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“Acting is the most logical way for people’s neuroses to manifest themselves, in the great need we all have to express ourselves,” James Dean replied when asked why he turned to acting. “An actor’s course is set before he’s out of the cradle.”
September 30 marked what would have been his 85th birthday and 62 years since his, 1955, death. But time hasn’t diminished the cult resonance or seismic effect his raw performances etched on moviegoers.
Fascination with James Dean has never ended. He was a unique as he was difficult to work with. Sadly, even after only three starring roles, he was considered the bad boy of moviedom. Also, as a writer put it: “As enormously charismatic, gifted, and intelligent as he was, his ambition and belief that his instincts were always right undermined him.” Dean’s rocky road through Hollywood was tainted with difficult romances.
Some felt Dean’s relationship with Pier Angeli was a publicity stunt. Dean biographer John Howlett and his and Dean’s friend Bill Bast’s opinion was that Angeli’s “fairy tale accounts of intense love read like wishful fantasies.” The only thing needed was a knight in shining armor on a white steed.
Kazan, in his autobiography, dismissed the notion that Dean had success with women: "He always had uncertain relations with girlfriends." However, he recalled Dean and Angeli “loudly making love in Jimmy's dressing room.”
When Warner and Dean had their talks – with Warner playing a page from Mayer’s playbook, he told Dean he thought of him as a son – even smoked imported Cuban cigars with him. He told him that he had a young star’s mother complaining that he was molesting her daughter. Warner explained that he wasn’t ready for marriage – that soon he’d have the whole world, and countless women –at his feet and “Do you think America’s teenage girls will want to see you married?” Knowing Dean bull-headedness for doing the opposite of what he considered good, fatherly advice, Warner went a step further. He informed Dean that if he went through with marriage plans, he’d be out the door and looking for another studio.
MGM’s Louis B. Mayer was determined to keep Angeli pure -- if “Papa” only knew what his “daughter” was doing behind his back! He assigned publicist Esme Chandlee, who had kept the lid on her affair with Kirk Douglas, to keep the Dean trysts under wraps. In October 1954, ignoring Mayer and Warner, the couple planned to elope. But at the last mind Dean bailed. According to those close, it was because of pressure from Angeli’s mother, the fact that Dean wasn’t Catholic, and planted gossip column mongering. Dean, just finished with East of Eden, headed East. Before boarding his plane, he and Angeli had a huge blowout: “Why are you leaving me?” she screamed. Angeli broke their secret engagement.
Then she dropped a bombshell – one that stunned everyone.Her dreadful mother had engineered an engagement plot with Italian-American singer Vic Damon, who Angeli said she also loved. With Dean away, their engagement was announced.
Breathing heavy sighs of relief were Mayer and Jack Warner, who had a beautiful star and a handsome bachelor star, respectively, soaring into the firmament. But some close friends of Dean found her to be “a manipulating bitch,” figuring she was either out for revenge, like the cosa nostra back in the old country would do, or as a way to get Dean to the altar.
Dean was devastated. Bast thought he might even do bodily harm, even attack the singer, who had strong “family” ties back East. At the couple’s lavish pre-Thanksgiving wedding, numerous friends reported Dean cycled to the church and watched the bride’s arrival from across the street in pouring rain. He even gunned his engine during the ceremony and, as the couple exited, revved his motorcycle and sped off. Dean denied doing “anything so dumb."
Joe Hyams, in his 1992 Dean biography, claims that on a day he visited Dean not long after the wedding, Angeli was departing. He found Dean sobbing. The actor allegedly told him Angeli was pregnant -- and believed the child might be his. Dean never stopped wearing a locket with a tress of Angeli’s hair.
Angeli made films in the U.S. and several in Italy, but her career never soared. She may never have gotten over what she had done that broke Dean’s heart – and hers. Wedded bliss ended in divorce in December 1958. The couple had the one child. Her second husband was Italian film composer Armando Trovajoli. They had one child. In 1971, at only 39, she died of a barbiturate overdose. Friends, even Trovajoli, claimed that Angeli never got over Dean – that he was the love of her life. Ironically, if Dean had lived another year and starred in a film Warner had him earmarked for, Angeli would have been cast as his wife. In 1997, James Dean: Race with Destiny, a TV movie a.k.a James Dean: Live Fast, Die Young, aired as “the true-story account of the love affair between Dean and Pier Angeli.”
As troublesome as Dean was on East of Eden, WB knew they had hit box office gold, especially among adolescent audiences, and not just in the U.S. The film scored well in the U.K., France, and Germany.
In 1954, Dean became interested in becoming a regular on the car race circuit. After filming of Eden concluded, he purchased including a Triumph Tiger T110 and a Porsche 356. Before filming commenced on Rebel Without a Cause, on March 26 and 27, 1955 he competed in his first professional competition at the Palm Springs Road Races – taking first place in the Novice Class, and second place in the main event. He raced again in April in Bakersfield, where he finished first in his class and third overall. Dean had dreams of competing at the Indianapolis 500, but his Rebel shooting schedule made it impossible. Not only that, but Warner was constantly on his back about how risky his motorcycling and
racing was – for the studio.
