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At 20, James Dean arrived in Manhattan for the first time.
Dean: "New York overwhelmed me. For the first few weeks I only strayed a couple of blocks from my hotel off Times Square."
Dean spent most of his money seeing movies. He moved into a room at the YMCA but lived in isolation, his only contact with people being at the drug store where he found a job as a counter-man. Rogers Brackett suggested that his friend persue TV director James Sheldon. Dean did so, and Sheldon passed the budding actor on to the Louis Schurr Agency. Here, he was interviewed by Jane Deacy who decided to take him on as a client.
Deacy gave Dean great encouragement and found him the part of Bachir in Billy Rose's play The Immortalist, which told the story of a man who marries only to discover on his wedding night that he is homosexual. The man discovers this with the help of Bachir (Dean), an arab boy, who decides to seduce his older friend. Dean was singled out by critics for special praise. Elia Kazan saw The Immortalist and realised that Jimmy was ideal for the role of Cal in an adaptation of John Steinbeck's East of Eden which would be Kazan's next venture.
Night and day Jimmy walked the city, never holding down a romance, but flitting in and out of people's lives. He had no need for 'love', and indeed saw no real need for the permanent affections of anyone. By now he was living in a set of rooms at the top of an old building on West 68th street. Here he spent many nights of solitude, listening to his jazz records, or reading his books. He never bought clothes, spending most of his money on records and books. He would never eat at expensive restaurants, but frequented Cromwell's coffee bar.
Joe Massot, director: "Even if people didn't know who he was they'd turn and look at him walking down the street. I mean, no one walked like that in those days."
Working on The Immortalist Dean had already gained himself a reputation as a troublesome actor. He caused many calculated sensations by turning up for rehearsals unshaven, wearing an old raincoat and jeans. He had by now met and become close friends with Dizzy Sheridan, a part-time usherette at the Paris cinema. More importantly, he met struggling actress Christine White at the Schurr offices. She had written a script which she intended to use for an audition to join the famous Actor's Studio. For the recitation she needed a male player, and Dean was more than willing to join her. At the audition, Christine remembered: "Jimmy was as blind as a bat without his glasses, but he wouldn't wear them when he was acting." As it went, Jimmy and Christine were the only two out of 150 applicants chosen to join the studio. At 21, he would be the youngest member of the company.
The Actor's Studio had established itself in the late 1940's by Elia Kazan and Cheryl Crawford. Their aim with their players was to get poetry out of modern day life. The studio was now being run by Lee and Molly Strasberg.
Lee Strasberg: "Everyone got this idea that he was as sloppily dressed don't-give-a-damn kind of character. This is not so. To begin with, Dean was scarcely at the studio at all. he came in a few times and slouched in the front row. He never participated in anything."
Once again, Dean moved home, and was now sharing an apartment with James Sheldon, the TV producer who had introduced him to the Schurr Agency. Jimmy auditioned for a part in the movie Battle Cry, but was not accepted and the part went to Tab Hunter and consequently flopped. It also seemed that Dean was a flop with the Actor's Studio. Lee Strasberg noticed too many flaws in Jimmy's sole recitation that Jimmy, terribly insulted, marched out of the class never to participate again.
Bill Bast was now living in New York, and he and Jimmy began seeing a lot of each other. With Bill, Dizzy Sheridan, and another 'insolvent outsider' Barbara Glenn (whom Dean nicknamed 'my neurotic little shit') it seemed that Jimmy had finally found his companions. But they befriended Dean on his terms. If they began to bore him, he wouldn't hesitate to drop them. One friend claimed: "If he didn't like you, Jimmy wouldn't even give you the pleasure of his anger. You could be in a phone booth with him and you wouldn't exist."
When Dizzy, Bill and Jimmy hitched back to the Winslow farm in Fairmount (mainly to fill their stomachs), they found a cable addressed to Jimmy from Jane Deacy with some urgent and worthy news. It transpired that a part for Jimmy in the play See The Jaguar waited for the actor back in New York.
The play opened on December 3rd, 1952 in New York, and swept Dean from the friends who had suffered with him in the lean days.
Bill Bast: "I was stunned by the realisation that at no time during the performance (of 'See The Jaguar') had I been aware that I was watching my old friend James Dean."
