COLUMN SEVENTY-EIGHT, NOVEMBER 1, 2002
(Copyright © 2002 The Blacklisted Journalist)
Myth-Shattering Biography of an Icon
THE JAMES DEAN STORY
(Copyright © 1975, 1995 Ronald Martinetti)
OF HIS THREE FILMS, Rebel Without a Cause, of
course, was the one Dean was most closely identified with.
As Casablanca was the ultimate Humphrey Bogart movie, so Rebel became
the quintessential James Dean film---the one in which, the legend maintains,
Dean was playing himself: the sensitive delinquent, the original crazy mixed-up
kid who, as Pauline Kael put it, "does everything wrong because he cares so
The legend is not altogether untrue; so many of Dean's
mannerisms---tbe soft, hesitant drawl, the cigarette dangling from his lips, his
perpetual slouch---went into the film that it was difficult to tell where his
own personality left off and acting took over.
"When you saw Rebel Without a Cause," Dennis Stock said,
"that was Jimmy you were seeing up there on the screen."
Much of the movie was shot on location in and around
the Los Angeles area, using such familiar sights as Santa Monica High School,
the Hollywood jail, and the Griffith Park Obser?vatory, where some of the
film's most famous scenes were shot. After
Dean's death, the planetarium became a mecca for the faithful.
In the 1980s, the city erected a bust of Dean, by his friend Ken Kendall,
to commemorate the actor's memory. The
deserted mansion sequence was shot in the same house where William Holden wooed
Gloria Swanson in the movie Sunset Boulevard.
Now torn down, the old mansion was actually located on Wilshire
Boulevard and Crenshaw.
On the set, Dean immersed himself in his role with his
usual gusto, sometimes losing himself in the part completely.
To key himself up, he would jump up and down, shadowbox, and wave his
arms wildly; before doing a difficult scene, Dean would refuse to speak to other
actors and demanded total silence, so as not to disturb his concentration.
"In the morning when he'd come to work, you could
say, 'Hello, Jimmy,' and he'd walk right by you," Dennis Hopper remembers.
"But he wasn't really ignoring you .... His approach was to shut the
door, and don't bother with anyone .... just get down to work, because work was
the important thing."
Jack Holland, a reporter who visited the set was ignored by Dean. His young costar Natalie Wood took the edge off the writer's annoyance by diplomatically explaining: "He lives a part with such verve that it sometimes spills over and seems to injure the feelings of other people without meaning to." Natalie added: "He throws everything into his acting and I have the bruises on my arm to prove it."
More than once Dean held up shooting and delayed pro?duction,
refusing to work until he was ready. Before
doing one scene, in which he is brought into Juvenile Hall on a drunk and
disorderly charge, Dean kept the cast and crew waiting an hour while he sat
alone in his darkened dressing room, drinking wine and playing his drums to get
in the right mood.
"What the hell does he think he's doing?"
one crew member grumbled. "Even
Garbo never got away with that."
When Dean was finally ready, he stormed out, strode
onto the set, and did the seven-minute scene in one take.
In shaping his role, Dean drew on his own moods and
expressions. There is a scene in
which Natalie Wood tenderly tells him of her feelings and asks, "Is this
what it is like to love somebody?" When she finishes, Dean drawls softly,
When Dizzy Sheridan finally saw Rebel Without a
Cause on television, she recalled Jimmy using that same expression when they
The movie's plot is a simple one, revolving around a
teenager's first day at a public high school.
But underneath that simple theme, the film laid bare the gulf between
teen?agers and their families.
"It's just the age when nothing fits,"
laments one parent in the film; another asks his child in bewilderment,
"Don't I buy you everything... ""
On the surface, postwar America was a placid,
well-ordered society; it was a time of expansion and prosperity: the Eisenhower
years. But young people coming of
age---like those shown in the movie---saw that the honesty and integrity their
elders paid lip service to were too often disregarded in reality.
"What can you do when you have to be a man?"
Dean asks in the movie. "I
want an answer now." On another occasion, he explains to his parents that
he took part in a dangerous drag race because, "It was a matter of honor.
They called me chicken. I
had to go." In another scene, hovering under the dome of the huge
planetarium, Sal Mineo says quietly, "What do they know of man alone?"
Teenage audiences totally identified with the movie.
