Thursday, March 19, 2009
"In the early 1950s, director Nicholas Ray was a regular at the classic Saturday night parties thrown by actress Betsy Blair and her husband Gene Kelly—the kind of exclusive Hollywood soirees that would find Judy Garland singing at the piano, Leonard Bernstein playing charades or Greta Garbo sitting casually on the edge of the Kelly’s kitchen sink. Blair remembers the tall, handsome, seductive Ray with great fondness. “He was always lively and iconoclastic and full of serious opinions,” says Blair, who calls him “a Melville hero” for the way he chased dream projects and battled against the confines of the studio system. Blair knew Ray to be a compulsive womanizer, gambler and drinker, although “never a sloppy drunk.” But one night in July 1951 after their weekly party broke up, Blair and Kelly looked out of their front window and encountered a bizarre sight.
“There was a little slope in front of our house,” says Blair, “and I remember Nick leaving and instead of getting into his car, he sank onto the grass, just sort of lying there. I was ready to go out and get him. But Gene said, ‘Let’s see if he gets up again.’ And so we waited, fifteen to twenty minutes. I think Nick was actually planning to lie there all night. Eventually, we did go out and get him.” Like everyone in Hollywood, the Kellys knew that Ray had just filed for divorce from his second wife, the quintessential film noir blonde, Gloria Grahame, after a stormy three-year marriage, but they had no idea what precipitated the separation. “We didn’t know in the beginning what had happened,” says Blair, “just that they were fighting and breaking up and that he was desperate. And then, when I found out, it was hard to believe.” The real story behind the break-up was shocking even by Hollywood standards."
It was just a coincidence that we started with Blair and that her anecdote introduced our book, but what a wonderful way to start. Blair was in New York promoting her beautifully written and fascinating autobiography, The Memory of All That: Love and Politics in New York, Hollywood, and Paris, and gave a talk accompanied by film clips at New York's Film Forum. Blair was so different from her most famous role, the shy mousy girl who won Ernest Borgnine's heart in Marty. She was outspoken and funny, warm and intelligent, self-deprecating and tough. At one point watching a clip of Gene Kelly dancing on the screen, she exclaimed, "God he was handsome. After seeing that I wonder how I ever left him."
I think Blair had a big influence on the way we wrote the book. Talent inspired awe in her but at the same time didn't blind her to people's foibles. She was frank and honest but also empathetic and non-judgmental. And it was in that spirit that we approached the very talented and flawed people we were writing about.
I got a chance to interview Blair again for a piece I did for Premiere on Katharine Hepburn when she died. Blair had worked with her on a film adaptation of Edward Albee's play A Delicate Balance, directed by Tony Richardson. But she had gotten to know Hepburn years earlier when she was invited to luncheons at the house Hepburn shared with Spencer Tracy on George Cukor's estate. The other guests were Greta Garbo and Ethel Barrymore.
"I think I was so thrilled to be invited that I tried to observe everything the three of them did and George teased me a bit about it," she told me. "They were all lovely to me but I was too impressed, too thrilled to be there. I was mostly being a good girl, behaved, eager to jump up and get Ethel Barrymoore's parasol, so my interaction with them was more like the grown-up daughter not quite ready. Garbo was not 'I want to be alone' in that surrounding so I can remember a lot of laughter and quite sharp, not bitchiness but sharp women's, actresses Hollywood talk about studios or directors they didn't like. There was nothing profound or enlightening or artistically thrilling. It was more fun that was being had at George Cukor's lunch. Everybody had fun at George Cukor's anyway. I remember when I first saw them that first day. Both Hepburn and Garbo in beige and white trousers and shirts, sandals, the beautiful hair on Hepburn, big hat on Garbo for the shade, and Ethel Barrymoore being elegant and dignified."
