COLUMN SEVENTY-SIX, OCTOBER 1, 2002
(Copyright © 2002 The Blacklisted Journalist)
Myth-Shattering Biography of an Icon
THE JAMES DEAN STORY
(Copyright © 1975, 1995 Ronald Martinetti)
BACK IN HOLLYWOOD, Dean found himself a celebrity almost overnight.
East of Eden had opened to great critical acclaim, with reviewers
seemingly trying to outdo each other in praising Dean's performance.
Writing at length in the New York Herald Tribune, William K.
Zinnser called Dean's acting "remarkable," claiming:
"Everything about Dean suggests the lonely
misunderstood nineteen-year-old .... When he talks, he stammers and pauses,
uncertain of what he is trying to say. When
he listens, he is full of restless energy---he stretches, he rolls on the
ground, he chins himself on the porch railing, like a small boy impatient of his
elder's chatter... He has all the awkwardness of an adolescent who must ask a
few tremendous questions and can only blurt them out crudely... You sense the
badness in him, but you also like him."
Another reviewer, Kate Cameron of the Daily News, was
more succinct: "When the last scene faded from the Astor Theater screen
last night a new star appeared... James Dean."
As Eden opened at other first-run theaters across the
country, more praise followed. Herb
Lyon of the Chicago Tribune credited Dean with turning in "the
performance of the year." There was a rave review in Time, and
Newsweek profiled the young actor in its March 7, 1955, issue.
John Steinbeck, who had initially been unhappy with Kazan's
decision to use only the latter part of the novel and had absented himself in
Europe during the filming, now called East of Eden "probably the
best motion picture I have ever seen."
By late March, Eden had broken into Variety's
list of the ten top-grossing films in the country, and soon it was number one.
In several cities it set new box-office records.
But despite his newfound fame, James Dean was determined not
to become part of the Hollywood scene. In
many ways he had never quite gotten over his bitterness at not taking Hollywood
by storm after leaving UCLA, and now he was out to get revenge.
"They gave me a lot of guff out here last
time," he had told Bill Bast some months earlier.
"They're not going to do it again.
This time I'm going to make sure of it."
"Jimmy didn't go back to Hollywood with a chip on
his shoulder," another friend, Vivian Coleman, once said.
"It was a boulder."
In public, Dean appeared rude and distant, sometimes
deliberately so. He carried around
toy automobiles and played with them during interviews while sprawled on the
"You're getting a lot of good publicity these
days, all about your wonderful performance in East of Eden," a young
actress told him admiringly. Dean
replied: "Most of it is a bunch of shit."
But whatever his outward pose, Jimmy was not oblivious
to his fame. Sometimes he would
slip down to the Egyptian Theater on Hollywood Boulevard and stare at his name
in lights on the marquee.
At the studio, Dean's behavior became nearly
scandalous. He refused to cooperate
any further on publicity for East Of Eden, and began giving out
statements saying that acting was not the "be-all end-all" of his
existence. Sports car racing was
his new passion, he now proclaimed. He
bought a four-thousand-dollar Porsche Speedster and let it be known he planned
to enter it in local meets.
There was never a dull moment.
Lunchtime in the studio commissary could turn into a one-man show, with
Dean clowning and banging on the table or sticking a cracker in his eye while
"He'd do anything to attract attention," a
studio executive said. On one
occasion, Dean tore his picture off the wall of the commissary, claiming he
didn't want it there; another time he was seen shirtless, eating alone at a
table. As if to see how far he
could go, he kept a revolver in his dressing room.
"We could see then we had a problem on our hands," a Warner
executive said simply. The gun was
quietly confiscated by the nervous studio.
Dean's conduct aroused much unfavorable attention in
the film colony. Hollywood, of
course, had always been a split society. On
the surface, there was the shimmering image that bewitched the public: the land
of beauty, romance, and glam?our reflected on the screen.
Underneath, there was the dark side, the city of sin and power.
Actors and actresses were expected to maintain the image.
Public misbehavior was frowned on. One
fan magazine bluntly criticized Dean for his "harebrained refusal to
recognize the responsibilities that go hand in hand with being a star." In
short, newcomers like James Dean and Marlon Brando mocked the golden myth and
enraged the guardians of tinseltown.
Hollywood columnists characterized Dean as being
everything from "uncouth" to "a bit mad." One wag suggested
Warners enroll him in a Dale Carnegie charm course, and a magazine editor told a
photographer who had done a story on Dean, "I like the pictures, but I
can't stand the subject."
Jimmy ignored his detractors.
