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The holidays are upon us, and while many see them as a time best appreciated by children, they also have special meaning for people of all ages. As Jerry Herman wrote (and Angela Lansbury so memorably sang in Mame), we all need a little Christmas! Several theater artists recall most cherished -- and not-so-cherished -- holiday memories.
Laura Benanti (Tony winner and four nominations; two Drama Desk Awards; currently in Meteor Shower)
My favorite Christmas was when I was 10 and I was beginning to doubt there really was a Santa Claus. Christmas Eve, on the way to church, we were driving through the winding New Jersey hills and a huge deer with giant antlers leapt out and stared straight at us! Needless to say, after that I believed.
Michael Feinstein (Five-time Grammy nominee; Drama Desk Special Award)
It was New Year's Eve, and I was performing at San Francisco's Plush Room at the start of my solo career. Two friends brought a venerable Oscar-winning actress, who was seated at the footlights and thus practically a part of the show due to her gesticulations of delight throughout. She was kind and supportive at the start, but after 30 minutes she was in a drunken stupor and began heckling me -- yelling "get off the stage, you're terrible"! The audience was suddenly witnessing a train wreck and I was devastated. The great lady then passed out and was ushered out to the relief of both performer and audience. After that ordeal, I received one of my greatest ovations (for bravery and valor); and I had a few belts myself!
Chad Kimball (Tony nominee, Memphis; currently: Come from Away)
My entire family was flying in to spend Christmas when I was on Broadway in Good Vibrations. Then, on Christmas Eve, Dad was rush to the hospital. He had quadruple heart bypass surgery. Everyone, but Mom made it in. It certainly wasn’t the Christmas we expected. We were in constant touch. Thankfully, Dad came through with flying colors. That Christmas reminded me of the great bond I have with my family, and how we are always there for each other through good and bad.Lorna Luft
Growing up, Liza [Minnelli] Joey [Luft] and I had Christmas everywhere — different houses, different cultures, different countries. Mama [Judy Garland] adored Christmas, and made it awesome no matter the circumstances. Those were truly wonderful times I cherish. But my favorite holiday memories are with my children, Jesse and Vanessa. Christmas is about giving, not receiving. When they were old enough to understand what Christmas is about, my husband Colin and I took them shopping, but to buy gifts for those not as fortunate. We’d go to the shelters in Los Angeles and distribute them. The smiling faces of those who thought they would have nothing brought us the true meaning of the season.
Donna Murphy (Two-time Tony winner; three-time Drama Desk winner; currently, alternating weekly in Hello, Dolly!)
The best holiday memory was our first Christmas with our (with late husband Shawn Elliott) almost teen daughter Darmia Hope. She was almost nine months and in a constant state of wonder. It was absolutely contagious! I remember her first Christmas and her amazement as we decorated. That year, and each since, she received an ornament that’s related to something special that year. When she has her own tree, she’ll have a meaningful collection of treasures and memories.Chita Rivera (two-time Tony winner and nine nominations; two-time Drama Desk nominee)
The family home was over 200 years old. Do I love Christmas? It was always decorated with poinsettias inside and out, front and back. We’d have three trees with lights and ornaments. Returning from Christmas Eve mass, we open our gifts. [Daughter] Lisa would play Christmas music. We’d get the youngest of my brother’s grandchildren to distribute the gifts. We love to cook, and would work for days on the dinner. It’s traditional – in a not-so-traditional way. The turkey is stuffed with oysters, herbs, and, to absorb the juices, cornbread. (Sister) Lola and I basted the bird with mayonnaise and (Spanish spice) sazon. Then, there’d be all the trimmings: string bean casserole and sweet potatoes with bourbon and topped with marshmallows; and, in case anyone wanted dessert, corn pudding. After the holidays, when anyone would say, “I lost 10 pounds!”, I’d reply, “I found them!”Lea Salonga (Olivier, Tony, and Drama Desk Awards; currently in Once on This Island)
My best memories got back to the time my brother and I were young. We didn’t have a lot, but Mom somehow managed to have tons of food: chicken, potato salad, baked ham, ambrosia , hot chocolate and, for starters, pigs in a blanket. Looking back, I loved Christmas because our celebration was utter simplicity and quiet. In fact, I can’t ever recall ever having a bad Christmas!Mary Testa (Two-time Tony nominee; Special Drama Desk Award, and five nominations)
One of my favorite memories was in 1980. I was in my mid-20s,
and appearing on Broadway in Barnum. I love my family Christmases. We are Italian, and always have a dinner with seven kinds of fish. Afterwards, we opened our presents. Christmas day was always just a lovely, relaxing day. But the day after Christmas there were two shows, and the schedule didn’t permit time to go home to Rhode Island. I was alone and feeling very bad for myself. I had a nine-inch black-and-white TV. I’d never seen It’s a Wonderful Life. It was on. I sat riveted to the screen, drinking some port, and crying. It was one of the best Christmases ever!