I asked her about Hepburn's relationship with Spencer Tracy and Blair told me, "At the time when I was young and foolish I remember thinking what is she wasting her life for on this man who won't get a divorce? How can she be doing this to herself? But you can't really judge people from the outside." Do you feel differently now? I asked. "I think if that's what she wanted to do with her life it was brave of her to do it. So I guess I do feel differently. I wish she had a different kind of life but maybe she didn't want one, she wanted him. So good," she said.
Working with Hepburn on A Delicate Balance, Blair was awed by Hepburn's preparation: "I once said to [director] Karel [Reisz, her second husband] during the shooting, 'You know she gets up at four in the morning and does all these things before she gets on the set. A hot bath when she first woke up and then exercises then a shower and washing her hair and putting her hair in rollers. She would get into bed with the script for the day and go over it again and then she had this enormous breakfast of bacon and eggs and cereal and orange juice and toast, I mean enormous, a really enormous breakfast and then she would do her makeup before she came to the studio and then get dressed and be picked up by the car. At lunchtime she would have it was called Tiger's Milk it was some sort of vitamin powder you'd put into milk. She'd have a glass of that and sleep for the rest of the hour at lunchtime. And she was perfect for the rest of the afternoon. I said to Karel when I saw all that I thought well I never could have been a movie star really, and he said I don't think you would have had this husband either. She once said to me as she walked past me on the set, 'Oh I never could sit down in my costume.' And of course I felt immediately like a bad little girl."
Blair was blacklisted in the 1950s because of her political views, though being married to Gene Kelly gave her some protection. After their divorce she moved permanently to Europe and married Reisz in 1963. In addition to her Oscar-nominated role in Marty, Blair starred in A Double Life (1947), Another Part of the Forest (1948), and The Snake Pit (1948) and in 1957 she worked with Michelangelo Antonioni in Il Grido. In her book she recounts how she and Antonioni went over the script for two hours when they met. "I can see now that my very American combination of naïve confidence in my opinion and the Stanislavsky approach to acting were completely alien to him," she wrote. "His art is so personal and mysterious. I'm very glad—and lucky—that he didn't decide to drop me then and there." Years later Antonioni said in an interview that the worst professional experience of his life was "The first two hours I spent with Betsy Blair." In tears she showed the interview to Reisz, who told her, "Don't be silly—think of it as a great honor."
I think of it as a great honor that I got to meet her. She was not the most well-known or prolific actress. But from my brief encounters with her and from reading her book I found her to be one of the most remarkable people I have ever met. I wish I had had the privilege to know her better. At the end of our interview with her for our book, she said something I'll always remember. "You get older and you realize that you don’t ever know anything," she said. "You really don’t. You see things and you think you know but you don’t know the truth, only what you saw. It’s all Rashomon."
A Delicate Balance
Tuesday, February 24, 2009
"Even without a single distinctive sentence -- note the tripping-over-its-own-feet-syntax of the subtitle -- this book is irresistible. With all of the principals other than writer Stewart Stern dead -- James Dean (1955), Sal Mineo (1976), Ray (1979), Natalie Wood (1981), a wipeout, as if Dean came back in that Porsche Spydter to get them -- Frascella and Weisel rely mostly on actors who in the film played gang members (Corey Allen, Frank Mazzola, Steffi Sidney, Beverly Long, Dennis Hopper) to reconstruct it. But because the movie changed the way the world looked, how it felt, they only have to apply a bit of pressure to a tiny matter -- the sixteen-year-old Woods's simultaneous affairs with Ray (on his urging) and Hopper (on hers), the fate of Dean's red jacket -- to find their own drama. Today the gravity in the picture belongs wholly to Dean, and the gravity is a matter of intellectual energy so bright the man carrying it seems constantly on the verge of bursting into flames."