The lines Dean---and the others---spoke were in their language, their
lingo. "Oh, get lost," Jimmy tells a social worker in one
scene, echoing the timeless adolescent desire to rebel against society.
If Dean was playing himself, he was playing them, too: kids groping their
way in an unloving world, longing for an ideal society where, as Dean's
character says at the end of the film, "We are not going to be lonely
In that movie, as in his life, he became as Aljean
Meltsir wrote, "the restless emblem of a restless generation." He
would be the crown prince of kids who hung out at pizza parlors; a troubadour
for youths who dedicated songs to each other on the radio.
Their striving for kicks---a word a gang member used in the
movie---?pitted them against their elders who had created what Renata Alder
called "the blandest, sanest, most unindividual time in recent
memory." If their rumbling was anarchic, it was a cry for freedom, too.
Throughout the filming, Nicholas Ray continued to
allow Dean as much freedom as possible in interpreting his role. "Lack of
sympathy, lack of understanding from a director, disoriented him
completely," Ray later wrote. "To
work with him meant exploring his nature, trying to understand it; without this
his powers of expression were frozen."
The director and his young star improvised scenes and
reworked the dialogue. Ray
understood the need for flexibility in a medium interdependent on writer, actor,
and director. "[I]t was never
all in the script," he later mused. "If
it were, why make the movie?"
When one particular sequence, a scene in which Dean's character quarrels with his father (played by Jim Backus), seemed to be causing trouble, Ray invited Dean over to his house one evening to work on it. When Dean arrived, Ray stationed himself before a television set, switching to a blank screen, so that he could watch Dean unobtrusively as he roamed around, snatched a bottle of milk from the refrigera'tor, and thought himself slowly in to the situation. After
Dean had the scene as he and Ray wanted it, Ray got
the set designer to come over to his house so that the living room set for the
film could be replaced on the lines of his own; the next day the sequence was
shot exactly as Dean and the director had rehearsed it, down to the bottle of
milk and the blank television screen that shimmered in the background.
In another scene, a knife fight between Dean and a
young gang member, Dean insisted that real knives be used to create the proper
atmosphere of tension and danger the situation called for.
Over protests from studio officials, Ray backed Dean up; real
switchblades were used, and though the actors wore chest protectors under their
shirts, Dean received a slight cut on the neck.
"Jimmy knew how to use himself with truth and without
compromise," Ray later said. It was this, and other scenes in the movie, that led Truman
Capote to describe Dean in the New Yorker as "the symbol of...
hotheaded youth with a switchblade approach to life's little problems."
(Though awarded a production code seal, the film was
later condemned in various quarters because of its violence.
Writing in the New York Times (October 27, 1955) Bosley
Crowther described the movie as "brutal ... and excessively graphic,"
and claimed, "It's a picture to make the hair stand on end." In
Memphis, Tennessee, the local censorship board banned the film as being
"inimical to the public welfare," and in England, where Dean had
numerous fans, it was several years before Rebel Without a Cause was
allowed to be shown.)
Dean also insisted upon doing his own stunts, even
though the production department feared an injury to him might hold up shooting
and cost the studio thousands of dollars. In
the famous "chickie-run" scene Dean was to leap from a car just before
it went over a cliff. The scene was
shot at the Burbank studio, and though the car was stationary, Dean refused the
use of a mattress to help ease his fall. Limey, the studio prop man, assured Dean that Errol Flynn had
used the same mattress in some of his most dauntless screen feats, but the
argument fell on deaf ears.
"Take it away, Limey," Dean told him.
"People will say, Jimmy Dean can't even do his own stunts, he needs
a mattress."' The story was duly reported by Sidney Skolsky in his column,
"Hollywood is My Beat" (May 27, 1955).
Despite the seriousness with which he approached his
role, out of camera range Dean remained unpredictable as ever.
"The one thing he could be expected to do was the unex?pected,"
a journalist later noted.
Crossing the studio lot with Stewart Stern after work,
Dean was stopped by Warner Brothers executive Steve Trilling and another man.
"Here's somebody I want you to meet, Jimmy," Trilling said.
Dean stared at the ground, and acknowledged the intro?duction by taking some
coins from his pocket and tossing them in front of Trilling who was Jack
Warner's right-hand man. Then he
Afterward, he said to Stern, "Stu, I'd like you
to do me a favor. If you ever find
out why I acted the way I did today, please tell me."