We’ve gotten used to the Christmas holiday season beginning around Halloween, but how often has Halloween thriller season begun the week after Labor Day? As the studios and moviemakers have learned, there’s a huge audience for horror. IfType to enter text you are skeptical, look at the grosses for new latest in Tyler Perry’s Madea franchise. Major record-breaking! For the longest time, producers/studios would grind out assembly-line horror, capitalizing on mindless or copycat sequels of original hits that would make you groan, “Been there, seen it.” But even the usual suspects have come around; and there seems to be a newbie at the game: Blumhouse Productions, which this season could be crowned Prince of Horror.
You might say that horror season began way before Halloween -- even in February. That’s when Get Out! (Blumhouse Productions/Universal), featuring Bradley Whitford, Catherine Keener, Allison Williams (TV’s Girls)] and young Brit Daniel Kaluuya (TV’s Babylon; upcoming Watership Down mini-series based on Richard Adams novel) hit cineplexes. It wasn’t a cookie-cutter, standard-issue thriller, but smart and well made – and had a sense of humor. It also offered a thoughtful look at the race issues making headlines. Young Anglo woman (Williams) invites Afro-American young man (Kaluuya) for a meet-the-parents getaway, where he finds the family overly accommodating -- an effort to deal with their daughter's interracial relationship. As the weekend progresses, disturbing discoveries come to a head and lead him to a truth he never could have imagined. Something different, yes? And, going even further, it was R-rated. That usually can be the death knell to a film pitched for teens, the catalyst for a film’s opening weekend. They came, whether accompanied by an adult or with fake I.D.s. A film budgeted at a minuscule $5-million has raked in over $175.5-million.
Jeepers Creepers III (Infinity/Screen Media) quickly followed. Set between the first and second film, it was quickly obvious it was in the lesser category. Sergeant Tubbs (Brandon Smith) went about attempting to learn the secrets and identify of Creeper (Jonathan Breck), the monster terrorizes a local farming community. Lovely Trisha (Gina Phillips) was sort of pushed aside for the introduction of Gaylen Brandon (Meg Foster of TVs Pretty Little Liars and Ravenswood), stealing the film, as someone with a history with the Creeper. It didn’t help. Initial audiences were bored, word-of-mouth was a downer. Made for $18-million, it grossed a paltry $2.3-million (JC1 exploded at the box office with sales of $35.7-million). Maybe the gross will rise – a bit – with the DVDs’ December release.Oscar nominee Jennifer Jason Leigh, Bella Thorne (Boo!: A Madea Halloween; TV’s Famous in Love, Big Love), Thomas Mann (Kong: Skull Island), and Kurtwood Smith (TV’s That 70s Show) weren’t enough to turn the lack of horror in Amityville: The Awakening (Blumhouse Productions/Dimension/TWC) into a silk purse. After a two-year shelf life, it was comatose (like Belle‘s twin brother) on arrival.