Thursday, March 06, 2008
We wrote to him asking for an interview and soon received a reply from his wife, Judie, who had some devastating news. Her husband, she said, was suffering from frontotemporal dementia. Although he occasionally had lucid moments, she doubted he would be able to remember very much. But she invited us to come see them and said she would do whatever she could to help. When we arrived at their home in Los Angeles, Rosenman greeted us warmly but it soon became apparent that he would be unable to talk about Rebel Without a Cause or any of the other films he worked on or the people he worked with in any detail. He told us a couple stories he had already told before many times, such as about his first meeting with James Dean, but he couldn't remember anyone's name or the names of the films. He called Dean "that guy" and referred to East of Eden as "film one" and Rebel as "film three." It was heartbreaking to see him struggle to remember those days.
But then something extraordinary happened. He sat down at the grand piano in their living room and asked us if we wanted to hear some of the music he composed for Eden and Rebel. He then played some of the themes from those films beautifully, note for note. The disease had mercifully left this part of his mind untouched. We were moved to tears. When we told Gail Levin, the director of the PBS American Masters biography of Dean, about this, she filmed Rosenman playing one of the themes to Rebel, which you can see here (the link to the footage is in the upper-righthand corner) or embedded below.
Judie then said she would take us to meet Rosenman's first wife, Adele, who was married to him when he composed these scores and we spent a wonderful evening with her as she reminisced about that time. She told us how Rosenman composed the score to Rebel in an apartment building (where Dean also lived) that was across the street from Warner Brothers during a hot summer. The apartment had no air conditioning so they had the windows open and one day Jack Warner telephoned to say, "Stop playing that music or close the windows!"
The Rosenmans met James Dean at party after a New York performance of Woman of Trachis for which Rosenman had composed the music. The host of the party started playing a Mozart piano piece badly and before she could assault their ears with the second movement, Rosenman said that Adele could play it beautifully. She said she didn't have her glasses so Dean lent her his. A month later Dean showed up at their apartment late one night clad in black leather, looking "like a member of the Gestapo," Rosenman once said, and asked the composer for piano lessons. Although Dean was not a very good piano student, they became good friends and Dean recommended Rosenman to Elia Kazan to compose the score to East of Eden. Rosenman thought of himself as a serious avant-garde musician and didn't want to do it at first. At the time the only "serious" composer who had written a film score was Rosenman's friend Leonard Bernstein, who wrote the score to On the Waterfront. Unfortunately, once Rosenman started composing scores in Hollywood it would be 20 years before another of his pieces would be performed in a New York concert hall again. At the time serious composers did not write for the movies.
Rosenman composed the music for Eden before the film started shooting and he sometimes played the music on the piano on the set as the scenes were shot, which is the way that some Russian film composers worked. Rosenman's next score, for The Cobweb, was even more innovative. It was the first 12-tone score ever composed for a film. Rosenman had once studied with Arnold Schoenberg and his atonal technique was perfectly suited to a film set in a mental hospital.
Rebel's director Nicholas Ray met Rosenman and Dean on the same day when Kazan invited Ray to see a rough cut of Eden. Rosenman played the piano while Dean sat in the back looking bored. Rosenman was not only hired to compose the score for Rebel, he took part in much of the improvisatory preparation of the film and was present at the first script reading. In fact, Rosenman helped Ray find Stewart Stern to write the script after Ray had already fired two screenwriters. Rebel might never have gotten made if it weren't for Rosenman.
Rosenman once described the music for Rebel as having "a lot of jazz in it but it was like a twelve-tone type of jazz." The music Bernstein composed for West Side Story is clearly influenced by Rosenman's score for Rebel which premiered two years later (although Stephen Sondheim denied it when I asked him about it). The score is as innovative for the music he left out as it is for the music he composed. At the time most film music played continually throughout a film, but Rosenman thought that long passages of silence can sometimes be just as effective. That was not always true, however, as Rosenman learned. Rosenman had not composed any music for the police station scene in Rebel, but when some preview audiences laughed at the scene where Dean hits the desk, Warner's music director Ray Heindorf asked Rosenman to compose a short piece of music to play afterwards, which effectively stopped the audience from laughing to Rosenman's surprise.