"I came to Hollywood to act, not to charm society," he said,
and maintained, "the objective artist has always been misunderstood."
He told Bob Thomas of the Associated Press: "I probably should have a press
agent, but I don't care what people write about me.
I'll talk to [reporters] I like; the others can print whatever they
The studio, however, was not averse to cashing in on---even promoting---Dean's offbeat image. One Warners press release noted Dean's interest in Aztec culture and bullfighting. Written by the talented Ted Ashton, the release had Jimmy saying, "A neurotic person has the necessity to
Dean described his one-room apartment as 'a wastepaper basket with walls'
express himself and my neuroticism manifests itself in
the dramatic. Why do most act? To express fantasies in which they have involved
themselves." To a new generation of teenagers, attuned to the hip and
avant-garde, this jargon was music to the ears.
Since moving out of his studio dressing room, Dean had
been living in a one-room apartment above a garage on Sunset Strip, about a
block and a half from Schwab's drugstore. The
small apartment was in such disarray that Dean christened it "a wastepaper
basket with walls." Friends said they needed a compass to navigate across
it, and one bewildered visitor claimed stepping inside was "like arriving
at the scene of a hurricane."
In the evenings, Dean could usually be found at the
Hamburger Hamlet, located at 8931 Sunset Boulevard, or at its next-door
neighbor, Googie's, a low-price restaurant that was frequented by young actors.
Like Dean, Googie's had a personality all its own. With its zigzaggy roof
and bright decor, it epitomized a style known as Coffeeshop Modern---one of the
all-night oases that dotted the Southern California landscape in the 1950s.
Dressed in blue jeans and a leather jacket, Dean slumped in a booth in
the rear, surrounded by a faithful group of friends.
"He was like the maypole, and they were all tied to him,"
Sidney Skolsky claimed. Since even
a few beers made him woozy, Dean drank cup after cup of coffee and chain-smoked
(Chesterfields) through the night.
"Regardless of how much money he was making, he'd
only pay for his own coffee," a crony recalled. "No tax, no tip, and
no treating. He was a miser and he
hung onto [his] money."
Among the regulars in the group, known as the Night
Watch, was an attractive brunette actress named Mila Nurmi.
A former exotic dancer and bit player, the lady had a flair for self?promotion
that rivaled, and sometimes surpassed, Dean's own.
Under the name Vampira she had become well known playing Charles Addams-like
characters on a local television show.
One writer called her "the ghoul who gave people
right in their own homes their daily creeps." Dean explained their friend'ship
by saying, "I have a fairly adequate knowledge of satanic forces and I was
interested to find out if this girl was obsessed with such a force."
Vampira put their mutual interests more simply: "We have the same
neuroses," she explained.
They had a weird, even macabre, relationship.
At their first meeting, Dean took her to his apartment and gave her a Ray
Bradbury story to read about a boy who had hanged himself in a garage.
When he visited her house, he would climb in through the window. Once he cut up a studio publicity shot of himself, made a
montage out of its eyes and ears, and pinned it on her wall as a calling card.
(In 1959, Miss Nurmi finally went on to star in a movie, Plan 9 From Outer
Space. The film garnered a cult
following of its own---sometimes respectfully referred to as "the worst
movie ever made.")
Stories of Dean's eccentricities began to abound,
adding to the growing legend. One
evening while dining at the house of actress Terry Moore, Dean put his plate on
the floor and began eating "like a cat." This startled Miss Moore, a
good Mormon girl, who lived with her mother.
On another date, he shocked Terry by undoing his fly.
Another pretty girl recounted to writer Kathryn Tate
her own unusual encounter with James Dean: "I was having a soda at Googie's
one evening," the young girl said. 'Jimmy came in and sat down next to me. I didn't know him personally and he didn't know me.
He said, 'Hi,' and started drumming on the counter with the palms of his
hands. He didn't say anything else
until I finished my soda and got up. 'I'd
like to see you again sometime,' he then said.
'Can I call you or come visit you?' Frankly, I was intrigued, and gave
him my telephone number and address.
"Twenty minutes later, my doorbell rang.
I opened the door and there was Jimmy.
He'd brought his bongo drums. He
came in, sat down, started playing, and didn't stop for almost three hours.
During all that time, we hardly exchanged a word.
When he finished, he picked himself up as abruptly as he'd come and left.
I never saw him again."
Fortunately, not everything Dean did got into print.
One favorite pastime was to get together with a friend from Googie's and
go around West Hollywood, trying doors until they found one that was unlocked.
If no one was home, they would enter the house, make themselves coffee
and fix a sandwich, eat, and then depart, leaving behind a neat stack of dishes
in the sink.