Then Came September
“When you are a kid you think the world revolves around you, that you’ll always be protected, care for. Then, one day: a friend goes missing.” The opening words of It (New Line/Warner Bros./RatPac-Dune Entertainment), the cinema adaptation of the Stephen King’s terrifying best-seller (which previously had a three-hour mini-series in 1990), leads audiences on a thrill ride as satisfying as any on a mega coaster. The plot line involves kids of a small town, rumored to be cursed, disappearing in bloody spades. A gang of seven, led by Richie (Finn Wolfhard, Mikie on Stranger Things), united by their horrifying and strange encounters with the evil Pennywise the Clown (Bill Skarsgård), mount their bikes determined to kill “It.” Been there, seen it? But, even with parallels to Stand By Me, The Goonies, and Netflix’s Stranger Things, it rises to the occasion. Here, though much condensed, it’s all about bonding and the paranormal, but the paranormal’s never been quite like this: Atmosphere (that haunted house; and especially the horrific finale, which even tops David Lean’s in The Third Man), piercing score by Benjamin Wallfisch (Blade Runner 2049, Annabelle: Creation, Hidden Figures), jump-scare sound effects, and, best of all, the brotherly-love kiss to bring back the living dead. Argentine Andy Muschietti (2013 horror thriller Mama) is set to helm the 2019 sequel. Oddly, with a cast of youngsters, the film’s R-rated for violence and, something you don’t hear often, F words cascading out of the mouths of babes. That hasn’t stopped it from blockbuster status – grossing $179-million in less than two months, ($189.5-million worldwide) on a budget of $35-million. Reminder: whether pouring cats and dogs or not, on Jackson Street or any other, never look deep into those corner drains!
Happy Death Day (Blumhouse Productions/Universal Pictures) is a dark comedy mystery horror thriller borrowing lavishly from the classic Groundhog Day. On her birthday, teenager Tree (excellent Jessica Rothe) concludes that it will be her last one. That is, IF she can figure out who her killer is. To do that, she relives the day over and over – dying in a different way on each one. No way you’ll snooze, as you get sucked in even before the film begins [You’ll see]. Keep a keen eye on Tree. Christopher Landon (Disturbia, Paranormal Activity) knows how to keep you on the edge of your seat. Shooting in New Orleans’ Garden District, home to the streetcar and fabled mansions, adds tons of atmosphere.
In Boo 2: A Madea Halloween (Tyler Perry Company/Lionsgate) Madea, Bam, and Hattie venture to a haunted campground where they end up running for their lives from a boogeyman, goblins, and monsters, goblins, and the boogeyman are unleashed. Perry has an audience for his sometimes amateurish movies that segue between embarrassing and somewhat funny. He comes up with great ideas and one has to be envious of his multi-talents and following. In his films, he plays a lot of characters – some, such as Madea, much better than others. Maybe the mistake is in doing it all: writing, directing, and co-producing Boo! 2. But the film shot out of the gate October 20 and astonished the industry selling performances out. Budgeted at $25-milion, it has already grossed $35.5-million and is close to exceding that. Boo! 2 became an instant hit.
Jigsaw (Serendipity Productions/Lionsgate) is the eighth title in the Saw franchise, which became a popular slasher series with face-cringing, spine tingling twists to the serial killer saga and a look at the day’s social mores. Then it ended, until this past weekend when it’s been reborn in hopes of bringing in more moola. As bodies drop everywhere – each with gruesome demise that fit Jigsaw’s style, police find themselves chasing the ghost of a man presumed dead for over a decade (Tobin Bell), and become embroiled in a new cat and mouse game. Is Jiggy/John Kramer back? Is this a copy cat? Or are they falling into a trap set by another monster? The story is told in such a fast pace that there’s little time for character development. However, it gets props for the show-stopping, head-rolling finale. The film got a knife in its back from critics and moviegoers. One reviewer’s assessment: “Watching Jigsaw is a dumb, ugly waste of energy.”
There Was Another Horror at the Weekend Box Office
Suburbicon (Paramount/Dark Castle/Black Bear Pictures) – It had the cache of George Clooney as director when it premiered at the Venice Film Festival, but was received with a few boos. Conceived by Joel and Ethan Coen (remember their 2016 misfire Hail, Caesar!, about a tough Hollywood studio “fixer”), Clooney (a Hail, Caesar! co-star), and Grant Heslov (co-writer, Matt Damon’s Best Picture Argo), is a racially-charged farce that “draws parallels between the U.S.’ ugly past and the situation today.” Damon, Julianne Moore, and Oscar Isaac, Summer of 1959, are in an Eden to raise a family: an idyllic community with affordable homes and manicured lawns. However, tranquility changes to disturbing reality in the town’s s dark underbelly of betrayal, deceit, and violence [including flaming Confederate flags}. Come critics went “Huh?” and “Huh!” The often kind Rotten Tomatoes wrote: “It's A Raisin in the Sun meets The Donna Reed Show." Only occasionally does an image strike a lyrical blow and yield the creepy effect Clooney is aiming for.” Worse, audiences weren’t camping overnight to be the first at box offices. Maybe it will develop a cult following.