Rosenman revolutionized film music. At a time when most film scores were heavily influenced by 19th-century Romantic European composers, he took film scores into the 20th-century, stirring serialism, the rhythms of Béla Bartók and Igor Stravinsky, the romanticism of Aaron Copland and jazz into a potent mix. Although Rosenman won two Oscars, ironically they were for arranging the music in Barry Lyndon and Bound for Glory and not for composing. Other notable scores he composed include Beneath the Planet of the Apes, Fantastic Voyage, the 1978 version of The Lord of the Rings, Cross Creek, Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, September 30, 1955, Making Love, A Man Called Horse, television's Sybil and Friendly Fire, for which he won Emmys, and music for the TV shows The Defenders, Combat! and Marcus Welby, M.D. I hope that as more people hear his work he will finally get his due as one the most important and influential film composers in history. But as for me, I will always remember the day when this warm and gentle man sat at a piano and moved us all so deeply with the power of his music.
Leonard Rosenman playing the theme to Rebel Without a Cause, 2005
The opening credits of Rebel Without a Cause.
Scenes from East of Eden set to Rosenman's score.
Technorati Tags: Rebel Without a Cause, Leonard Rosenman, James Dean, Nicholas Ray, Elia Kazan, East of Eden, Film, Movies, Books
Wednesday, July 11, 2007
In the hours after he learned of the arrest [Johnson] said little publicly, releasing only a perfunctory statement to the press announcing Jenkins' resignation. Lady Bird Johnson, however, knew exactly what to say. Against her husband's wishes, she issued her own statement of compassion and support for Jenkins. It was the only time she publicly defied her husband in their 39 years of marriage.
In a White House recording of a telephone conversation, Lady Bird tells Johnson that if "we don't express some support to him, we will lose the entire love and devotion of all the people who have been with us." Though he tries to dissuade her from getting involved, telling her patronizingly, "We have the best minds working on it," she refuses to budge. Finally she responds, in a voice dripping with honey and heartache: "My love, my love, I pray for you along with Walter. You're a brave, good guy, and if you read some things I said in Walter's support they'll be along the line that I just said to you." Her emotional statement, which began, "My heart is aching today for someone who has reached the end point of exhaustion in dedicated service to his country," transformed the climate surrounding the scandal. In its wake, a host of newspaper editorials recommended compassion for Jenkins.
You can read the rest of my piece here.
Wednesday, February 28, 2007
I knew he was a fan of James Dean's so I gave him a copy of my book Live Fast, Die Young: The Wild Ride of Making Rebel Without a Cause, after the interview and he spent a long time exclaiming over every picture in the book and talking about how cool James Dean was as his publicist kept tapping his watch and insisting that Reed had to go. Reed just ignored him.
You can read the interview with Lou Reed here.
Tuesday, January 02, 2007
Oscars, Academy Awards, Film, Movies, Cinema
Thursday, December 28, 2006
Wednesday, December 27, 2006
Rebel Without A Cause Screen Test
This screentest, which uses the Mansion Scene, took place on the set of A Streetcar Named Desire. Screenwriter Stewart Stern felt that this dress rehearsal was better than the scene that appeared in the film. "The other one is far more staged and much more rigid," he said.
The Mansion Scene
This scene was filmed in the abandoned Getty Mansion, which was also the mansion used in Sunset Blvd. This scene is the emotional heart of the film, a brief moment when the teenagers create a world of their own. Plato (Sal Mineo) leads Jim (James Dean) and Judy (Natalie Wood) on a tour of the mansion carrying a candelabra, which was connected to a gas jet (you can actually see the wire if you look closely). At one point James Dean imitates Mr. Magoo, who was voiced by the actor playing his father in the film, Jim Backus. Warner executives wanted him to change it to a Warner character like Bugs Bunny.
