James Dean – over-rated nobody?

 

James Dean’s mother died when he was nine. His father promised to attend the funeral, but never showed up, and Jimmy would resent him for the rest of his short life because of it. He once told Elizabeth Taylor of how he had been consistently molested by a trusted member of the clergy when he was just eleven years old. And this constant abuse had, understandably, affected him deeply. He had become morose, quick-tempered, was prone to throwing tantrums, subject to erratic mood swings, and may very well have suffered from undiagnosed Bipolar Disorder. In short, he was a psychological mess for most of his brief life. He took male and female lovers, and when he got stoned, which was often, he would invite them to stub their cigarettes out on his chest after sex. When asked about his sexual orientation, he replied, ‘No, I am not a homosexual. But, I’m also not going to go through life with one hand tied behind my back.’ In an era when even a hint of bisexuality could mean the end of a career, this was a bold but risky statement to make.

 

Dean signed a nine picture deal with Warner Brothers just before he died, one that would have see him make $900,000 over the next five years, had he lived to collect it. Three of the pictures designated to have him in the starring role were, Somebody Up There Likes Me, The Left-Handed Gun, and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. His early death would see all three go to new-comer Paul Newman. And they would start him on the road to movie immortality. Except for a handful of uncredited bits as an extra, Dean only made three movies in his lefetime. They were East of Eden and Rebel Without a Cause in 1955, and Giant in 1956. Even so, many of his peers (and most critics) considered him to be an extraordinary talent who would have become an all-time great had he lived. But not everyone was enamoured of the man or his talent. Not by a long shot. Director Elia Kazan said he thought Jimmy’s career would have ‘sputtered out’ quite quickly because he was poorly trained and relied too much on his instincts to get him by. Kazan also described him as ‘a pudding of hatred’ who, at a dinner party with Tony Perkins and Karl Malden, once picked up his steak and threw it through a window. At Chasen’s restaurant he would often accompany his demands for service with table banging and silver clanging. The reception hall at Warners was adorned with portraits of the studio’s biggest stars in its history. Dean was known to spit on the pictures of Humphrey Bogart, James Cagney, Paul Muni and others. Bogart said of him, ‘If James Dean had lived they’d have discovered he wasn’t a legend’.

 

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Liz Sheridan in ‘Seinfeld’.

Warners sent him out on dates with most of their young starlets for publicity purposes, but he only ever had two real romances with members of the opposite sex. These were with actresses Pier Angeli and Liz Sheridan. He met Liz, who was a dancer at the time, in New York City in 1951. They lived together for a while, even becoming engaged, before he broke it off and headed for California to try his luck in the movies. All this is according to Miss Sheridan’s memories. It may not even be true, of course, for there are no photographs of the two of them together, and she says she burned all their love letters on hearing of his death. You may have seen Liz back in the 1990s, playing Seinfeld’s mother Helen in 21 episodes of the sitcom of that name. Miss Angeli he met on the set of East of Eden, but more of her later.

 

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Dennis Hopper in Speed

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Natalie Wood, Jimmy Dean and Sal Mineo in Rebel Without a Cause.

Young actor Dennis Hopper was in Rebel Without a Cause alongside Dean, Sal Mineo and Natalie Wood. For the younger generation who may not be familiar with his name, Hopper played the bad guy in the hugely successful Speed (1994). During the ‘Rebel’ shoot he found time to seduce Natalie in the back of his car while it was parked on the Hollywood Heights. She was sexually very active for a fifteen year-old, he recalled.  Director Nicholas Ray became intimately involved with all three of his young charges at various stages. This was particularly reprehensible because Mineo and Wood were both under-age. He even tried to have a kissing scene between Dean and Mineo inserted in the movie, but Warners were fearful of a backlash, so they refused him. Ray’s gay neighbours, actor Farley Granger and writer Gore Vidal, confirmed Hopper’s accusation, by the way. The man himself always argued that he was, in fact, heterosexual, because he had ‘more affairs with women than men’. Well, there you go then. British-born screenwriter Gavin Lambert lived with him in Hollywood for eight months, but eventually left because of Ray’s alcoholism, drug use, and constant infidelity with lovers of both sexes. His personal life really was a mess. Back in 1948, another of his lovers, billionaire Howard Hughes, managed to save him from testifying before the House Committee on Un-American Activities during the McCarthy witch-hunts, thus saving both RKO and Ray from considerable difficulty and embarrassment. That same year Ray married actress Gloria Grahame. Two years later, while directing her in the movie In a Lonely Place, he came home early one day and found her in bed with his teenage son, Tony. Like many habitual philanderers, he could not brook infidelity in others, and they divorced in 1952. Gloria went on to wed Tony in 1960, the ensuing scandal destroying her career. Nicholas Ray was a fine director whose credits included the gender-bending western classic Johnny Guitar (1954), but his career only spanned about twenty films. As demonstrated here, as a human being he was far less impressive. He died in 1979 from cancer.