In other moods, however, Dean would graciously talk
with fans who visited the set and gladly posed with them for photographs.
Once, he delighted a group of visitors by signing autographs to their
hearts' content while sitting in an empty trash can.
Jimmy would also entertain others on the set with his
excellent imitations, doing Charlie Chaplin, Elia Kazan, or Montgomery Clift
with equal ease. One takeoff he did
on Mr. Magoo, the radio character made famous by Jim Backus, was so good
Nicholas Ray had it written into the script.
"He became other people with obvious passion," Ray said.
"This was a great part of his magic as an actor."
Along with his pal, Nick Adams, Dean even worked up a
comedy routine, and when word got out about it, the two were approached by a Las
Vegas talent scout interested in signing them for a nightclub act.
Jimmy promised to give it some thought.
"It's a lot of money," he told Adams, "and not much
Not that Dean lacked other opportunities to pick up a
few quick dollars. Early in May,
during a break in Rebel, he was paid two thousand five hundred dollars
for appearing in The Unlighted Road on the Schlitz Playhouse of Stars.
Dean played a young ex-GI who unwittingly becomes mixed up in a
hijacking ring. The show, which turned out to be Dean's last television
appearance, co-starred Pat Hardy.
A year later, after jimmy's death, NBC repeated the
program "by popular request." Producer William Self remembers only
that Dean "arrived for rehearsal driving a motorcycle.
He was extremely casual about everything, but did not give us any
trouble." The producer considered him for other shows, but he was not
If Dean could be so relaxed, it was certainly with good reason. He was currently the most sought-after young actor in Hollywood; scripts piled up for him to read, and producers vied to offer him roles. MGM, which had failed to get Dean for The Cobweb, now wanted him to play Rocky Graziano in Somebody Up There Likes Me, the movie adaptation of the prizefighter's best-selling autobiography. And producer Lew Ker?ner approached Dean about portraying Studs Lonigan on the screen.
Nor were these the only roles believed to be in the offing; even a brief visit the actor made one afternoon to another studio was enough to set off a fresh flurry of rumors. The fact that he was there to see the studio dentist made no difference.
Warners, though, had no intention of loaning Dean out
to another studio right now. Although
Rebel Without a Cause still had several weeks of shooting left, the
studio already had firm plans for Dean's next picture. This was to be Giant, an all-star vehicle, which
George Stevens planned to direct and co-produce.
Based on Edna Ferber's popular saga of a Texas family,
the film was to star Elizabeth Taylor, Rock Hudson, and Dean and to feature a
fine supporting cast that included Mercedes McCambridge, Jane Withers, Rod
Taylor, Carroll Baker, Paul Fix, and Chill Wills.
Dean was to play Jett Rink, a bitter and ambitious ranch hand who,
through good fortune and a gambling instinct, becomes a multimillionaire.
The part was modeled on the career of Glenn McCarthy, the flamboyant
Houston wildcatter and builder of the Shamrock Hotel.
Known as Diamond Glenn, McCarthy liked to drink and
brawl, in that order. Compared to
Glenn---a crony once said---"that guy in Giant was a sissy."
McCarthy built the Shamrock to spite the country clubs that had banned him from
membership. The hotel was opened in
1949 with a gala bash that cost a million dollars, an episode that was the
inspiration for Dean's drunken banquet scene at the end of the film.
For Jimmy, the part was a real plum and a departure from playing what
John Dos Passos called "sinister adolescents."
Like Elia Kazan, George Stevens never grew to like
Dean. Yet, after Jimmy's death,
when Stevens edited the film, he recognized how right he had been to give him
the role. As he watched Dean slide
across the screen, giggling in a scene, or turning his back to the camera,
violating "all the dramatic precepts" of a seasoned actor, he recalled
Dean saying when they first met, "Hey, you know something, Mr. Stevens,
that part of Jett Rink-that's for me," and imagined him adding in the
darkness of the projection room, "I told you it was for me.
Man, I just knew."
But if the studio had any hopes that Dean's growing
stature as an actor might somehow alter his behavior, they were soon sorely
disappointed. At a luncheon given
to introduce the cast of Giant to the press, it was the same old James
Dean who showed up late dressed in blue jeans and his favorite red flannel
shirt. While the rest of the cast
rose one by one to greet the press, Jimmy sat in his chair and stared at the
floor. When a photographer asked
him to pose for a shot, the actor clipped on his sunglasses and refused to
remove them, explaining he had been up late and had bags under his eyes.