The Police Station
The film opens with a drunk James Dean being brought into a police station where he meets Natalie Wood and Sal Mineo for the first time. His parents, played by Jim Backus and Ann Doran, and his grandmother, played by Virginia Brissac, bicker among themselves, until Dean suddenly cries out, "You're tearing me apart!" His cry of pain cuts through the near-comic tone of the scene and immediately spins the film onto another emotional plane, forcing his parents, and the audience, to pay attention.
Going to School
The next day James Dean's Jim talks to Natalie Wood's Judy in the alley between their houses. He offers her a ride but she says she goes with "the kids" and the gang pulls up. One of the gang members is Dennis Hopper, in his first film role.
The Knife Fight
This scene was actually filmed twice, first in black and white and then again in color after Warners decided a week into filming that the film should be shot in color. James Dean and Corey Allen, who plays Buzz, used real switchblades in the fight, which was shot at Griffith Observatory. At one point Allen accidentally cut Dean. When director Nicholas Ray stopped the scene, Dean angrily told him, "Don’t you ever cut a scene while I’m having a real moment!"
"I've Got the Bullets!"
At the end of Rebel Without a Cause (don't watch this if you haven't seen the film) Jim and Judy try to save Plato who is holed up in Griffith Observatory. Dean was having problems saying "I've got the bullets" and did many retakes of this scene.
Originally, director Nicholas Ray wanted the ending of the film to take place on the roof of Griffith Observatory and shot part of the scene this way. It proved too expensive, however, and he had to go back and re-shoot the scene the way it appears in the film.
Saturday, June 24, 2006
Tuesday, March 07, 2006
The authors of Live Fast, Die Young: The Wild Ride of Making Rebel Without a Cause will be making two appearances this month. We will be at a screening of Rebel Without a Cause at the Landmark Theatre at 54 Journal Square in Jersey City, NJ on March 11 before and after the 6:15 showing, where we will sign books and answer questions about the film, and we will also be appearing at the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Center, which is located at 208 West 13th St. in New York at 7 p.m. on March 27 to talk about the book.
Wednesday, February 08, 2006
Today is James Dean's birthday.
He would have been 75 today.
"Dream as if you'll live forever.
Live as if you'll die today."--James Dean
Live Fast, Die Young: The Wild Ride of Making Rebel Without a Cause
Sunday, February 05, 2006
The February 10, 2006, Special Oscar Issue of Entertainment Weekly includes a piece by Live Fast, Die Young: The Wild Ride of Making Rebel Without a Cause co-author Lawrence Frascella called "Rebel Rousers: Ten Things You Didn't Know About Rebel Without a Cause." Here are just a few of the things we learned while writing the book, which he writes about in the piece and which we discuss in Live Fast, Die Young:
1. The 43-year-old director sleeps with his teenage star.
2. The studio balks at an onscreen kiss between James Dean and Sal Mineo.
3. Wild rehearsals lead to a mini-gang war.
4. Dr. Seuss takes a crack at the Rebel script.
5. Dean disappears on the first day of shooting.
6. The on-screen knife fight draws real blood.
7. Dean's classic red jacket was a last-minute inspiration.
8. An angry Dennis Hopper is stripped of his dialogue.
9. Wood was replaced by an extra in Rebel's most famous scene.
10. Jimmy Olsen is propositioned by Dean.
Friday, January 27, 2006
Although Mabry was nominated for four Academy Awards, he never got credit for what may have been his most famous design until we talked to him for our book. Mabry also told us about a special bra he designed for Natalie Wood, which became known as the "Natalie Wood bra," though he declined to reveal the secret of its design. After Rebel Mabry worked on Giant, earning his first Academy Award nomination. Although we are very sad about his passing, we are happy we gave him the opportunity to tell his story, especially about the red jacket. Here is his obituary from The Los Angeles Times:
Moss Mabry, 87; Costume Designer Was Nominated for 4 Academy Awards
By Dennis McLellan, Times Staff Writer
Moss Mabry, an Academy Award-nominated costume designer whose credits include "Giant," "Rebel Without a Cause" and "The Way We Were," has died. He was 87.