Inevitably, Dean's offbeat behavior, as well as some
of his mannerisms as an actor, invited comparison with another Kazan prot?g?,
Marlon Brando. "The best way
to describe Jimmy Dean quickly," columnist Sidney Skolsky wrote, "is
to say he is Marlon Brando seven years ago." One fan magazine even ran a
story called "The Boy Who'd Like to Be Brando."
Of all the criticisms hurled against him, being
labeled a Brando imitator disturbed Dean the most---perhaps because there was
some truth in it. Ever since his
early days in New York, Dean had admired Brando and had gotten to know him
casually at the Actors Studio, and later at parties they both attended.
New York friends recall the zeal with which Dean would rehearse scenes
from A Streetcar Named Desire, the great Tennessee Williams play that had
made Brando a star. In fact, this imitation had carried over to some of Dean's
early television work. In reviewing
Death Is My Neighbor, Variety's critic had noted, "Dean's
performance was in many ways reminiscent of Marlon Brando in Streetcar, but
he gave his role the individuality and nuances of its own which it
required." Christine White, who was a friend of both Dean and Brando,
claimed, "It was a coincidence of nature that they were from the same
mold." Nevertheless, Chris remembered that in his New York apartment, amid
piles of laundry, Jimmy had a picture of Brando.
The Master, however, was not appreciative.
After meeting Dean at a party in New York, he told actress Barbra
Baxley,"You better get him to a doctor, he's very sick." When East
Of Eden was released, Brando publicly attacked his young admirer, accusing
him of "wearing my last year's wardrobe and using my last year's talents in
Such comments stung Dean, although he tried not to show it.
"When a new actor comes along, he's always compared to someone else,"
he told Bob Thomas of the Associated Press.
"Brando was compared to Clift, Clift to someone else, Barrymore to
Booth, and so forth.... I can only do the best job I can, the realist acting.
They can compare me to W C. Fields if they want to."
But when the comparisons between him and Brando
continued, Dean's responses grew icier and more in character. "I was riding a motorcycle long before I heard of Mr.
Brando," he pointedly informed one reporter. Newsweek reported him as saying: "People were
telling me I behaved like Brando before I knew who Brando was.
I am neither disturbed by the comparison, nor am I flattered by it.
I have my own personal rebellions and don't have to rely on Brando's."
On another occasion, Dean announced: "Within myself are expressions just as
valid.... And I'll have a few years to develop my own?--what shall I
The studio was equally eager for Dean to develop his
style, and was ready to give him the opportunity. He was awarded a new contract calling for nine pictures over
a six-year period, with the guarantee he would receive a minimum of fifteen
thousand dollars per picture. The
year 1956 was to be open for him to do a Broadway play, and he was free to do
any TV work. "I don't have
story approval, according to the contract," Dean told Lawrence Boyd of Motion
Picture magazine. "But
emotionally I certainly do. They
can always suspend me, for money isn't one of my worries."
Once the new contract was finalized, Dean was assigned
to Rebel Without a Cause, which had long been rumored as his next
Although preliminary work had been underway on the
picture for almost six months, director Nicholas Ray had already had his share
of production difficulties. Two
early story treatments, including one by Ray himself, had proved unsatisfactory,
and he was still without a workable screenplay.
Moreover, there were rumblings from the Breen office that any frank
treatment of juvenile delinquency might result in denial of a production code
seal. At Warners, one or two
front-office executives were privately leery about the whole project; some on
the lot doubted the film would ever be made.
One enterprising technician had even made a sizable bet to that effect.
But Ray was determined to move forward.
A talented, though mercurial, man, then in his early
forties, Ray had been educated at the University of Chicago and had had a
checkered career before finding a niche as a Hollywood director.
He had been at different times a radio script writer, a student of Frank
Lloyd Wright's, and a Broadway director before Elia Kazan hired him and took him
to Hollywood as his assistant.
Since leaving Kazan, Ray had made a number of notable
films of his own, including They Live by Night, In a Lonely Place, and Knock
on Any Door, the last based on Willard Motley's best-selling novel about an
adolescent who drifts into crime as a result of poverty.
"The protagonist in a Ray film may not have created his
torment," writer George Morris once noted, "but he is usually
responsible for perpetuating it." To admirers like Morris, Ray was a cinema
"poet of anguish and despair."
Not wanting to repeat himself, Ray decided to approach
the subject of juvenile delinquency from a different angle, focusing upon
middle-class youths whose feelings of isolation and aimlessness placed them at
odds with their families and the society around them.