The play was condemned by the critics and closed after six performances, but it did lead Dean to a string of television appearances. All were unmemorable clothesline dramas with Dean as an over-balanced psychotic. He was by now in the front ranks of televisions young potentials, alongside Steve McQueen and Paul Newman. the Schurr office was deluged with fan mail.
"You should read some of the letters I get," Dean told Bill Bast, "from old ladies watching television. They tell me about how they want me to wear tighter pants."
Most of the shows went out live, and nothing remains of Dean from this period. At this point, he was offered the lead in an upcoming movie The Silver Chalice, but Jane Deacy held off the offer. Later the part was given to Paul Newman and proved to have few qualities. Dean tried for the part of Curly in Oklahoma, but his voice didn't measure up for the musical numbers. As if somehow anticipating what lay before him, Dean formed a friendship with photographer Roy Schatt, and insisted he take hundreds of photographs of him in varying poses.
Schatt: "He was fun to hang around with, but he was always making romance with his own activities. He made romance out of the fact that he didn't eat or dress like other people. Sometimes I felt like he was writing a biography about himself. You know, and that moment was entitled, 'This is The Way Jimmy Prepared For His Role In . . . .' "
For all the activity that surrounded him, Jimmy was mostly alone in those early days. He was an insomniac and spent many of his nights roaming the city like a stray animal. And still, his friends were all replaceable.
Barbara Glenn: "Of course Jimmy had his reasons for doing what he did, but really, who needs that shit?"
Kazan returned to Dean with the offer to audition for the part of Cal in East of Eden. He would have to take a screen test with Paul Newman. Newman heavily resented Dean because he always seemed slightly ahead of him. When Dean was finally given the part, Newman was outraged, which naturally delighted Dean.
"I wanted that part so bad I could almost taste it," whinged Newman.
Without delay Dean left for California to begin shooting for East of Eden, for which his friends thought him lucky, but Dean was quick to point out to them: "No one ever did anything for me. I don't owe anything to anyone."
JAMES DEAN is the young man who snags the acting limelight in "East of Eden," which arrived at the Astor last week. Its opening has started a lively controversy over his histrionic kinship with Marlon Brando-and his professional competence. At any rate, 25-year-old Dean, a product of an Indiana farm, Hollywood, television and Broadway, has made an impression and now owns a Warner Brothers contract.
Count his supporting chore in last season's "The Immortalist" as having threefold significance insofar as this rapid rise is concerned. It netted him the Donaldson and Perry awards and, indirectly, the attention of director Elia Kazan, then scouting leads for "Eden," and finally, his flourishing reputation for unvarnished individuality. In a recent chat at his agent's apartment, west of the Yorkville area, Dean gave ample evidence that he was prepared to maintain that individuality.
He sat quietly, awaiting the first query. The slender frame and boyish features suggested a Booth Tarkington hero. The black corduroy shirt and trousers and a penetrating neutrality of expression, magnified by large, steel spectacles, did not. Had he caught "Eden" yet?
"Sure, I saw it," came the soft, abstract reply. His verdict? "Not bad."
"No, I didn't read the novel. The way I work, I'd much rather justify myself with the adaptation rather than the source. I felt I wouldn't have any trouble-too much anyway-with this characterization once we started because I think I understood the part. I knew, too, that if I had any problems over the boy's background, I could straighten it out with Kazan."
Asked how he happened to turn to acting, Dean hoisted a jodhpur over one knee and lit a cigarette. "It was an accident, although I've been involved in some kind of theatrical function or other since I was a child-in school, music, athletics." He rose and began pacing the room. The words came slowly and carefully.
"To me acting is the most logical way for people's neuroses to manifest themselves. To my way of thinking, and actor's course is set even before he's out of the cradle."
An only child of non-professionals, Dean was raised by an aunt and uncle in Fairmount, Ind. "My father was a farmer, but he did have this remarkable adeptness with his hands," he said, flexing his own. "Whatever abilities I may have crystallized there in high school, when I was trying to prove something to myself-that could do it, I suppose. One of my teachers was a frustrated actress. Through her I entered and won a state oratorical dramatic contest, reciting a Dickens piece called 'The Madman.' What's it about? About this real gone cat," he chanted, "who knocks off several people. It also begins with a scream," he remembered casually. "I really woke up those judges."