Mabry, a former West Hollywood resident who retired two decades ago to Vista in San Diego County, died Wednesday at a hospital in nearby Oceanside after a long illness that included respiratory and heart problems, said longtime friend Gary More.
In a career that spanned more than 80 films between 1953 and 1988, Mabry worked with such stars as Lana Turner, Grace Kelly, Goldie Hawn and Liza Minnelli, as well as leading men such as Marlon Brando, John Wayne, Dean Martin and Robert Redford.
"I was really so sorry to hear about Moss because he was such a dear, sweet man," Doris Day said in a statement to The Times on Thursday. "He designed my clothes on many of my films, and we always had laughs and a great time working together."
Mabry earned four Academy Award nominations -- for "Giant" (with colleague Marjorie Best), "What a Way to Go!" (with Edith Head), "Morituri" and "The Way We Were" (with Dorothy Jeakins).
Among his other film credits are "The Bad Seed," "Mutiny on the Bounty" (1962 version), "Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice," "Move Over, Darling," "Cactus Flower,"
"Butterflies Are Free," "King Kong" (1976 version), "The Shootist," "Continental Divide" and "The Toy."
"He was a totally delightful, witty and tremendously energetic personality,"
former Times movie reviewer Kevin Thomas said Thursday. "I always felt that as a designer, he had tremendous flair and imagination. And when it called for glamour, he could really deliver."
Mabry often said that his most difficult assignment was designing the clothes for Elizabeth Taylor in "Giant," the sprawling, Texas-set 1956 epic that also starred Rock Hudson and James Dean.
"The script called for 42 [clothing] changes, starting in 1924 and coming up to 1954," he once said in an interview. "George Stevens, the director, did not want to show any dates on the screen but let the clothes and hairstyles show the passing of time.
"It goes without saying, Miss Taylor's beauty is almost impossible to disguise under the worst clothes, and styles in 1924 though 1930 were pretty bad, but careful planning and her magic won me an Academy Award nomination."
Mabry said wardrobe tests can be "discouraging" because they are the first time the producer and director have seen the clothes, and "from the sketch to the real thing can come as a shock or a pleasant surprise," he said.
When he dressed Kelly for the first time -- for wardrobe tests for Alfred Hitchcock's "Dial M for Murder" -- it was a more than pleasant surprise.
"She 'sold' those clothes like I didn't dream possible, and it was actually difficult to decide which ones she should wear in the film," he said. "Miss Kelly knows exactly how to stand, how to sit and how to walk, and you have no idea how these three things can 'make' or 'kill' a beautiful dress."
What may be Mabry's most famous piece of costumery was more mundane than
glamorous: the red jacket worn by Dean in "Rebel Without a Cause."
Although one source reportedly claimed that an inexpensive red jacket was bought at a Hollywood men's store for use in the 1955 film, Mabry told Lawrence Frascella and Al Weisel -- the authors of the recent book "Live Fast, Die Young: The Wild Ride of Making 'Rebel Without a Cause' " -- that he made three of the jackets from a bolt of red nylon and painstakingly worked on the size of the collar and the placement of the pockets.
"Even though the jacket looked simple," Mabry said, "it wasn't."
Born in Marianna, Fla., in 1918, Mabry earned a degree in mechanical engineering at the University of Florida and began his professional life as an engineer.
But he had designed costumes and built scenery for high school plays, and his interest in clothing design lured him from a job with the Florida State Highway Department to Hollywood.
After attending the Chouinard Art Institute, he worked for renowned designer Don Loper for three years. That, in turn, led to his signing a contract with Warner Bros.
Mabry advised young people aspiring to a designing career to "find out all you can about fabrics, silk, taffeta, chiffon, how they wear, how they drape, etc. Then get a job with a manufacturer downtown; get exposed to the making of clothes."