Dean also continued to avoid the usual Hollywood
social scene, preferring instead the company of cronies like Lew Bracker, stunt
driver Bill Hickman, and Bill Stevens, a sports car driver who was then sharing
Stevens had a girlfriend who was a secretary, and he
and Dean often double-dated, with Dean going out with one of her friends.
Stevens, who afterward became an actor, always looked with amusement on
stories that linked Dean roman'tically with Natalie Wood.
"Natalie was just a little girl then," Stevens said.
'Jimmy and I used to walk her home from school."
Dean's favorite date was Lili Kardell, whose lively
outlook and cheerful anti-establishment attitude closely resembled his own.
"With Jimmy nothing was ever planned; everything had to be
spontaneous," remembers Lili. "I
would get on the back of his motorcycle and he would go like hell." Knowing
the way to her man's heart, Lili, who is now an interior decorator in New York,
once sent Dean a new oil filter for his Porsche as a gift.
Always on the lookout for a new home away from home,
Dean began to take his meals at the Villa Capri, a small Italian restaurant
located on McCadden Place, half a block from Hollywood Boulevard.
The maitre d', Nicolas Romanos, was something of a character in his own
right. An engaging White Russian
emigr?, Romanos claimed to have once been a dancer with Diaghilev's Ballet
Rousse and to have hobnobbed with various legendary figures as a young man in
The first time Dean came to the restaurant and asked what was good on the menu, Romanos
Dean would come to dinner at the restaurant unshaven and wearing a string to hold up his pants
told him, "How should I know?
I hate Italian food. Go down
the street to Don the Beachcomber's if you want a good meal." After that,
Romanos quickly became both Dean's friend and confidant, and the Villa Capri his
Dean invariably entered the restaurant by coming in
through the kitchen, first stopping to sample the antipasto the chef kept in the
refrigerator. If the restaurant was
crowded, Jimmy simply sat at a table reserved for someone else.
Finally, Romanos resolved matters by fixing up a small storeroom off the
kitchen where the actor could eat. Sitting
there on an empty orange crate, he could enjoy his veal parmigiana apart from
the other diners.
Dean's mannerisms, however, were no longer much of a
novelty. Fewer eyebrows were raised
when he sauntered into his favorite places unshaven and wearing a string,
instead of a belt, to hold up his pants. At
the Villa Capri Dean might sit alone for an hour, carefully building a house out
of breadsticks, but no one paid much attention.
What had once been ways of expressing his identity now seemed only a
calculated pose to get attention.
There were some, of course, who felt this was what
Dean had been up to all along. "He
was always conscious of his image," a director claimed, "and he worked
very hard to maintain it."
"Dean could behave intelligently when it suited
him," explains Walter Ross, who was then a publicity man at the studio.
"If there was something important he wanted to talk to you about, he
expressed himself clearly, but after he told you what he wanted, all you would
get from him was mumbles. It made
Ross, who eventually left Warners to go out on his own, later wrote a novel, The Immortal, in which the main character, a brash young actor, reminded many of Dean. (The book also fictionalized Dean's involvement with the smart, gay crowd that had revolved around Lemuel Ayers and Rogers Brackett.
By now even some of Dean's closest friends were
beginning to be put off by his antics. "It
was the same game he had been playing for two years," declared Bill Bast.
"I was embarrassed by his lack of inventiveness, and it bored
Although Bast's affection for his friend still
remained, other friendships proved not quite so durable.
There was a falling-out with Vampira that delighted the film press.
"I don't date cartoons," Dean told one reporter.
Over the years, Vam?pira paid him back, chipping away at the legend.
"He was attracted to---whomever," she once
said, hinting at Dean's bisexuality.
Dean's friendship with Leonard Rosenman, a young com?poser
who had scored East of Eden, also ended abruptly.
Rosenman, who was then engaged in scoring Rebel, had once been as
close to Dean as anyone; at one point the two had talked about Dean directing a
one-act opera, Cipolla the Great, that Rosenman had written, but this,
too, died with the friendship. Even after Dean's death, some of the bitterness lingered.
"Jimmy was always saying how he loathed Holly?wood,"
Rosenman told writer Martin Mayer, "but really he loved it.