 

 

Nicholas Ray (1911 - 1979) - Find A Grave Memorial

Director Nicholas Ray

While Dean’s final film Giant was being shot in Texas, it became customary for families from nearby areas to drop in and watch some of the day’s filming. On at least one occasion he unzipped his fly and urinated in front of them! He explained to director George Stevens that doing so motivated him and helped him to overcome his acting nerves. There were 2,500 people present at the time. His reasoning? If he could expose himself to so many onlookers without becoming embarrassed, he said, then he should be OK to act confidently in front of the crew. It is a wonder he did not say that it ‘helped him find the character’. Perhaps, even as long ago as 1956, that one had become old hat already. Phyllis Gates, the wife of Rock Hudson, was convinced her husband and his co-star Liz Taylor had an affair when making Giant. She was equally certain that Liz and Dean were intimately involved as well. They would disappear together for entire nights, and were clearly affectionate towards one another on their return to the set. And just to round things off neatly, Mrs Hudson was also certain that her husband had propositioned Dean, but had been rejected. Jimmy, she claimed, told the older Rock that he ‘wasn’t his type’. All in all, it was happy families all round (except for Rock who seemed to be out of luck completely). Four days after shooting concluded Dean’s luck ran out as well.

 

On 30 September 1955, he was traveling in his Porsche Spyder 550 with a mechanic named Rolf Weutherich when they collided with a coupe driven by a gentleman named Donald Turnupseed. To this day there is conjecture over who was driving Dean’s car at the time or how fast he was going. Fifteen year-old Don Dooley was on the spot when the crash occurred, and ran over to the mangled Porsche to see if he could help. He has stated categorically many times, even at the inquest, that the actor’s body was in the passenger seat, yet police and other officials dismissed his testimony because of his ‘untrained eye’, they said, and arrived (rightly or wrongly) at the conclusion that Dean had been at the wheel. Mr Dooley, now 75, stands by his words. ‘That is what I saw’, he says. ‘The things I say, I say truthfully out of memory. I have nothing to gain by lying about it’. The mechanic Weutherich survived the crash, but was too badly injured to attend the inquest. He eventually recovered and later moved back home to Germany. Only he knew for certain who was driving that day, yet he refused to say a word on the subject for the rest of his life. In 1981 he, too, would die in a car crash, and the truth about James Dean’s death would die with him. After the 1955 accident, bits and pieces of Jimmy’s Spyder were sold as souvenirs. Life-size plastic moulds of his head also went for five bucks apiece. The James Dean Foundation, set up by his family to cash in on his fame, even flogged James Dean spark plugs, would you believe? Because he left no will, his $96,000 estate went to his father as next of kin. He and Jimmy had been, shall we say, ‘distant’ at very best. By the 1990s, trademarking the dead actor’s image had transformed that somewhat meagre estate into several millions.

 

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Beautiful Pier Angeli

Dean’s death hit Pier Angeli hard. Her deep affection for him was a matter of record. Or so the story goes. There are plenty of photographs of the couple out on the town prior to 1954, indicating that they were definitely an ‘item’, but how much of an item is open to debate. The generally accepted story is that they planned to marry at one time, but Pier’s mother iced the idea because Dean was not a Catholic. Well, maybe that was the reason, maybe not. Given the guy’s track record, it could be that mum noticed a half dozen other reasons why he just might have turned into the son-in-law from Hell. Anyway, it has been said that mum vetoed the relationship, pushed her daughter into marriage with Italian crooner Vic Damone in 1954, and busted Pier’s heart clean in two. Just before her suicide in 1971 (officially it was an accidental barbiturate overdose), Miss Angeli was quoted as saying Jimmy was the only man she ever loved, and that ‘love died in a Porsche’. That last bit sounds awfully like something a publicist might write, but maybe I am being too cynical. The ‘only man I ever loved’ part might have been an exaggeration too. After all, she had been married twice and was even engaged to Kirk Douglas at one time. By 1970, Jimmy’s life and death had become the stuff of legends. Maybe Pier had herself become absorbed in all the hype. Then again, maybe she truly did love the guy. Who knows?

 

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James Dean and Liz Taylor on the set of Giant.

From most accounts, few people who knew James Dean cared for him all that much. He was moody, egotistical, full of self-importance, inconsiderate, lacking any kind of discipline. Rock Hudson may have been speaking out of spite after being rejected by the younger man, but his comments following Jimmy’s demise reflect many people’s opinion at the time. ‘I don’t mean to speak ill of the dead’, he said, before doing just that. ‘But he was a prick…selfish and petulant. On the set he would up-stage an actor and step on his lines.’ Was Rock himself being a little petulant because Dean had refused his advances? Possibly. Then again, maybe, like nearly every other movie actor, Hudson positively hated being up-staged? Surely not? Liz Taylor, on the other hand, adored Dean and was outraged by the Academy’s reluctance to bestow on him a posthumous Oscar! ‘I won’t go to the awards’, she said. ‘I won’t honour any group of people who refuse to bestow the recognition due Jimmy – an Oscar for one of the brightest talents ever to come into our industry.’ Ho-hum. Sorry Liz, wherever you are, but he was not that special. Not at all. A final comment. Reports at the time stated that over three thousand mourners attended the young actor’s funeral, yet no-one was there from the acting fraternity. Not even Liz.

2 Comments on James Dean – over-rated nobody?

  1. I have been re-thinking Jas. Dean’s importance as an actor, and am
    finding him to have been terribly self conscious, except for moments
    of brilliance. Ex: East of Eden; takes bro.to meet mother at whore house [literally shoves him in door.] Giant may have been his best
    film; his little hand gestures, great scene of witnessing oil. I’m too tired, now to think of others. [I’m amused by Bogart’s comment re. method acting, “Scratch your ass and mumble.”] Some truth in that.

    • Fair comment, Sheila. I cannot help thinking that his death enhanced his reputation considerably more than would otherwise have been the case. As for ‘the method’, well, I lost any meagre interest I had in that when De Niro told an interviewer he found the ‘key’ to his portrayal of Al Capone by studying a CRAB! Or was it a shrimp? Either way, I just don’t get it.

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