COLUMN EIGHTY, DECEMBER 1, 2002
(Copyright © 2002 The Blacklisted Journalist)
Myth-Shattering Biography of an Icon
THE JAMES DEAN STORY
(Copyright © 1975, 1995 Ronald Martinetti)
FIFTY-NINE MILES from the Mexican border, and three and a half hours by
car from El Paso, the nearest city of any size, Marfa, Texas, was a typical
sleepy Southwest town. The
population was approximately twenty-nine hundred; the mayor, Henry A. Coffield,
had recently been re-elected to office without opposition, and the surrounding
area, Presidio County, was in the grips of a severe drought.
Some 280 strong, including technicians and actors, the
company of Giant poured into town, bringing with them over a million
dollars' worth of equipment to mount the production. To capture the flavor of life among the Texas rich, the
studio imported a fleet of expensive automobiles, including a grand 1924
Rolls-Royce touring car. A
three-story Victorian mansion, which had been built at the studio in Burbank,
was shipped to Marfa in sixty sections and reassembled on a ranch seventeen
miles outside of town. Costing
$200,000, the building was used only for exteriors and remained behind after the
filming; the ranch's proprietor, Ward Evans, later converted it into a hay barn.
Ironically, Marfa is
situated in an area of West Texas that produces no oil---the terrain is rugged
mountain country; so the company erected its own wells, machines that gushed
over twenty-two hundred gallons of ersatz oil a minute.
To simulate a dust storm for one scene, a gigantic wind machine was also
constructed, but here Marfans were on more familiar ground and remained
unimpressed. One old-timer who had
seen many a real duster called the Hollywood facsimile "a pretty puny
attempt," complaining it hardly stirred up "more than four acres of
But generally relations were good between the movie people and their hosts. Edna Ferber's novel, which some had thought a roman 4 clef about the King Ranch, had not been popular
were hired as extras
among Texans, who considered it an unflattering
portrait of their state. According
to a Dallas newspaper columnist, one Texan had threatened, "If they make
and show that damn picture in Texas, we'll shoot the screen full of holes."
The film company was prepared to go to great lengths to ensure local harmony.
The set was thrown wide open to visitors, who came from all over the
state to see the filming, in some cases timing their summer vacations so they
could make the trip.
To further cement good relations, a former rodeo queen
from the University of Texas was signed for a cameo, and in one barbecue scene,
it was said that among the sixty-five extras ten were authentic Texas
millionaires. One, Fayette Yates,
happily announced that he had finally fulfilled a lifelong ambition to be an
"actor." The pride of Texans was a serious matter and would not be
treated lightly by their Hollywood brethren.
In Marfa, this strategy
worked especially well. Altogether,
almost two hundred Marfans went on the company payroll, including the town's
lone bootblack, whom director Stevens personally invited to be in the movie
"along with Rock and Liz." He played a train porter.
The town's weekly newspaper, the Big Bend Sentinel,
which had once denounced Edna Ferber's novel as "superficial and
derogatory to Texans," now was won over to the side of the angels:
"The filming of Giant has brought invaluable publicity to
Marfa," a writer neatly explained, "in addition to putting many
thousands of dollars in circulation."
Although Stevens retained the good will of Marfans
throughout the filming, achieving peace within his own company proved somewhat
of a different matter.
The movie was on location slightly more than two weeks
when the first reports of dissension between Stevens and Dean filtered back to
Then fifty-one years old, George Stevens had a solid
reputation as a Hollywood director, having made such movies as A Place in the
Sun, based on Theodore Dreiser's An American Tragedy, and
Shane. A one-time cameraman who
had first broken into movies shooting Laurel and Hardy comedies, Stevens's
directorial method was both expensive and time?consuming---as well as
enormously successful. Known as the
"Around the clock" system, Stevens would shoot a scene from every
conceivable angle and spend up to a year editing the footage, selecting the best
frames for his final print. (On Giant over 600,000 feet of film were
shot, of which 25,000 were used.)