"All these things," he went on, "were good discipline and experience for me. After graduation, I went up to live with my father in Los Angeles-Mother had died when I was a kid-and just for the hell of it, signed up for a pre-law course at U.C.L.A. That did call for a certain knowledge of histrionics. I even joined a fraternity on campus, but I busted a couple of guys in the nose and got myself kicked out. I wasn't happy in law, either.
"Then I tried my luck in pictures, contacted an agent, got some small parts in things like 'Has Anybody Seen My Gal?,' a Korean war film, 'Fixed Bayonets,' and one TV play.
"I came here at the suggestion of Jimmy Whitmore, a fine actor and a good boy, a real New York boy, who wasn't too happy out at Metro." For what he learned at the Actors' Studio, while edging into prominence on television and in his Broadway bow, "See the Jaguar," Dean pointedly credits director Lee Strasberg, "an incredible man, a walking encyclopedia, with fantastic insight."
Would he compare the stage and screen media? "As of now, I don't consider myself as specifically belonging to either. The cinema is a very truthful medium because the camera doesn't let you get away with anything. On stage, you can even loaf a little if you're so inclined. Technique, on the other hand, is more important. My aim, my real goal, is to achieve something I call camera-functioning on the stage.
"Not that I'm down on Hollywood. Take pictures like 'The Ox-Bow Incident,' most of the Lubitsch ones. Gadge (Kazan), of course, is one of the best. Then there's George Stevens, the greatest of them all. I'm supposed to do 'Giant' for him. This guy was born with the movies. So real, unassuming. You'll be talking to him, thinking he missed your point, and then-bang!-he has it."
How did his Warners contract read? "Nine films over a six-year period." Story approval? "Contractually, no-emotionally, yes. They can always suspend me. money isn't one of my worries, not that I have any.
"Don't get me wrong. I'm not one of the wise ones who
try to put Hollywood down. It just happens that I fit to cadence and pace
better here as far as living goes. New York is vital, above all fertile.
They're a little harder to find, maybe, but out there in Hollywood, behind
all that brick and mortar, there are human beings just as sensitive to
fertility. The problem for this cat-myself-is not to get lost." Dean's
smile spread as far as his lenses.
|4||Pity Me Because I Am
Too Sensitive for This
World and Everyone's
Wrong Except Me
East of Eden is the story of a son aching for the affection of a disapproving father. Jimmy as the son (Cal) and Raymond Massey as the father, found the Steinbeck characters creeping into their daily lives on the set. Julie Harris (playing Abra) would often bridge the gap between Massey and Dean.
Harris: "Jimmy would say a lot of, would swear, I remember some of what he'd say - 'fuck' , or something like that, and Raymond Massey would turn scarlet and finally had to say once: 'You mustn't talk like that, there are ladies present', which just egged Jimmy on more."
In one scene with Massey, Dean was to read a passage from the Bible before supper. Instead of the expected 'The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want', Dean in a deliberate effort to enrage Massey, who was devoted to the Bible, recited: "The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not suck cock." Massey's heart nearly stopped. He stormed from the set and refused to continue working with Dean, a decision he was forced to retract.
On the set Dean tagged after Richard Davalos who played Cal's angelic brother Aron. Aron was perfection in his father's eyes, but his stainless nature had cunning tendencies. Davalos was not over-keen on Dean, and was unwilling to share an apartment with him when Kazan suggested they should.
For most of the film, Cal is projected as little more than a confused boy, unable to understand his straightlaced father, yet identifying with his mother (Jo Van Fleet), a whorehouse madam. On the set, Dean was as troublesome and complicated as possible. He drank violently and abusively and Julie Harris was the only one with an understanding.
Julie Harris: "The first time I met Jimmy at some party down in the Village. We were introduced and he looked at me kind of quizzically and he said: 'Well,, how do you like playing in The Moon is Blue?'. and I thought, what's he doing? Is he putting me on? And I said, 'I wasn't in The Moon is Blue, and he kind of looked at me and smiled. He didn't say much after that."
