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Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Revisiting James Dean --- Part One

How come James Dean seems less interesting to me than his various co-stars and supporting players? Maybe I’m tired of everything revolving around him. Among casts of his three big features, there was plenty of drama to go around. I looked at the extras on the DVD’s this week and found myself pondering the fates of Rebel Jim Stark’s classmates who didn’t die young, as did Dean --- the ones that survived to pull plows in forgotten movies and disposable TV shows. Cheapo Warner programs seem to have been alumni clubhouse for youthful movie hopefuls who had sputtered on the launch pad. Richard Davalos had to watch Dean take all of bows for East Of Eden, but Davalos got to outlive Jimmy by over half a century, even as his acting future took him in the direction of Hawaiian Eye and any number of 60’s vid staples. Same for Corey Allen, Dean’s switchblade opponent in Rebel Without A Cause. He did a Hawaiian Eye as well. These young players had to face a reality James Dean would be spared thanks to a premature death. Even those with promise faced the music of Surfside Six (Dennis Hopper), 77 Sunset Strip (Nick Adams), and heaven forbid, Frankenstein Conquers The World (Adams again). So what if Dean had lived? My guess pretty much assigns him the career Paul Newman enjoyed, but wait, could Jim have delivered the goods as Newman would? I am less sure of that. Dean would likely have been exposed before long (Humphrey Bogart speculated as much shortly after 9/30/55) --- imagine Dean submitting to Rally Round The Flag, Boys or The Secret War Of Harry Frigg. One could picture such an eventuality, though it's harder, perhaps, to envision Dean running such a studio gauntlet, let alone successfully. We do know that Jim was all but set to do Somebody Up There Likes Me and The Left-Handed Gun, both of which were ultimately played by Newman. Whatever career he may have ended up with, Dean was indeed lucky to go out with the pristine screen record he had. His fans would certainly have been disillusioned to encounter a middle-aged James Dean in decline, holding up one corner of a late sixties TV tent like The Bold Ones or The Name Of The Game, and yet, if he had lived, it might have come to that …

Having checked out East Of Eden, I was again struck by the artful manner in which experienced character actors accommodated Jimmy’s ultra-mannered playing and very often pulled his inexperienced bacon out of the fire. Succeeding generations of aspiring players might well have chosen more seasoned role models over the Dean image they worshiped so unceasingly. Of these, consider Albert Dekker. Seasoned and reliable Dekker is a steady pivot around which self-indulgent Jim can twirl --- Burl Ives too (you can almost feel his frustration with Dean in this still of them together). These two stand and deliver dialogue like the old pros they are, while Dean relentlessly mopes, sulks, and whines (girlfriend Ann pointed out to me that if young men had really acted that way back in 1917, when East Of Eden's story takes place, they would have probably been put away). Raymond Massey is the primary unfortunate we hear about from production anecdotes, forever depicted as the stolid old performer clinging to inflexible line readings as Dean the acting visionary shows him a thing or three about spontaneity. For my money, it was artists like Massey that made Dean look good. They were noble (if unwitting) straight men to a show-off upstart from whom they might have expected a little more simple courtesy and professionalism. If Dean had lived long enough, he may well have gotten some of that same medicine from future hotshots --- imagine him achieving Massey's senior status and having to play opposite someone like Mickey Rourke.

I don’t mean to knock Dean here. He got a lot better on his second and third tries. Rebel Without A Cause (the subject of tomorrow’s Part Two) was an effectively deliberate movie star performance where he cunningly switched on charm for the fans he knew had accumulated since East Of Eden, and Giant
is one of the great, if unintended, self-parodies in all movies. The problem with Jim in East Of Eden is that he’s such a crybaby. Did 1954 chicks dig that? The one I watched it with did not. Some happy day I hope to see one interview where a brave member of that long-in-the-tooth acting brigade who once worked with James Dean is willing to stand up and say, You know what? He seemed like a big deal then, but his stuff just doesn’t work for me anymore. Of course, that’s a sure way to get your footage jettisoned from any of the Dean documentaries that have so far emerged from that profitable ongoing industry, but I’d sure be glad to present the Courage award to any of those old-timers prepared to just once part from the fixed narrative. By the way, to clear up the matter of Marilyn Monroe’s presence here --- she served as volunteer usherette at the East Of Eden premiere --- handing Milton Berle his program in this shot.

One thing they got spectacularly right in East Of Eden was the clothes. That may be what got the serious youth money this one drew ($3.3 million in profit). There was Eden's Jim in his sweater and open collared shirt,  sporty not in 1917 perhaps, but it sure rang the bell in 1954. I could slip into any of these ensembles and look way cool today, and never mind period accuracy, verisimilitude, and the rest. These outfits, simple yet timeless, were exactly the way to sell East Of Eden (I must admit that Richard Davalos’ pompadour was a little beyond the pale --- although it nicely anticipated similar looks to come with Fabian and Rick Nelson). Costume tests for the three principals represent outfits later discarded. Rigid period sartorial adherence was well and good for Davalos and Julie Harris, but Dean was far too valuable to cinch up in heavy wool suits with celluloid collars. The smartest move Warners made was keeping him in those khakis and lightweight tops.  This was the kind of showmanship WB needed when it came time to cast The Spirit Of St. Louis a few years later. Were it not for schedule conflicts (Giant), we may well have had James Dean as Lindbergh instead of aging James Stewart. Imagine the boom in aviation wear with Dean again as fashion inspiration, teens wearing flight goggles to school perhaps. The Davy Crockett coonskin cap thing might have paled by comparison.