Sets and location were his staple, Cinemascope, his
wizardry. "The concentric
classicism of the Stevens frame," critic Andrew Sarris noted, "once
looked like an official style for national epics." In Giant, he
sought to capture the struggle between oilmen and cattlemen, old money and new,
a theme big as the Texas range. At
one point in the movie, Dean says: "I guess Christmas is as good a day as
any to talk business." In another scene, he tells a cattleman bluntly,
"I'm going to have more money than you ever thought you could have."
On the set Stevens was
regarded as a taskmaster who had firm ideas of how a scene should be done and
very little patience for actors' vagaries.
Dean, on the other hand, worked best in an informal atmosphere, one in
which he was free to improvise.
"When an actor plays a scene exactly the way a
director orders, it isn't acting. It's
following instructions," Dean maintained. "Anyone with the physical qualifications can do that.
[An, actor] must be allowed the space, the freedom, to express himself in the
role. Without that space an actor
is no more than an unthinking robot with a chestful of push buttons."
In Rebel Without a Cause, Nick
Ray had allowed him such freedom and achieved fine results.
But Stevens had no intention of permitting his twenty-four-year-old star
any such liberties. In her
autobiography, Baby Doll, Carroll Baker recalled: "There are many
directors ... who would have been phony with Jimmy in order to get a
performance, appeasing him on the set and then complaining bitterly about him
behind his back." But not ex-Army officer Stevens.
"He told Jimmy what he thought of his conduct to his face and never
changed that story when relating it to others."
In recounting his experiences in working with Dean to a Saturday Review reporter, Stevens had this to say: "[Dean] had the ability to take a scene and break it down; sometimes he broke it down into so many bits and pieces that I couldn't see the scene for the trees, so to speak. I must admit that sometimes I underestimated him, and sometimes he overestimated the effects he
he never got a single pleasant word from Jimmy
thought he was getting .... All in all it was a hell
of a headache to work with him.... It's tough on you, he'd seem to imply, but
I've just got to do it this way. From
the director's point of view that isn't the most delightful sort of fellow to
Frustrated by his lack of rapport with Stevens, Dean
quickly lost interest in the production. He
avoided the rushes, which were shown each evening at a local theater the company
took over, and absented himself from social gatherings attended by the rest of
the cast. At one barbecue he did go
to, Dean filled his plate with fried chicken and repaired to a cowshed, only
emerging after most of the others had left.
Rock Hudson, who was assigned the same living quarters
as Dean, later complained that he never got "a single pleasant word"
from him. Working with Jimmy did
not give him much pleasure. Doing a
scene with another actor, Hudson said, usually involved "giving and
taking." Dean was "just a taker." According to one account,
Hudson hadn't forgotten that Dean was once a bit player in a movie he had
starred in, and resented the attention Dean was receiving in the press.
But whatever the reasons, the dislike was clearly mutual.
"He was nasty, mean," Hudson told reporter Maurice Zolotow. "I don't know what was eating him. If I said hello or good morning, he snarled at me."
Later Zolotow was disturbed---if not infuriated---by
the Dean legend. He considered Dean
to be "a second-rate actor" and blamed the studio's publicity
department for building him up as a "romantic rebel" to promote Giant,
which was released a year after the actor's death. Zolotow labeled Dean "a rotten hero"---
"rude," "sexually twisted," and "abusive" to those
around him. In 1956 he wrote
prophetically in the Los Angeles Times "The persons whom youth
idealizes exemplify certain traits which unconsciously shape the lives of
children as they grow up. To some
extent, what our country will become tomorrow is determined by whom our children
admire today." It may be that the hero of the fifties sowed the seeds of
rebellion that were to flower in the free spirit of the sixties and seventies.
With several exceptions, Dean's relations with others
in the company were not much better than those he had with Hudson. Chill
Wills, who also had been bunking with Hudson and Dean, soon moved out after an
argument over Jimmy's playing a guitar. A
man of few words, Wills had taken the guitar and broken it.
In the movie he played a hard-drinking cowpoke.
In old age, he later campaigned for George Wallace for President.
He and Dean had little in common. One
night Dean showed up wearing a headlamp strapped to his head and toting a .22
rifle he used to shoot jackrabbits. "These
Actors Studio kids are a weird bunch," Wills complained to a reporter,
Elston Brooks of the Fort Worth Star Telegram.