A memorial service for Mabry, who had no immediate survivors, will be held at 11 a.m. Feb. 18 at Buena Vista Baptist Church, 145 Hannalei Drive, Vista.
Monday, January 16, 2006
Live Fast, Die Young: The Wild Ride of Making Rebel Without a Cause has been listed as an Editor's Choice by the New York Times.
Rebel Without a Cause, James Dean, Nicholas Ray, Natalie Wood, Sal Mineo, Film, Movies, Books, New York Times
Saturday, January 14, 2006
Shelley Winters, Tough-Talking Oscar Winner in 'Anne Frank' and 'Patch of Blue,' Dies
Shelley Winters, who once described her life as a "rocky road out of the Brooklyn ghetto to one New York apartment, two Oscars, three California houses, four hit plays, five Impressionist paintings, six mink coats and 99 films," died yesterday. She was 83, although some sources says she was 85.
Ms. Winters died of heart failure at the Rehabilitation Centre of Beverly Hills, her publicist, Dale Olson, said. She had been hospitalized in October after suffering a heart attack.
A major movie presence for more than five decades, Shelley Winters turned herself from a self-described "dumb blond bombshell" in B pictures to a widely respected actress who was nominated four times for Academy Awards.
Her first Oscar, for best supporting actress, was for her performance in "The Diary of Anne Frank" (1959) as the middle-age Mrs. Van Daan, one of eight Dutch Jews hiding from the Nazis in an attic.
She won again for best supporting actress as the vicious mother of a blind girl in "A Patch of Blue" (1965).
After a series of bit parts, Ms. Winters received her first big break as the waitress who was strangled by Ronald Colman's jealous actor in "A Double Life" in 1947.
Four years later, she dyed her hair brown, rubbed the polish off her fingernails, and convinced the director George Stevens that she could play the mousy factory girl who was made pregnant and then drowned by Montgomery Clift so that he could marry the rich Elizabeth Taylor in "A Place in the Sun." She was nominated for an Academy Award as best actress for that performance.
Tough-talking and oozing sex appeal, Ms. Winters was blowzy, vulgar and often pathetically vulnerable in her early films. In movie after movie, she played working-class women who were violently discarded by men who had used them.
Read the rest of the obituary here.Shelley Winters, Rebel Without a Cause, James Dean, Marilyn Monroe, Nicholas Ray, Film, Movies, Books
Tuesday, January 03, 2006
January 8, 2006
By Stephanie Zacharek
Nicholas Ray's "Rebel Without a Cause" (1955) is often considered a movie of symbols, all of them keyed to our feelings, and memories of youth as well as to our never-resolved disappointments: James Dean stands for youthful rebellion; Natalie Wood for the seemingly disparate appetites for wildness and tenderness; and Sal Mineo for the unpredictability, and the danger, of sexual desire. Sometimes it's easier, to grapple with what characters mean than with what they do.
But reducing "Rebel Without a Cause" to symbols only undermines its enduring vitality. It is really a movie of gestures, as Lawrence Frascella and Al Weisel grasp in their lively and intelligent "Live Fast, Die Young: The Wild Ride of Making 'Rebel Without a Cause.'"
When James Dean's Jim Stark returns home, exhausted and troubled, from a game of chicken that has killed one of his classmates, the first thing he does is go to the refrigerator for a drink of milk. He holds the bottle to his forehead, then to his cheek, a movement so smooth and simple you almost miss how elemental it is. Frascella and Weisel trace this small moment to an improvisatory session between Ray and Dean, in which Ray challenged the young actor to find a way to cut to the scene's essence. "It was a startling yet entirely natural move," Frascella and Weisel write. "It possessed an electric charge that carried directly into the film, where it would read as completely true to the sensibility of the milk-fed American teen, caught between maturity and childhood."