At Home 24/7 Horror and Halloween Fright Fest
Is this not the best time of year to revisit famous Halloween spook with everything from zombies and slashers to séances and lots of screams? There’s so much horror to enjoy spread on the couch with a beer or soda and chips and dip. Can anything top the original Frankenstein, Dracula, The Mummy, Hitchcock’s Psycho, Kubrick’s The Shining [Where’s Jack? Bring him back!]? Maybe a bit of Poltergeist; or some Stephen King? How about Halloween, The Fog, Christine or anything by John Carpenter, because he knows how to scare your pants off? There’s Wes Craven’s bad ole Freddy in Nightmare on Elm Street; or the original Saw; contemporary grand guignol of Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?; and any season of American Horror Story – because Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuck know how to creep you out. Then, there’s family-friendly “horror” in Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein/Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde/The Invisible Man/The Mummy.
3-D is having a much-longer shelf life than expected. For a great at-home theatrical experience, check out the Blu-ray 3-D edition of the edge-of-your-cushioned-seat 1953 blockbuster House of Wax [Warner Home Entertainment, SRP $40]. Vincent Price, so fantastic playing madmen, is perfect casting for demented Professor Henry Jarrod. The Technicolor, pre-digital 3-D two-projector image realignment, and sound track have been meticulously remastered with a 4K scan. Don’t spill your popcorn as you experience one of the most incredible horror flick finales. Beware: You can’t escape the flames!
If your dream is a near lifetime of at-home horror, get 50 Horror Classics (Mill Creek Entertainment; 3,743 minutes/12 discs; $15.65 on Amazon). The massive set contains some classics – keep in mind the majority are from the 30s and 40s and most, if not all, fall into Public Domain, so they haven’t been remastered: The Ape (Boris Karloff), Bluebeard (John Carradine), Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (John Barrymore, silent), Allan Dwan’s comic romp The Gorilla (Ritz Brothers, Bela Lugosi), William Castle’s The House on Haunted Hill (Vincent Price), The Hunchback of Notre Dame (Lon Chaney, silent), Roger Corman’s Little Shop of Horrors (Jack Nicholson), Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, Murnau’s Nosferatu (Max Schreck, silent), The Phantom of the Opera (Lon Chaney, silent), and, among numerous others, White Zombie (Lugosi).
Universal Studios’ horror period produced first-rate thrillers. Six have been remastered for Blu-ray for Classic Monsters: The Essential Collection (Universal Home Entertainment; eight discs/710 minutes; $45 on Amazon): James Whale’s Bride of Frankenstein (Elsa Lancaster, Karloff, Colin Clive) – many feel this sequel surpasses its predecessor, Tod Browning’s Dracula (Lugosi) – note how the mood is set with a lack of score, Whale’s Frankenstein (Karloff, Clive, Mae Clark), The Invisible Man (Claude Rains) – with humor to offset the horror, The Mummy (Karloff), and The Wolfman (Lon Chaney Jr.). There’s bonus material galore, including an alternate Dracula score by Philip Glass, performed by the Kronos Quartet.
New York’s Grand Greenwich Village Halloween ExtravaganzaNothing comes close to beating the annual Halloween night tradition of the gigantic people’s Greenwich Village Halloween Parade. The 44th edition of the four-hour "Nation’s most wildly creative public participatory event" kicks off at 7 P.M. from Spring Street, and marches up Sixth Avenue to 16th Street. This year there’ll be a bit of New Orleans’ Mardi Gras spirit with the Grand Marshal’s float, where recording artist Anjelica will reign.