Part Two of James Dean is HERE.


Blogger J.C. Loophole said...

Yes! Finally- you have pretty much voiced my own thoughts on Mr. Dean. He is such an icon, that it's hard to have an objective conversation with anyone about his real talent and possible career. Something that I have never understood about the James Dean cult is their devotion to what boils down to some TV and three movies that have now become iconic. (One of them perhaps deservedly so) It is as if his death made the roles iconic more so than the performance. No disrespect to anyone. It's just been kinda lonely around here when I ask- "what's the big deal?"
PS- I have always envisioned some more Brando-esque career for James Dean. Not that I can see him doing the Godfather- but I could perhaps see some similar uncomfortable casting choices that Brando endured.

8:53 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well done!

I look forward to reading your thoughts on 'Rebel'. I love Ray's direction. But of all the method actors who deliver memorable performances in Ray's movies, Jimmy Dean is probably the most annoying and least interesting ...

12:27 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I've always felt that while Dean may have been an enduring icon of youthful alienation, he was never much of an actor, and he lived (just) long enough to prove it in Giant. In that one, even Rock Hudson out-acts him, while George Stevens's Oscar-winning efforts to make Dean look good practically throb from the screen (we can sense Stevens behind the camera, gnashing his teeth and twisting his script into shreds).

What would Dean have become if he'd made it through Paso Robles that day? That's a fun game to play, of course, and almost any answer can be supported. He might well have had Paul Newman's career (or rather, Newman might have had none after The Silver Chalice), and it's not hard to picture Dean in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, The Hustler or (especially) Hud.

My own guess is perhaps a bit harsher, and I'll say it in two words: Tab Hunter. I can easily see Dean sinking to his knees on the Warner Bros. lot, begging Jack L. for release from his contract, getting his wish, and winding up 30 years later making camp-nostalgia appearances in John Waters movies.

1:21 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Thanks for all three insightful comments. J.C. -- You're right about those disastrous casting choices re Brando. Imagine Dean doing 60's Universal comedies! Chris --- can't argue with your conclusion about Ray and the Method actors, though I'll give Dean more points for "Rebel" than for "Eden" (more on that in Friday's post). Jim --- you hit on it, my friend. Dean would have certainly gone to the mat with Warners eventually, and it wouldn't have been pretty. Could he have ended up doing those autograph shows with Ty Hardin and Will Hutchins? The mind boggles ...

1:36 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I am a bit reluctant to trash folks just because they aren't "my cup of tea." Your fine article was a fine example of how to challenge an icon's status without resorting to trashing the person. You were rather kind as well. Had Dean lived and — unforgivable sin — gotten older the same crowd that adores him would've dumped ASAP. The idea of him turning up on SURFSIDE 6 makes me laugh. They were running that on Lifestyles/Nostalgia Channel a few years back (before my cable system dropped that channel) and that show stuck me as one of the gayest (unintentionally I'm sure) shows ever made. My wife doesn’t share my love for those early Warners filmed TV shows but I had her sit through part of one episode and she got a case of the giggles. If they remake the show as a feature only John Waters could do it justice.

2:12 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

One of the more interesting alumni from Rebel is Frank Mazzola. Originally hired to give the film some credibility, Mazzola went from acting to editing, primarily associated with Donald Cammell.

6:37 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Quick side note: notice Sammy Davis, Jr. in the background of the Marilyn/Milton picture. Evidently shortly after his car accident, as he's still wearing his eye patch.

9:56 PM  
Blogger M said...

I would be interested in hearing you opinion on Elia Kazan's work, namely "A Street Car Named Desire." It's a classic and I hate everything about it. I was immensely surprised to love the play when I saw a modern version with Jessica Lange.

11:22 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I've run REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE in my film classes and have noticed over the years that young people are increasingly resistant to Dean, finding his performances self-concious and less in him to identify with than was formerly the case. The kids in REBEL I hear more and more described as spoiled, ungrateful and whiny. Quite a change from the reaction Dean and that picture used to get from college kids.

11:40 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I have never seen the attraction in James Dean. I have never thought much of him as an actor. There is no way I could see him carrying out roles such as Hud, Somebody Up There Likes Me, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, The Hustler, Butch Cassidy etc..Newman made those roles his own. Let alone I cant imagine Dean maturing into the brilliant character actor that Newman became as he grew older. My thoughts have always been that Dean became an icon because he died before he had the chance to star in a failure.

In fact, Director of 'Somebody Up There Likes Me', Robert Wise, always had the feeling that Dean was never right for the role of Rocky Graziano.

3:53 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

He wouldn't have aged as well as Paul Newman and that matters! Dean had bags under his eyes at 20. At 50 that wouldn't have been pretty.

5:45 PM  

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