Fortunately, Dean had a number of allies on the set.
Dennis Hopper, his friend from Rebel Without a Cause, had a
supporting role in Giant and was also on location in Marfa.
Six years Dean's junior, Hopper had grown up on a small Kansas farm, and
their similar backgrounds drew him and Dean together despite the age difference. "It wasn't a buddy-buddy hang-out thing," Hopper
later explained. "But he knew
I was really interested in acting and film, and it became sort of like student
and teacher between me and Jimmy."
On Rebel Dean had offered Hopper an occasional
acting tip, introducing him to fundamental Method techniques.
"If you're smoking a cigarette, smoke the cigarette and don't act
[it]," Dean had told him. "You
have to do something and not show it."
But in Marfa he began watching Hopper's takes,
sometimes without Hopper's knowing it, and afterward they'd go over the scene.
"He was the most creative person I ever
knew," Hopper later said, "and he was twenty years ahead of his
Dean's self-assurance before the cameras also
impressed his young prot?g". "Jimmy
would come on the set and literally give everybody the finger and make them his
enemy," Hopper told an interviewer for Gallery magazine.
"Then he wouldn't have to hear from the grips about how James Cagney
would have played that scene or listen to all the advice a young actor would
have to stand... from the crew."
This admiration, however, may not have been mutual.
Dean's Hollywood roommate, Bill Stevens, remembered: "He was very
fond of Dennis Hopper when Dennis first came to Warner Brothers.
That didn't last too long, as Dennis began to change.
But I think Dennis greatly admired Jim."
So great was Dean's influence that after his death Hopper seemed determined to carry on in his friend's footsteps. He moved to New York to enroll in the Actors Studio and remained there two years. When he returned to Hollywood to make a western, he quickly earned a reputation as being difficult to direct. As a result, Hopper worked very little over the next decade, landing only an occasional part in low-budget productions (Night Tide, The Trip), until he teamed up with Peter Fonda to direct and act in Easy Rider, a motorcycle opera about life in the sixties. The
and Jimmy strolling
through the streets of Marfa sparked rumors
grossed millions and made Hopper a star in his own right, though in numerous
interviews he always acknowledged his debt to Dean, faithfully maintaining his
position as Dean's self-appointed heir for over a quarter century.
But Dean's influence had more immediate results as
well. Inspired by his friend,
Hopper sometimes resisted Stevens's suggestions, wanting to play a scene his own
way. This did not please the
director, who believed in "the teamwork of moviemaking." "You've
been watching that Dean again," Stevens would tell Hopper sternly.
"You guys are screwing me up."
Elizabeth Taylor, who was having her own share of
differences with Stevens, likewise found a friend in Dean.
Originally, Stevens had wanted Grace Kelly for the movie, but when she
proved unavailable, he turned to Liz instead.
He had directed her in A Place in the Sun and had gotten a good
performance from her as a spoiled heiress, but her role in Giant was far
more demanding. She played a woman
who ages thirty years in the course of the film, going from an eighteen-year-old
belle to a grandmother of two. At
the time, Liz was only twenty-two, which made the latter transitions in age that
much harder to portray. (Carroll Baker, who played her daughter in the movie,
Like Dean, Taylor found herself at odds with the
director. "I found out on Giant,"
she later explained, "that [Stevens] tends to like having a patsy or two on
a film. James Dean was one and I
was another, but I'll say this for George---he usually picks people who can
One early skirmish took place over a costume Stevens
had selected for her. Taylor
claimed the heavy stockings and large hat the director had chosen made her look
mannish. Stevens charged that all
she cared about was how she looked and that her only concern was in "being
glamorous." "There was a huge battle," Liz remembers.
"I think I got rid of the hat.
Nobody won; nobody lost; we did the scene.
It was like that during the whole film."
Liz's friendship with Dean did not go unnoticed by the Hollywood press. In the movie, Dean played a rough outsider who loves the cattle baron's beautiful wife, played by Taylor, from a distance, and reporters in Marfa, seeing Taylor and Dean having dinner at a local county club, or strolling through the streets of town, naturally hinted at a possible romance. These rumors were helped by the fact that Miss Taylor's marriage to English actor Michael Wilding, her second
and cut off their ears
husband, was known to be on shaky grounds.