You know how it is, in the land of the blind the one-?eyed man is king.
In Hollywood, Jimmy could believe he was an intellectual.
Shooting on Rebel Without a Cause was completed
the last week in May, and Dean immediately reported to start work on Giant.
Stevens and the other principals in the cast planned to leave on the
twenty-seventh of the month for Charlottesville, Virginia, where the movie was
to be shot on location for two weeks. Since
Dean was not needed for any scenes there, Stevens arranged for him to remain
behind, getting outfitted for his wardrobe and working with dialogue coach Bob
Hinkle to perfect a Texas accent. Dean
was then to catch up with the others in Marfa, Texas, where principal location
work was scheduled to begin early in June.
Once again, however, the subject of Dean's racing came
up. Several weeks earlier, midway
through Rebel Without a Cause, he had shaken front-office
executives by entering his car in a Sunday meet near Bakersfield.
Driving on a rain-slicked track, Dean won two trophies in an afternoon
that was marred by a crash in which a thirty-two-year-old driver, Jack Drummond,
lost his life. When a reporter
asked Dean how Warners felt about his racing he replied:
"They sort of shoot around it, but they've never
said, 'Don't do it.' Everybody likes a winner, and so far I've been
But now George Stevens put his foot down.
A five-million?-dollar production was at stake and Stevens had no
intention of jeopardizing it for Dean's love of speed: During Giant Dean
was forbidden to race or to take his Porsche with him to Texas as he had hoped.
He had told the director he wanted to use the car to hunt rabbits, but in
Marfa, Dean would have to find other means for getting around on the range.
Although he had given his word to Stevens, Dean conve?niently
managed to stretch his side of the agreement.
Memorial Day Weekend (May 28-29) there was a race being run in Santa
Barbara, and he decided to compete in it, though work in Giant was
officially under way. He once said
of racing: "If I thought I was risking my life, I wouldn't participate.
I love life too much. There
are too many things I have to do."
Accompanied by Bill Stevens, his friend and mechanic,
Dean drove to Santa Barbara the day before the race and checked into the Del Mar
motel. The next morning Jimmy was at the track early.
"I saw him at the technical inspection," said driver Dave
Watson. "He was ... off to the
side by himself. He was very interested in the other cars.
I could tell he didn't miss a trick."
But luck was not to be with Dean that weekend.
He drew a poor starting position, finding himself eighteenth behind the
leader at the pole.
Pushing hard from the outset, Dean maneuvered his car
through the crowded field, moving ahead until another Por'sche suddenly cut in
front, nearly brushing his bumper. Dean
swerved to avoid a crash and sideswiped two of the packed hay bales, skidded for
several feet, and came to a halt. According
to William Nolan, who witnessed the event, only Dean's quick reflexes and
thinking averted a catastrophe.
Immediately Dean resumed his former pace, and by the
fifth lap he had moved into fourth place, gaining rapidly on the leader.
But Dean was pressing too hard, and his engine blew under the strain.
With a single lap remaining, he coasted to a halt at the side of the
track, his dicing at an end. The
race was won by Dale Johnson, a driver Dean had beaten at Palm Springs.
Back in Hollywood, Dean had no time for bitter
reflection. With only a week left
before he was due in Marfa, he settled down to the serious business of tackling
his role. He read up on Texas
history and studied a tome on cattle raising.
He put his tape recorder to good use as well, spending hours going over
The part of Jett Rink, Dean freely admitted, was the
hardest challenge he had yet faced. Still,
on the eve of his departure his enthusiasm remained high.
"George Stevens is the greatest director of them
all---even greater than Kazan," he asserted. "Stevens was born for the movies. You know, when it wants to, Hollywood can accomplish
tremendous things. And this movie
might be one of them."
This was indeed heady praise, and a rare song for
James Dean to sing, but down in Marfa there would be a more familiar tune. ##
CLICK HERE TO GET TO INDEX OF COLUMN SEVENTY-EIGHT
CLICK HERE TO GET TO INDEX OF COLUMNS
Blacklisted Journalist can be contacted at P.O.Box 964, Elizabeth, NJ 07208-0964
The Blacklisted Journalist's E-Mail Address:
THE BLACKLISTED JOURNALIST IS A SERVICE MARK OF AL ARONOWITZ