Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Fireball Career: Peter L. Winkler's The Real James Dean

Elizabeth Taylor and James Dean in Giant (1956).

Humphrey Bogart once said of James Dean that he “died at just the right time,” explaining that “If he had lived, he'd never have been able to live up to his publicity." Bogart makes a cameo appearance in Peter L. Winkler’s The Real James Dean (Chicago Review Press, 2016), trying to “carry on a gentleman’s conversation” with the new kid in town while the shy, “starstruck” Dean stares at his feet and mumbles. According to Merv Griffin, Bogart finally grabbed Dean by the lapels and called him “a little punk” and a “two-bit nothing” for being so discourteous as not to look him in the eye when spoken to. Given the generational divide as well as the differences in personality between the two men, it’s possible that Bogart thought he was being patronized when he complimented Dean on his technique and got back the response, “Yeah? That’s okay by me.” Their mutual friend Joe Hyams points out that Bogart, having become Bogart by this point, kept his “insecurities” to himself, while Dean, the Method man, wore his on his sleeve, the better to keep them handy for when he needed them to fuel his work. The Real James Dean (subtitled “Intimate Memories from Those Who Knew Him Best”) makes two things very clear: Dean, however much he may have flirted with exhibitionism and self-indulgence onscreen and enjoyed the rewards of success and celebrity off it, was a heroically committed actor who saw himself as an artist, and that side of him is only part—maybe not even the biggest part—of the reason for the impact he made on the culture, and why it continues to reverberate. This isn’t a biography or a critical study but a smartly chosen selection of things written and said about Dean by those who knew him, worked with him, loved him, revered him, are still conflicted about him. It’s fascinating to take in Dean’s life and career through the eyes of so many people who knew him at different times in his life.

Dean is an especially rich choice for this kind of treatment because his fans identified with him so intensely, imagining that they knew him and that he was dramatizing their own feelings and experiences, despite having so little to go on. They saw what they wanted to see in him, and kept on doing it after he died. In the Rashomon conflicts that crop up here over Dean’s goals and intentions and the hot-button topic of his sexuality, it’s clear that people who’d spent of time in his presence could do it, too. The people around Dean aren’t safe from this treatment either: some of Dean’s friends who met Jimmy’s father saw the old man’s incomprehension of his son’s career and their awkward attempts to find a way to communicate their feelings toward each other as rather sweet, but composer Leonard Rosenman (who scored both East of Eden and Rebel Without a Cause) says that Dean’s father was “a monster, a person without any kind of sensitivity.” Rosenman also mentions that this familial dynamic rather reminded him of how much he hated his own father, and the reader can’t help thinking of the fathers from Hell that Dean’s movie characters were cursed by, and how his fans must have dreamed that the actor whose angst they so related to must have somehow known about the petty dictators and emasculated duds they’d have to deal with when they left the theaters went back home. (It’s almost an Oedipal joke that the book’s foreword is by George Stevens, Jr. The actor and director Mark Rydell says that all three of Dean’s movie directors were father figures for the young man, and single Stevens out as “a bad father.”)

There’s more to the extreme contrast between Dean and Bogart, both of whom were about to transcend stardom and pass into the upper tiers of pop culture legend. Dean’s legend is based on the three movies he worked on during the last eighteen months of his life—Elia Kazan’s East of Eden (1955), which was the only one released before his death, Nicholas Ray’s Rebel Without a Cause (1955), and George Stevens’ Giant (1956)—and the fatal car crash that has kept him young and hungry in the public imagination for more than 60 years. Dean was 24 when he died; when Bogart was 10 years older than that, he was still scuffling along, looking for a break that would finally provide some center and focus to a drifting career. Bogart became a much greater actor when he finally had a secure image he could work with—the cynical tough guy who insists that he only cares about himself (and sometimes, as in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, means it.) There are other reminders here that Dean’s fireball of a career was set against a moment when the Hollywood old guard was digging in its heels at the prospect of being displaced by a new generation with its own ideas about acting and movies. (Leslie Caron describes an incident when Dean looked up from his dinner in a restaurant and saw “either Hedda Hopper or Louella Parsons” sitting at another table and felt compelled to phone a friend to ask what Marlon Brando would do.) Dean also inspires premonitions of death in everyone from Vampira to Alec Guinness, is likened to a Siamese cat by Nick Ray, and irritates the shit out of Rock Hudson (who, is implied, may have been afraid that the reckless, sexually androgynous Dean might somehow drive Hudson from his own closet).