It was a theme that was to strike an immediately responsive chord with
youthful filmgoers everywhere; bobby socks and penny loafers would quickly give
way to the era of blue denim and leatherjackets.
To successfully work with Dean, Ray sensed he needed
to create "a special kind of climate.
He needed reassurance, tolerance, and understanding," the director
later wrote. "I leveled with
him all the time and made him feel a part of the entire project.
He wanted to belong and I made him feel that he did."
Hoping to win Dean's confidence, Ray often invited him
to drop by his house on Sunday afternoons to meet his friends and talk.
Ray was then living in a small cottage at the Chateau Marmont, and these
gatherings included friends like Joe Pasternak, the producer, and screenwriter
Joan Harrison, who was Alfred Hitchcock's assistant.
"It was exploratory on both sides," Ray said.
"Was he going to like my friends, would he find their climate
encouraging? Both of us had to
One Sunday, after the others had left, Dean found
himself face to face across an empty room with Clifford Odets.
"I'm a son of a bitch," Dean said quietly.
Odets asked why. "Well,"
Dean explained, "here I am in this room.
With you. It's fantastic. Like meeting Ibsen or Shaw."
Odets afterward remembered this as one of the most
charming remarks ever addressed to him.
Another afternoon, Dean met Irving Shulman, who was
then working on the screenplay for Rebel Without a Cause.
Shulman had recently replaced Leon Uris, a contract writer, who had
dropped out of the project after contributing some valuable research.
He and Ray had visited juvenile Hall together and had interviewed social
workers, psychiatrists and juvenile offenders to search for ideas.
In interviewing youths, Ray had found the focal point for his movie.
"All told similar stories," he later
recounted in Sight and Sound, "divorced parents, parents who could
not guide or understand, who were indifferent or simply 'criticized,' parents
who needed a scapegoat in the family." In 1976, Ray told writer Susan
Braudy: "That movie is about a kid who wants to have one day that is not
Reworking the script, Schulman had already made one valuable contribution, the so-called "chickie run" scene, which was based on a newspaper story the author read. According to the
Screenwriter Irving Shulman was put off by Dean's ownership of a German-made racing car
story, a group of teenagers had assembled in stolen cars on a
cliff overlooking the ocean. Drivers
were to race each other toward the edge, and the first to jump from the car
before it went over was a "chickie." On this particular night one of
the teenagers failed to jump.
Knowing Shulman was a sports car buff, Ray hoped an
immediate rapport would be forthcoming between him and the young actor.
The result, however, was disappointing.
Dean was dismayed to discover that Shulman's car, an MG, lacked special
carburetors for racing and did not have real wire wheels.
For his own part, Shulman felt it was "still a little too close to
World War II" to appreciate Dean's German-made Porsche.
Jimmy typically showed his disapproval by turning away and avoiding
Not long after, Shulman dropped from the project to
work on a novel; his place was taken by a younger writer named Stewart Stern,
who wrote the tender teenage love scenes between Jim and Judy, the two main
characters, giving the film an almost lyrical overtone.
In the press there was lively speculation as to who
would co-star opposite James Dean. Hedda
Hopper reported that both Debbie Reynolds and Lori Nelson were under
consideration, and another young actress, a comely alumna of Southern Methodist
University named Jayne Mansfield, also had tested for the role.
Dean's choice was Christine White, his old friend from
the Actors Studio, but ultimately the part went to Natalie Wood, with whom Dean
had also worked and liked. A
one-time child actress, Natalie was even then only sixteen.
Another former child actor, Sal Mineo, was cast as
Plato, the lonely, neurotic youngster whom Dean befriends in the movie.
Dean had wanted Jack Simmons, one of the crowd at Googie's, but the
studio wouldn't go along. Simmons, in fact, was a close friend who sometimes shared
Jimmy's apartment and often followed him around.
But when Dean told Simmons of the company's decision, it appeared he was
looking out for number one. "I'm
under contract with Warners," he said, "and I can't raise too much
hell with them."
After meeting Mineo at Ray's apartment, Dean liked him
and gave his approval. Mineo
revered Dean's memory, but regretted that, because of their age gap, they never
became close friends away from the set. Over
the years, Sal recalled hearing rumors that Natalie and Dean, or even he and
Jimmy, were lovers. Mineo
maintained there was no truth to these stories. Still, he always admired Dean.
"He was the first rebel," Mineo later said.
"He was the first guy to ask, Why?
In choosing the rest of the cast, Ray also did his
best to select actors Dean felt comfortable with.