Stretching more than a mile, this icon of cultural events gives freedom of expression new definition. Long famous for skewering unpopular trends, personalities, and especially politicians, you can surely expect lots of DJT expository. The event draws 2,000,000 in-person spectators, with more than 60,000 wild ‘n wholly costumed participants, giant puppets, dancers, artists and circus performers, dozens of floats, 50 plus bands, and performing artists. Sponsors include the Village Voice, the NYC Department of Cultural Affairs, Rudin Foundation, and parade-goers like you. Visit www.halloween-nyc.com for information on how to participate. Watch it live on NY1.
Broadway FrightThere’s nothing like a Broadway show for a Halloween treat. About the scariest thing currently on Broadway are the out-in-orbit pricing for Book of Mormon, Hamilton, Hello, Dolly!, and, Bruce Springsteen on Broadway -- the show which was supposed to make the Boss available to all. Soon, you can add Frozen and Harry Potter and the Cursed Child – Parts One and Two to the list. Then, there’s the ever-ballooning horror of resale ticket sites.Season-themed show include a visit with that masked lovelorn fellow known as The Phantom of the Opera, Andrew Lloyd Webber and Charles Hart’s Tony-winning blockbuster, which in early 2018 will celebrate 30 years as Broadway’s longest-running show; and Stephen Schwartz’s Tony-nominated Wicked, the tale of the Good and Bad witches of The Wizard of Oz fame, just entering it 15th record-breaking year.
Family-fare includes Disney’s The Lion King, which next month will celebrate its 20th Anniversary; the company’s colorful extravaganza Aladdin; and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. An adult treat that children aged seven and above will enjoy is Oscar winner Robert Lopez (Frozen), Jeff Marx, and Jeff Whitty’s witty Tony-winning Avenue Q, which just celebrated its ninth year Off Broadway (after six hit years on the Main Stem).
This Halloween Season the Place to Be: Off Broadway
All For One Theater’s is presenting the psychological horror play Squeamish, by and directed by Aaron Mark (Empanada Loca) and starring two-time Tony nominee Alison Fraser (The Secret Garden, First Daughter Suite),at Theatre Row’s Beckett Theatre. It’s the tale of an Upper West Side psychoanalyst, a long-time recovering alcoholic, “whose bloody quest for personal balance begins when she finds herself off her meds in South Texas, following the suicide of her nephew. Tickets for the limited engagement (through November 11) are $52.25 and available at www.telecharge.com or by calling (212) 239-6200.
Beginning performances November 16 at 59E59 for a limited engagement (through December 10) is Adjusted Realists’ production of Stephen Kaliski’s The Briefly Dead, which finally answers the question of whether you can bring the love of your life back from the dead. Bad news: in the tradition of ancient Greek theater, King Admetus of Thessaly learns that the unexpected resurrection of his wife, Queen Alcestis, who personified the devoted, selfless woman, leads to a really awkward breakfast. She has a big score to settle. Elizabeth Ostler directs a quirky mix of shadow puppets and actors: Mia Isabella Aguirre, Sofiya Cheyenne, Kristin Fulton, Paul Hinkes, Ben Kaufman, Katie Proulx, Sarah Wadsley, and Jenna Zafiropoulos. No performances November 22 and 23. Tickets are $25 ($20 for 59E59 members). To purchase, call Ticket Central (212) 279-4200 or visit www.59e59.org.
Ready for more Games of Thrones? Off Broadway has them. After rave reviews and sold out performances, GOT The Musical’s Off Broadway’s Game of Thrones: The Rock Musical - An Unauthorized Parody [of HBO’s smash hit fantasy series of dragons, dwarfs, and danger] is extending through December 30th at the Theater Center (210 West 50th Street). But there’s a change. The extension has a new title: Shame of Thrones. It has all the elements: evil prince, backstabbing siblings, a stalwart hero, a hysterical imp, the mother of all dragons – and, of course, a rock score “that’ll have heads rolling.” You can re-visit all your favorite characters and the ones you love to hate. For tickets ($57, $67, and VIP $123) and more information, visit www.ShameofThronesMusical.com. The new schedule includes naughty “after-dark” performances (code for more raunch, vulgarity, and adult-themed comedy) Fridays and Saturdays at 10:30 P.M. and a “Red-Wedding” matinee (with half priced Bloody Marys) Sundays at 1 P.M.