Others, however, believed there was no substance to the rumors.
According to John B. Allan, one Taylor biographer, her friendship with
James Dean was similar to the one she enjoyed with Montgomery Clift, with whom
she had made A Place in the Sun and who had remained her dearest friend.
"If the relationship with Clift was like two
cousins who'd met after both had grown up," Allan wrote, "the
relationship with Dean was more like two in-laws, neither of whom can stand the
rest of either family."
Most of Dean's free time, however, was spent in the
company of Bob Hinkle---a former rodeo rider whom Stevens made the cast's
dialogue coach---and with other cowboys and stuntmen. Carroll Baker wondered if "that is how rumors of
[Dean's] homosexuality got started," but concluded (probably correctly)
that Jimmy's motive was only to learn from them.
Before the start of the picture, Hinkle had worked with the actor on his
accent, and in Texas the friendship deepened.
"People told me he was moody and hard to get
along with, that he clammed up and wouldn't talk," Hinkle said.
"That was a lot of nonsense. He
could talk your arm off."
Hinkle, who was from Brownfield, Texas, taught Dean to
ride herd and rope cattle, and even how to spot what area a Texan hailed from by
the crease in his hat. Sure enough,
Dean soon announced that he and Hinkle were planning to enter a major rodeo in
San Francisco in the fall. This, no
doubt, was another of Dean's momentary inspirations that delighted studio
publicists by providing good copy: like Dean's plans to study music in Haiti or
even return to school for law.
Nevertheless, Jimmy dutifully practiced the rope
tricks Hinkle showed him. "I
taught him how to build a loop with the rope," Hinkle said.
"There's a lot more to it than just making a big loop.
You have to work it so that you can throw it off your hand just right. Before we came back to Hollywood, Jimmy was an expert."
Dean neatly employed his newly acquired skill in the movie; in a scene with Rock
Hudson he nonchalantly performed a rope trick while delivering his lines.
It stole the scene. Even
Stevens was not impervious to Dean's insight and dedication to his role.
"He used himself as a kind of clay," the director said.
"It was his finest art."
At sundown after a hard day on the set, Dean and
Hinkle would climb into the company car and drive off into the prairie to hunt
jackrabbits. Often he and Hinkle
stayed out all night, returning to the location after dawn. Dean would later show up at breakfast and announce to the
others: "We killed 34 rabbits last night; that makes a total of 104 to
date." Then, he'd turn and leave.
Maybe it was the Texas sun; maybe it was the boredom
of the high desert or the endless takes that Stevens exacted, but Jimmy's
behavior seemed to slip from the offbeat to the bizarre. He boasted that he cut off the ears of rabbits he had killed
and planned to send them to Jack Warner. Once,
it was reported that he took a break during rehearsal and urinated in front of
the startled crew. Another time
(back in Hollywood), he reached under a table during a scene and grabbed Carroll
Baker's crotch while she struggled through her performance.
"There were many things about this boy that many
people wouldn't have overlooked," Henry Ginsberg, the film's co-producer,
said later. "I overlooked them
because he had talent."
This sentiment was echoed by actress Mercedes
McCambridge: "I can't tell you how he needed to be patted," Miss
McCambridge said afterward. "He
was the runt of the litter of thoroughbreds.
You could feel the loneliness beating out of him, and it hit you like a
"You can forgive a lot of things for talent, and
Jimmy was bursting with it."
June had been hot in Marfa, but July was even hotter.
By early morning the temperature was already in the eighties and in the
afternoon the mercury climbed well past ninety.
After four weeks of being on location, the cast had
grown weary and restless. Despite
the hospitality of Marfans, supper dances at the local Lions Club had no further
allure, and the visitors yearned for the excitement of Hollywood.
After a final week of shooting in the broiling Texas
sun, the last location footage was in the can, and by July 8 the company was
free to depart. Two months of
filming remained to be done back at the studio in Burbank, but Mr. Stevens's
movie was right on schedule. ##
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