In the film, Harris (as Abra) is Aron's girlfriend but is distracted by her fascination for the other brother, Cal. Abra realises that until Cal receives the approval he deserves from his self-righteous father, he shall always feel incomplete.
Julie Harris: "I remember the last day of filming. It was terrible for me. You always feel that you're alone in these feelings, whatever you feel. You feel that nobody else can possibly feel that. The last scene was shot - I don't know what scene we were working on. It was the exterior of the house, I know that. And there was to be a party that night. It was awful for me that last day to think it had all gone away, that life we'd been leading for two and a half months. You wouldn't see anybody again. You wouldn't come there every day. You wouldn't look forward to it. And I remember looking around and thinking, I've got to say goodbye to Jimmy. And suddenly, all the set was just deserted, and everybody had just gone. And he had a dressing room, a portable dressing room, on the set, and I went up to the caravan and knocked on the door and I thought I heard something like a sob. I said, 'Jimmy', and then knocked again. So then I was sure it was a sob and I opened the door and he was just in tears, his eyes - and I said 'what's the matter', and he said, 'It's over, it's over', and he was just like a little boy. So lovely."
It was during the filming of East of Eden that Jimmy developed a mad passion for Pier Angeli, a sensitive young Italian actress. Pier went nowhere without her mother. As a schoolgirl of fifteen she had been raped by an American soldier, which had had a deep wounding effect upon her. So much so that when being kissed - apparently for the first time - in a scene of one of her movies, the repulsed actress fell to the ground with a thud and required buckets of smelling slats to be revived. However, Dean was mesmerized, and who wouldn't be? Saint Pier and her mother, almost a double act in Hollywood, were interlocked night and day.
"Pier Angeli is a rare person", Dean told the press, "Unlike most Hollywood girls she is real and genuine. Her only trouble is that she gets confused by listening to too many advisors."
The two managed some time together, and according to Dick Davalos, Dean confessed: "For better or worse I'm going to spend the rest of my days with her." After this he rang Jane Deacy and told her he wanted to get married. Pier was not quite so positive and raced to the altar at a moment's notice with celebrity Vic Damone. Dean, stumped, fell into a fit of depression. Jimmy later revealed that he had beaten Pier up a few nights before her wedding. However, Pier's marriage would not last, and neither would she. She lived for years in extreme poverty and depression. In 1970 she returned to Hollywood after a great lapse, hoping for a part in The Godfather, which she didn't get because (according to the director) Pier was 'too old'. Hardly encouraged by this, the failed actress began taking pills for 'stomach trouble'. One night she took too many. Minutes before her death in 1971, she coughed: "Jimmy was the love of my youth - perhaps my greatest love."
East of Eden was launched to favourable reactions. At its premier, Marilyn Monroe handed out programmes, but not to Dean who had flown back to New York to avoid the general fanfare which surrounded the picture. "New York is vital, above all, fertile," he claimed. Or, depending on his mood: "Geographical location means nothing to me. A man can produce no matter where the hell he is."
One scene in the film had been chopped (perhaps censored). A bedroom scene with the two brothers Cal and Aron bristled with sexuality. Davalos explained: "The test we did had homosexual overtones, but no one had ever said it before."
It was remarked upon far too often that Dean's acting beared too great a resemblance to Brando's. It was no secret that Dean admired Brando immensely, but Kazan pointed out: "People compare them, but there was no similarity. Dean was a far sicker kid . . . ." After Dean's death, Brando himself commented: "Dean was never a friend of mine, but he had an idee fixé about me. Whatever I did, he did. He was always trying to get close to me. He used to call up. I'd listen to him talking to the answering service asking for me, leaving messages. but I never spoke up. I never called him back."
Julie Harris was aware that Dean felt the same way about Montgomery Clift: "Jimmy used to call Montgomery Clift and say, I'm a great actor and you're my idol and I need to see you because I need to talk to you and I need to communicate', and Clift would change his phone number. Then after Jimmy was dead, Clift saw all three of his films, and every time he'd get drunk and cry and cry about the fact that he'd denied this young man the opportunity of seeing and talking to him."
In the summing-up of Eden, Julie Harris received faint praise, Dick Davalos was entirely overlooked, and Raymond Massey struggled for a mention. All were clearly overshadowed by James Dean in the only film of his career that he would live to see released.
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