Dean was apparently a handful and a half when he was bored to tears on the set of Giant. He thought that Mercedes McCambridge had the best possible “Texas hat” in her wardrobe, and McCambridge, who agreed with him, was afraid he would manage to steal it for himself before she managed to be filmed with it squarely on her head. (Winkler also includes a passage from his own biography of the director of Easy Rider, a story about Dean publicly urinating in front of “about a thousand” horrified Marfans, which gives him the chance to commit to print the rarely uttered words “Even [Dennis] Hopper was aghast.”) Although Raymond Massey, who played Dean’s father in East of Eden, was horrified by him at first sight and apparently liked him less with each passing second, offering the measured praise of a trained professional who feels that he’s been forced to work with an out-of-control amateur who has won inordinate praise for the times he got lucky, his paternal figure in Rebel Without a Cause, Jim Backus, liked him fine, and wrote a moving memorial tribute which is impossible to read without not only hearing Backus’ voice, but imagining him ending every sentence with “Lovey!”

The aged Jett Rink (James Dean) in Giant.

Dean might be disappointed to know that’s he was fated to achieve immortality as the pop embodiment of youthful rebelliousness, because he plainly had his heart set on being the kind of actor who can not only catch fire in his bare hands to mold it in the form of any character a writer or director throws at him. That must be why, after two lead roles under directors who shared his ambition to reach for new heights of post-Freudian psychodrama (and who were working hard at becoming legends in their own right), he was more than willing to forsake top billing and big-city nightlife to maroon himself in Marfa, Texas and play third fiddle to Rock Hudson and Elizabeth Taylor, under a director who was far less sympathetic to his approach and working methods than Kazan or Ray. He wanted to try something different. As an actor, Dean may be at his most likable and enjoyable in his later scenes in Giant, when his character, Jett Rink, the ranch hand who won’t accept his place and finally strikes it rich, is a drunken plutocrat in his fifties. You can almost taste Dean’s giddiness over finally getting to play a scene in which he can’t be accused of being a fictionalized version of himself.

This is a book composed of reminiscences and observations by people who knew Dean—even if many of them knew him slightly, and some like Hopper and Nick Adams “would not be able,” in the words of John Gilmore, “to resist fabricating personal friendships with Jimmy that had little to do with real life.” In that, it’s a corrective to fans, and crazies, who have done so much to keep Dean’s flame alive and shape his image since he died: the people who inspired Ed Graczyk’s play (and Robert Altman’s sublime movie adaptation of it) Come Back to the 5 & Dime Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean, who besieged his friends for physical mementos of anything he’d touched and sent Stevens death threats if he cut a frame of Dean’s last performance out of his film. In the recent years, much of Dean’s work during the “Golden Age of Television” on anthology series such as Studio One and Hallmark Hall of Fame has begun to be unearthed, shown again and packaged on DVD; no one would call most of it great, but it helps to reclaim Dean the eager young actor and put his three big movies into the context of a short but structured career.

Dean might appreciate this more than some of the most dedicated members of his cult, who were never looking for a context for his most operatic, lyrical explosions of teen angst, maybe not even in the movies in which they appeared. Eartha Kitt describes Dean angrily tearing down a large photo of himself that had been hung on the wall of a studio commissary: “That wasn’t his home, and they didn’t own him. His action was considered eccentric, but in light of what happened to Marilyn, one can see that Jamie’s action was very rational indeed. He was fighting to keep his personal identity, to keep from being swallowed up by something commercially bigger than himself.” Astute words, except that it wasn’t all about commerce, and whether he lived or died, he never had a chance.

– Phil Dyess-Nugent is a freelance writer living in Texas. He has contributed to The A.V. ClubHitFlixNerveHiLobrow, and the New Orleans Times-Picayune, among other publications.

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