Warners purchased rights to psychiatrist Robert M. Lindner’s 1944 book, Rebel Without a Cause: The Hypnoanalysis of a Criminal Psychopath, a groundbreaking attempt “to portray the moral decay of American youth, critique parental style, and explore the differences and conflicts between generations.” A full script was never done and the project was shelved. In 1946, WB producer Jerry Wald secured the rights and commissioned a script. One of the writers was Theodore Geisel – better known as Dr. Seuss.
Brando, on break in rehearsals for A Streetcar Named Desire, screen tested and was attached. Warner’s chief talent scout William Orr recalled: “'Brando just sat there tearing up an envelope into little pieces ... We figured he must be a genius, so we signed him.”
The script gathered dust until 1954 when director Nicholas Ray discovered it and began writing a treatment, The Blind Run. Ray, in his pre-black eye-patch [over his right eye due to an embolism-related injury] days, had a fascinating history – and seemed cut from the same cloth as Dean. Charismatic, intelligent, temperamental, unpredictable, a lover of the Bohemian lifestyle – and, if claims are correct, bisexual. He and the actor were a match made in heaven. Or hell.
Ray left University of Chicago after a year, but made such an impression on
one of his professors – two-time Pulitzer-winning playwright/novelist Thornton Wilder (The Bridge of San Luis Rey; Our Town, The Skin of Our Teeth), that he was recommended for a Tallesin Fellowship to apprentice with architect Frank Lloyd Wright. Ray noted he “learned the importance of space and geography – even my later love for [the widescreen process] CinemaScope.” Eventually, however, there was excessive drinking and political differences.
He made his way to New York, where he worked for the Federal Theatre Project, part of the WPA. He became friends with folklorist Alan Lomax. They traveled through rural America recording regional music. During the Depression, they produced a pioneering folk music radio program featuring Woody Guthrie, Burl Ives, Leadbelly, and Pete Seger. Even at the height of Hollywood’s “Red Scare” and blacklisting of actors and writers, Ray remained involved in Socialist and Communist movements.
Working with the Group Theatre, he met Elia Kazan – and, in 1944, served as his assistant on the screen adaptation of Betty Smith’s best-seller A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. He had two Broadway outings: acting in the Theatre of Action’s short-lived The Young Go First and directing the Duke Ellington and John La Touche’s musical Beggar’s Holiday, based on John Gay’s Beggar’s Opera and starring Alfred Drake and Zero Mostel.
Ray went on to film and directed highly-received movies in the film noir genre, including They Live by Night, a Southern gothic [Mississippi] prison escape thriller, which starred Farley Granger; Knock on Any Door, starring Humphrey Bogart; and the deep-color camp Western Johnny Guitar [which still has a cult following] starring Joan Crawford, Sterling Hayden, and Mercedes McCambridge.
His Blind Run treatment had little to do with Dr. Lindner’s book. Rather it “offered
social commentary and an alternative to previous films depicting delinquents in urban slum environments.” It became a story about emotionally confused suburban, middle-class teens on a journey through a turbulent universe of violence and delinquency.”
The director claimed Romeo and Juliet as his inspiration, calling it "the best play written about juvenile delinquents. The only Lindner remnant was the 'chickie-run' where Jim/Dean and Buzz/Corey Allen in a dare race toward a cliff [originally, this was to be a race along L.A. transit’s Sepulveda incline, where the cars would crash into the tunnel in the Santa Monica mountains].
WB script writer and author Irving Shulman tackled Ray’s original story to create the screenplay; and Stewart Stern, recipient of a 1951 Oscar nomination for Teresa, about a troubled American soldier, was assigned to craft the final product. Stern was born into Hollywood royalty, the nephew of Paramount Pictures founder Adolph Zukor and a cousin to the powerful Loews, who controlled MGM and a cinema chain.
Stern met Dean at a party at Arthur Loew Jr.'s home. "Jimmy and I laughed at the same things,” he recalled in a newspaper interview, “and he'd try to shock me and vice-versa, He was just one of those people you find irresistible, but he could also
be quite mischievous."
[Stern went on to a long career in film. He “became known for the psychological depth of his screen-writing.” Paul Newman, who directed 1968’s Rachel, Rachel, which Stern wrote and which starred Newman’s wife Joanne Woodward, told the Seattle Times in 1996, "Stewart's words give an actor a kind of emotional depth that you can just ride on, like a wave. He certainly stacks up as one of the best in our business."]
He stated the key to his success with Rebel was “finding a personal connection to the story. It was a story about me, as everything I've ever done turned out to be." In a 2011 interview, he stated that Rebel “was a portrait of juvenile delinquents and the family dysfunction that marred their prospects for happiness.” Even as respected as Stern was, Warner assigned second-in-command Steve Trilling to keep tabs on the budget and script. He went much further with voluminous typed notes, handwritten comments, and suggestions on Stern’s screenplay.
