner Brothers.
Dean's salary for the picture was ten thousand
dollars, and with the money the studio advanced him he bought a beautiful
palomino horse, which he named Cisco and boarded at a stable in nearby Griffith
As Jane Deacy did not have a West Coast office, she
had arranged for the Famous Artists Agency to look after her client.
The office assigned this task to Dick Clayton, one of its younger agents;
the choice proved to be a wise one. Handsome
and easygoing, Clayton was a former actor who had appeared in High Sierra and
The Wagons Roll at Night. He
knew his way around the film colony, and he knew how to handle actors.
Several days after their first meeting, Clayton arranged for Dean to buy
a small sports car, an MG, and shortly thereafter Dean could be seen whizzing
around town, usually accompanied by an attractive ingenue whose phone number the
agent had thoughtfully provided.
Shooting for East of Eden began on schedule
in the middle of May. Kazan and his
scenarist had decided beforehand to film only the last quarter of the book,
dealing with the relationship of the two Trask brothers, Cal and Aron (Cain and
Abel), and their father, Adam.
"I didn't read the novel," Dean later told
reporter Howard Tompson. "The
way I work, I'd much rather justify myself with the adaptation rather than the
The film is set in rural California, as America is
poised to enter the First World War. Raymond
Massey played the senior Trask, a stern and pious man who looks to the
Scriptures for guidance. Jo Van
Fleet played the wife who had deserted him and the boys years before.
She is hard and cynical---a madam who runs a thriving whorehouse and
thinks she spots in her younger son a budding entrepreneur.
Julie Harris played Abra, a young girl in love with both the Trask sons.
In the movie, Dean attempts to raise money for his
father by growing crops to feed the army; instead of showing gratitude, the
old man is aghast at his son's war profiteering. Dean's attempt at finding love sours---a familiar theme in
his life and films. On another
level, the movie symbolizes the destruction of the old morality by atavistic
The rest of the fine company Kazan had assembled included
Albert Dekker, Harold Gordon, Barbara Baxley, Burl Ives, and Lon Chapman.
Richard Davalos, another Kazan discovery, who only months before had been
working as a movie usher, was cast as Aron, the more gentle Trask son, and the
favorite of his father.
Warner Brothers was determined to spare no expense
in mounting the production. A
replica of the town of Salinas, the setting for the story, was carefully
constructed on the studio lot; the producer fired off memos having his staff
check on the smallest details:
"What was the World War I duffel bag
"Did they use flashbulbs or powder in
1917?" Even the town stores were stocked with actual merchandise.
From the very start, Kazan worked closely with Dean.
The director knew that the young actor, who showed up on the set
"blue and tense and bewildered," required his personal attention.
“Jimmy was very naked, very easily hurt,"
Kazan explained. "First I'd
work with him to build up his confidence. Then
I'd give him a small shove in the right direction."
The two would often go into long huddles discussing
a scene, and to loosen Dean up, Kazan would sometimes spar with him until the
actor was ready to work. When a
take still proved difficult, Kazan resorted to other means.
As he later told writer Glen O'Brian, "One time we spent all
afternoon on a scene and he couldn't do it, so I got him loaded on red wine that
night. He couldn't drink a lot
because he was sort of unstable and liquor would affect him, but I gave him two
glasses of wine and he did the scene great."
Much as been printed about Kazan's tricks in coaxing
Dean's memorable performance. But
according to Lon Chapman, a fellow Studio member, Dean resented the director's
use of gimmicks "and complained it wasn't acting."
"Working with Jimmy Dean and Raymond Massey was
wonderful," Julie Harris later said. "Jimmy
was very gifted. There was nothing
he couldn't do. He was terribly
interesting. He enjoyed being
naughty---like Tom Sawyer."
Massey, an Oxford-educated actor, didn't share this
"He simply couldn't stand the sight of the
kid," Kazan later remembered. "You
never know what he's going to say or do,"
But Kazan seized on this antagonism to sharpen the on-screen tension between the staid father and his rebellious son. During one scene in which Adam Trask
'Jimmy wasn't easy'
sternly reads the Bible to his sons,
Kazan had Dean whisper obscenities under his breath to heighten Raymond Massey's
anger. It worked very nicely.
Kazan's own feelings toward Dean were mixed, and
this inconsistency was reflected in later interviews. On one occasion, he explained:
"Jimmy wasn't easy because it was all new to
him. He was like an animal might
be. Fretful or uncertain.