Nick Adams, a friend from Dean's early days in
Hollywood, was signed to play a young gang member, as was Dennis Hopper, an
eighteen-year-old actor whom the studio had first spotted playing an epileptic
on the television show Medic and awarded a contract.
He played a gang member named Goon.
Jack Simmons was given a bit part, and Dennis Stock, still
another member in good standing of the Dean entourage, became dialogue coach.
Among the "nonclub" members Ray chose were
Ann Doran and Jim Backus, who played Dean's parents. Rochelle Hudson was cast as Natalie's mother, and Bill
Hopper, Hedda's son, played the father. Marietta
Carty, the noted character actress, played a black housekeeper and Mineo's
By the middle of March, casting was completed and
shooting on the movie was scheduled to start at the end of the month.
Before beginning work on the picture, however, Dean
planned to enter his first sports car race, an event he had long looked forward
to. The meet, to be held in Palm
Springs, was sponsored by the California Sports Car Club, an association of
amateur and professional drivers.
When the studio got wind of Dean's plans, there was
some apprehension in the front office, but director Ray was unalarmed.
"I encouraged his racing," he later said.
"I felt it was good for Jimmy to do something on his own with
clarity and precision."
The weekend of the race, Dean drove to Palm Springs,
companied by Lili Kardell, a lovely Swedish-born actress whom he had been
dating. They planned to stay in a
small house in the desert, owned by Dick Clayton, Dean's agent, who was also
going to be there with his date. (After Dean's death, Clayton, like Jane Deacy,
refused to give interviews about his famous client.
Director James Sheldon believed the reason was that neither wanted to
answer the inevitable question about Dean's relationship with Rogers Brackett.)
The morning of the race was hot, without so much as a
light breeze to stir the desert air. A
field of nineteen cars was entered in the competition, a rugged six-lap race
over a 2.3-mile circuit set up along the concrete runways of the Palm Springs
Dressed in black racing coveralls and wearing a
checkered cap, Dean was in high spirits waiting for the event to begin.
"Racing," he would later say, "is the only time I feel
Dean's starting position, drawn by lot, was in the
fourth row back, virtually buried behind the rest of the pack.
But as the flag fell, Dean jammed his right foot down on the gas pedal
and roared away to a perfect Texas start, "stampeding" past a number
of other cars by cutting wide around the outside.
"No one expected Dean to go like he did,"
observed Wilson Springer, a Los Angeles sports car enthusiast.
"He went out and left everyone.
He was really blasting... going like a bomb."
At the first quarter mile Dean had maneuvered his car
into fifth place, and before the first lap ended he had taken the lead.
On the long back straightaway Dean was clocked at a hundred miles an
hour, the top limit the Porsche could go.
For the remaining five laps Dean easily held the lead,
finally taking the checkered flag with almost a full quarter lap separating him
and the runner-up.
"He was a lead foot, hard on engines, but he
wasn't afraid of the devil," claims author William Nolan, who was there
that day. "Even while charging
through the pack, he kept his head sort of slumped down toward his chest and his
face was expressionless. You'd
think he was out for a Sunday ride. Some
drivers frowned, gritted teeth, etc. But not Jimmy. He
was totally cool at speed."
In ceremonies following the race, Dean was awarded a
handsome silver trophy.
"At first we had thought he was just some
Hollywood character out for cheap publicity, but he earned our respect,"
another driver conceded. "He
proved himself one helluva fine driver."
Boosted by his victory, Dean entered another event, a
twenty-seven-lap race, open only to professional drivers, and held the next day.
Racing in a much tougher field of competition, Dean
finished third behind two top veteran drivers, Ken Miles and Cy Yedor.
For his performance, Dean won two more silver trophies: one for his
overall third-place finish, and another for taking second in his particular
class (cars from 1,100 to 1,500 cc.).
In this race, however, Dean's daredevil "lan drew sharp
reproach from other drivers. "His
skill was a dangerous one," a fellow competitor said.
"The kind that comes from a desperate desire to win.
He was a menace to himself and other drivers.
He would take any kind of chance to be first."
And Ken Miles, an Englishman who was later killed
racing at Riverside, summed up Dean's driving this way: "Jimmy wanted speed.
He wanted his body to hurdle across the ground, the faster the better.
Jimmy was a straightaway driver. His
track was the shortest distance between here and there."
But, the race completed and trophies in hand, Dean had
other things to think about than the carping of drivers he had handily battled
on the track.
That night he had to be back in Hollywood. The next day, Monday, March 28, he had an early date at the studio; shooting on Rebel Without a Cause was set to begin. ##
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