The writing credits were Stewart Stern (screenplay), Nicholas Ray (original story) and Irving Shulman (adaptation). In a 1999 interview, Stern claimed he never saw Ray’s treatment: “I was shocked when I learned that Ray wanted to take sole story credit, as there hadn’t been an actual story.” He admitted Ray and Shulman contributed to the story, and believed credit should have been divided between the three. And then there was Leon Uris (Battle Cry) who was brought in to punch up the script. He was responsible for the cliff top ‘chickie-run’ dare scenario “rather than having a suicidal rapture.” [The cliff was actually built on WB’s Stage 16, and Oscar-winning cinematographer Ernie Haller (Gone with the Wind) who gets kudos for making it look authentic by using various camera angles.]
Dean was Ray’s only choice to play Jim Stark, but Paul Newman, Tab Hunter, and Richard Beymer [later Tony in the screen adaptation of West Side Story] were considered. He was signed, sealed, and delivered on March 17. Natalie Wood was signed a week later, but no one knew the secret she and Ray carefully guarded.Behind the scenes tales of the production sounded right out of Grace Metalious’ novel Peyton Place. There’d already been the scandal of Ray discovering his
13-year-old son [with second wife Jean Evans] being seduced by his third wife, tempestuous actress Gloria Grahame.
However, Ray wasn’t above scandalous behavior.
Wood, 16, had been in 20 films since she was five. Being cast as Judy would be her transition to adult roles. But being considered for lovelorn Judy were Debbie Reynolds and, amazingly, Jayne Mansfield. Wood went into action, campaigning relentlessly, rarely missing a chance to put herself in Ray’s orbit. Eventually, he responded; but not as she planned – or was it?
The scuttlebutt goes that after a meeting in the studio commissary, Ray, 44, asked her out. By the time she screen-tested, the duo were entangled in a potentially career-toppling affair. They discretely rendezvoused almost daily for several weeks at the Chateau Marmont. It didn’t work. Ray felt she was “too naïve, too Hollywood.”
Pillow talk may have intervened. Ray began to envision Judy less as a trashy teen and more as a confused, hurting kid like Wood herself. Convinced that Wood was having an affair with Dean, he boiled with rage. But it was Dennis Hopper the trysts were with. Hopper was cast in Rebel, but when Ray found out about the affair, he gave nearly all of his lines to another actor. [He and Hopper reconciled later, with Hopper helping Ray, who’d hit hard times in the 70s, get work as a college instructor.]
On a late, rainy night in February 1955, Wood, out carousing with Hopper, miraculously survived a head-on collision on L.A.’s twisty Laurel Canyon Boulevard. Ray visited her in hospital, and overheard her doctor call her “a goddamn juvenile delinquent." Wood yelled to Ray: "Did you hear what he called me, Nick? He called me a goddamn juvenile delinquent! Now, do I get the part?"
Ray wrote Jack Warner: "We just spent three days testing 32 kids. There is only one girl who has shown the capacity to play Judy, and she is Natalie Wood." Then began Ray’s Vertigo-like reinvention of her, which included speech and lesson in how to walk, padded hips, and a special push-up brassiere — still known, in the annals of Hollywood undergarments, as the ”Natalie Wood bra.”
Hopper, Billy Gray (Bud Anderson, Father Knows Best), and 17-year-old TV actor Jeff Silver auditioned for the role of Plato, the loner Jim Stark meets in juvenile hall, who looks to Jim as a father/big brother figure. According to biographer Hymans, Ray spotted 15-year-old Sal Mineo at a casting call for gang members. He saw a resemblance to his son: “slight, almost pretty, with large, sad eyes” – not exactly right for a gang member.
Mineo had been on Broadway opposite Maureen Stapleton [one of the candidates for the role of Jim Stark’s mother] in The Rose Tattoo, and was one of the older children in Rodgers and Hammerstein’s The King and I, as well as two films, including playing the younger version of Tony Curtis’ character in the crime noir Six Bridges to Cross.
Ray had him do improv Corey Allen, and, impressed, set up a reading with Dean, where he didn’t see much chemistry. He sent them out – where they talked about Mineo’s native Bronx and cars. The rapport was there. He got the role. When casting was announced, rumors floated that Ray cast his three leads after sleeping with them. Though it was reported that he was bi-sexual in college, Ray vehemently denied the accusations.
At the end of March, Rebel Without a Cause began shooting, starting with a knife fight outside the Planetarium in Griffiths Park.Studio chief Jack Warner was not in the habit of viewing daily rushes of his films,
following the opening grosses of East of Eden and critical acclaim for Dean, he was checking up on a commodity he was banking on. He came by twice. Pleased, especially with how it appeared Ray was getting Dean to toe the line, Warner issued a bulletin. Production was to stop. At once!
Rebel without a Cause was quickly about to get a make-over and not only segue from a B-picture to a feast with all the cinematic trimmings, but also to “the boss’” pet project.
END OF PART TWO
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