But with affection and understanding and patience he got awfully good.
God, he gave everything he had. There
wasn't anything he held back. Only
at the very, very end---the last few days when you felt that a star was going to
be born, and everybody smelled it, all the publicity people began to hang around
him---then he began to spoil, I thought, a little bit.
By the next film I thought something in his character was spoiling."
However, in a less generous mood he told the London
Daily Express: "Jimmy was a pretty difficult and at most times a
thoroughly impossible character. He
got on badly with his fellow actors and the crew who made the film.
"The girl who really helped him through East
of Eden was Julie Harris. She
was like a saint with him, even though when she did a good scene he would try to
"His great love was himself and he spent a good
deal of his time off the set taking pictures of himself with a camera."
Early in June the cast went on location for several
weeks near the town of Spreckels, in the Salinas Valley.
Here Kazan filmed the sequences involving Adam Trask's ill-fated lettuce
refrigeration project and Cal's bean crop venture.
Other location scenes were taken at the picturesque town of Mendocino on
the coast north of San Francisco.
Dean had recently bought a Triumph T-110 motorcycle
and planned to ride to Spreckels on it, but Kazan quickly vetoed the idea.
"Nothing doing, Jimmy," the director told
him. "I can't take a chance
that you'll spill."
Since Dean was known as a daredevil rider, Kazan's
caution was undoubtedly wise.
"You expect to take a fall once a year,"
Jimmy told one reporter.
"If he had to kill himself," Kazan said
later, "I'd rather not have him do it during my movie."
When the cast returned from location, Dean decided
to move out of his apartment and live in his studio dressing room, a luxurious
two-room suite once used by such stars as Bette Davis and Errol Flynn.
Kazan, who lived in the adjoining dressing room, encouraged the move.
"I kept my eye on him night and day," he
said, "so we'd be sure to get through the goddamn picture."
One afternoon during a break in filming, Dean
wandered over to an adjacent set to visit two friends, Paul Newman and Joseph
Wiseman, who were making a picture called The Silver Chalice.
They introduced him to another member of the cast, a lovely
Italian-born actress named Pier Angeli.
At twenty-one, Anna Maria Pierangeli was very
special. She had green eyes,
delicate, almost doelike features, and light brown hair.
"She's out of this world," Dean once said.
The daughter of an engineer, Pier had been an art student in Rome before
being discovered by Vittorio De Sica and becoming an actress.
She had first come to Hollywood to play an Italian war bride in the movie
Teresa, and was now living in Brentwood with her mother and two sisters,
one of whom, Marisa Pavan, Pier's twin, was also an actress.
Soon Pier and James Dean were visiting each other's
sets daily and sharing quiet lunches in a corner of the studio commissary.
Their whispering and handholding became the talk of the studio, and items
about the budding romance began to appear in various gossip columns.
"James Dean has the lead in East of Eden and
you'll be hearing of him soon," columnist Sidney Skolsky wrote, on June 29,
1954. "Pier Angeli, who isn't
in the movie, has discovered him already."
The items quickly came to the attention of Pier's
mother, a strict, old-fashioned woman who did not consider Dean, a nonCatholic,
a suitable boyfriend for her daughter. But
despite Mrs. Pierangeli's objections, the couple continued to see each other.
They went for quiet early-morning horseback rides along a Hollywood
trail, and Dean brought Pier to a party at Elia Kazan's.
Dean took his drums along and he and Pier played them together.
Then, one evening, Dean brought Pier home long after
her curfew. When Mrs. Pierangeli
reprimanded him, Jimmy told her she was "too strict" with Pier.
After that, Mrs. Pierangeli forbade her daughter to see Dean again, and
even tried to get the studio to keep the young couple apart; but when Pier
threatened to leave home, her mother relented and the romance continued.
On Pier's twenty-second birthday she and Dean spent
the day at Griffith Park washing and currying Dean's horse, Cisco.
"Pier is a rare girl," Dean told a friend.
"I respect her. Unlike
most Hollywood girls, she's real and genuine."
To his old friend Bill Bast, he explained: "I
can talk to her.
"Jimmy is different," Pier was quoted as
saying. "He loves music.
He loves it from the heart the way I do.
We have so much to talk about. It's
wonderful to have such understanding."