It’s a Thriller Season for Frankenstein(s) Write Act Repertory and Tamra Pica are presenting the world premiere of Eric B. Sirota’s Frankenstein: The Musical, based on Mary Shelley's novel “about the human need for love and companionship.” WAR producing artistic director John Lant (production manager, Carnegie Hall) describes the show as “two-act sweeping, romantic musical that honors its source material.” Clint Hromsco directs Danny Bristoll, Jonathan Cobrda, Amy Londyn, Charles Baran, Benjamin M. Haupt, Cait Kiley, and Gabriella Marzetta. Music direction and arrangements are by Anessa Marie. Performances are Mondays at 7:30 P.M., through December 18, at St. Luke's Theatre (308 West 46th Street, between Eight and Ninth Avenues, Restaurant Row).
St. Luke’s is NYC’s busiest rep house. Among productions onstage are the family-friendly The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe Saturdays at 11 A.M., adapted by le Clanché du Rand from the C.S. Lewis’ classic novel. Tuesdays at 7 P.M. (through December 31), there’s Michael Antin’s direct-from-Los Angeles [where it won several awards] love musical Lili Marlene, the story of cabaret chanteuse Rosie Penn and Count Hans Wilhelm van Kleister Graff, set at the end of the Weimar German Republic and beginning of the Third Reich. Amy Londyn headlines the 14-member cast. Direction and choreography are by Mark Blowers, with musical direction by Rocco Vitacco. Five times weekly, there’s Lynn Shore Entertainment and Medium Face Entertainment’s production of Friends: The Musical – The Unauthorized Parody of the Hit TV Show, by Bob and Tobly McSmith (Saved by the Bell, Full House parodies) and Assaf Gleizner and directed and choreographed by Paul Stancato.
Tickets for these shows are $39.50 - $69.50 and available through www.telecharge.com or by calling (212) 239-6200. For performance schedules, check www.stlukestheatre.com.
Vital Theatre Company (recipient of Off-Broadway Alliance Awards) presents Peter Charles Morris (co-author, co-lyricist, Howard Crabtree's Whoop-Dee- Doo!) and David Mallamud’s new, family-friendly (but not so much from Mary Shelley’s source material) Kid Frankenstein, for ages seven and up – but not too far up. It's Halloween and something strange is going on at Frankie Steiner's house, where the boy genius works on his entry for his school’s robotics competition. But what he creates is more than he expected - and more than he can handle. That last part, a unique and certainly unexpected twist, is what makes this not exceedingly deep show fun (and will garner laughs from accompanying parents). The cast – Nicholas Carroll, Amber Dickenson, Seth Hatch, Matthew Krob, Jocelyn Lonquist, and, as Frankie, a spirited Stephen Wagner – gives their all, but the over-amplified canned music, sadly all sounding the same, does them in. However, without giving anything away, be advised to keep a keen eye on Dickenson, who has some tricks and treats up her sleeve: and beguiling Lonquist, it would seem, is destined for bigger things. Performances at the Theater at Blessed Sacrament (152 West 71st Street, east of Broadway) are Fridays at 7 P.M., Saturdays and Sundays at 3 and 7 P.M. through November 5th. Purchase tickets, $25.00 to $59.50, at www.vitaltheatre.org or call (212) 579-0528.
Also playing at Blessed Sacrament are: Pinkalicious: The Musical, about a gal who just can’t say no to eating pink cupcakes, despite parental warnings – a habit that lands her in hospital with Pinkititis, an affliction that turns her pink from head to toe. In addition, there’s the one-hour adaptation (from London’s Royal Shakespeare Company) of Arlen and Harburg’s The Wizard of Oz, courtesy of L. Frank Baum, tailored for audiences two – seven. Check above website for schedules and tickets.
Wait! There’s More Frankenstein to ComeToo bad Mary Shelley's not around to bask in her royalties. Ensemble for the Romantic Century will present Frankenstein December 21 – January 7 at the Pershing Square Signature Center/Irene Diamond Stage (480 West 42nd Street).
Starring will be, get this!, Tony-nominee Robert Fairchild (An American in
Paris), who’ll also choreograph. Donald Sanders will direct. The site, www.romanticcentury.org, will, hopefully, have ticket information up soon.
See part one HERE.
“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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