Pier's influence had a strong effect on Dean.
He became neater in his habits and even started to drive more carefully,
as Pier disapproved of his speeding. To
show his affection, he showered her with presents and proudly took her home to
meet his father and stepmother.
"The young lion," a writer quipped,
"was being tamed by love."
This sudden change in Dean both surprised and amused his friends. Actress Connie Ford recalled her amazement at seeing Dean at a dinner party wearing a
Taking Pier Angeli to the premiere of 'A Star Is Born,' Jimmy even donned a tuxedo
navy blue suit
and a smart Italian knit tie. It
was the first time the actress had ever seen him with his hair combed.
Pier sat next to him, looking radiant in a white chiffon dress.
On another occasion Dean even donned a tuxedo and
escorted Pier to the premiere of A Star Is Born, a gala event held at the
Pantages Theater and attended by such personalities as Marlene Dietrich and
As the couple grew closer, inevitably, rumors of
marriage began to circulate.
"Do you think eventually you kids will get
married?" a reporter boldly asked Dean.
"You mean me and Miss Pizza?" he replied
evasively. "Who knows?"
Although he and Pier had often talked of marriage,
Dean was torn by indecision. He
told Joe Hyams that he was considering becoming a Catholic so he and Pier could
marry. But he confided to another
friend that he feared being tied down and felt he was not ready.
"I wouldn't marry her unless I could take care
of her properly," he admitted. "And
I don't think I'm emotionally stable enough to do so right now."
But for Pier the issue seemed simpler.
"She thought if he really loved her, he would marry her," a
friend said. The subject became a
sore point between them, and for the first time there were quarrels and
Late in August Dean completed his work on East of
Eden and went to New York to do a TV show, Run Like a Thief, on NBC's
Philco Playhouse. The
program aired on September 5, 1954, and Jimmy played a young man who is
suspected of robbery. Both Pier and
the question of marriage were very much on his mind. Gusti Huber, who was in the cast, remembers Dean spoke of
Pier constantly, and once during a break in rehearsal ran to Best & Co. to
buy her a present.
Miss Huber was impressed by the young actor's energy
and range of interests. During
rehearsals, he talked to her about Hugo Wolf, the Austrian composer; Frank
Sinatra; Charlotte’s Web by E. B. White; and Bob and Ray, two
radio comedians whose ad-libbing style he admired. She remembered warning Jimmy, "You can't improvise until
air time and then do a show."
This undoubtedly fell on deaf ears.
Dean talked over his dilemma about marriage with
Jane Deacy, his agent, and she advised him to wait until he was better
established. From Miss Deacy's
standpoint this no doubt was sound advice.
She knew Dean's impulsive nature and had often cautioned him before; just
a few months earlier he had even come to her wanting to change his name to
Marcus Dean, but she had calmly talked him out of it.
Jimmy was away from Los Angeles only two weeks, but
when he returned he sensed something had changed in his relationship with Pier.
They still saw each other, but now Pier appeared in
public with other men, too. Once
again, columnists were treated to a field day, this time chronicling the
"The romance of James Dean and Pier Angeli is
colder than ice," Louella Parsons informed her readers.
Then, in October, Pier suddenly announced her
to singer Vic Damone, whom she had first met while making a picture in Germany
three years before, and whom she had recently been dating.
Dean was absolutely stunned.
"Oh, no, please say you're kidding me," he
moaned when Pier told him of her plans.
"He was deeply hurt and terribly
disappointed," Bill Bast wrote. "In
his persistent efforts to partake of all emotions to the fullest, when he loved,
he allowed himself to love completely, and when he lost the object of his
love, he allowed himself to suffer completely."
It was a loss Dean never recovered from.
Joe Hyams later recalled that a few days before his death, Pier visited
Dean at his home. When she left, Jimmy broke out in tears.
Pier was married at St. Timothy's Roman Catholic
Church in Westwood on November 24. The
marriage was to last only four years. Afterward,
Pier would say that James Dean was the great love of her life.
It was widely rumored that on her wedding day the actor sat on his
motorcycle outside the church, forlornly observing the proceedings.
Perhaps that was just a touch of romantic hyperbole; in any event, Dean
was not among the six hundred guests who witnessed the ceremony inside the
church, the same church where, seventeen years later, Pier's own funeral
services would be held after her death, a possible suicide.
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