So many making-of books seem like deadly procedurals, with the authors stuffing in tons of minutiae just to show how much research they've done; whatever affection they feel for their subject gets buried under all the paperwork. But "Live Fast, Die Young" reads as if Frascella and Weisel took a good look at the movie in front of them and simply asked how and why. That's the reason we learn the story of the milk bottle, as well as the several theories about the origin of the red jacket Dean wears so memorably in the film. Although one source claims the jacket was bought on the cheap at a Hollywood men's store, the movie's costume designer, Moss Mabry, says he made three of the jackets from a bolt of red nylon, carefully working out the size of the collar and the placement of the pockets. "Even though the jacket looked simple," he explains, "it wasn't."
The apparent simplicity of that jacket sums up the difficulties Ray faced in creating what might have been, in less capable hands, just a throwaway teenage melodrama. Frascella and Weisel suggest that Ray was probably motivated to make "Rebel" at least partly by his strained relationship with Tony, his own son from his first marriage.
At 13, Tony slept with Gloria Grahame, then Ray's wife. But the charismatic, temperamental Ray wasn't above scandalous behavior himself: he began an affair with the young Natalie Wood in 1954, when she was 16 and he was 43. Almost immediately after she took up with Ray, Wood also started sleeping with Dennis Hopper, whom Ray had just cast in "Rebel." When Ray learned of Wood's infidelity, months later, he punished Hopper by giving nearly all his lines to another character. (Even so, Hopper reconciled with Ray many years later, getting him a teaching job when he really needed work.)
But the director's truest love affair, though not a carnal one, may have been with Dean himself. The most fascinating sections of "Live Fast, Die Young" deal with Ray's relationship with his mercurial, seductive, frustrating star, a cosmically gifted performer prone to self-indulgence and erratic behavior. Immediately after meeting Dean (who had just completed "East of Eden" with Ray's mentor, Elia Kazan), Ray knew he wanted him for "Rebel." But the courtship wasn't quick or easy. "We sniffed each other out, like a couple of Siamese cats," Ray said. And even after Dean signed on to the film, the tension between actor and director never dissipated.
Although Dean is rightly considered one of the greatest Method actors, he often abused some of the Method's tenets. Dean was injured by one of his fellow actors, Corey Allen, after insisting that real switchblades be used in the movie's knife-fight scene. When Ray instinctively stopped the camera, Dean was furious: "Can't you see this is a real moment? Don't you ever cut a scene while I'm having a real moment!" Dean would sometimes curl into a fetal position before beginning a scene, or keep the other actors waiting as he holed up in his dressing room, preparing. "What the hell does he think he's doing?" one crew member grumbled. "Even Garbo never got away with that."
Had Dean lived longer, his obsessiveness might have become unbearable to his peers and everyone else. But he left so few perforamances behind - and such great ones - that we can allow him a few indulgences. In "Live Fast, Die Young," Corey Allen explains how Dean helped redefine Hollywood's idea of masculinity: "These days, we talk about vulnerability very easily, partially because of people like Dean who were willing to put it on the line." On the set, Dean may have gotten away with indulgences that wouldn't have been granted to any other actor. Then again, not even Garbo was James Dean.
Friday, December 30, 2005
"Our own East Chicago claim-to-fame actress Betsy Palmer, 79, has finally opened up to discuss her dating days and relationship with the legendary James Dean. "Live Fast, Die Young: The Wild Ride of the Making of Rebel Without a Cause" (2005 Simon & Schuster $24.95), by authors Lawrence Franscella and Al Weisel, includes some VERY detailed interviews with Palmer."
Saturday, December 10, 2005
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Thursday, November 24, 2005
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Chapter One: Birth of a Rebel
In the early 1950s, director Nicholas Ray was a regular at the classic Saturday night parties thrown by actress Betsy Blair and her husband, Gene Kelly -- the kind of exclusive Hollywood soirees that would find Judy Garland singing at the piano, Leonard Bernstein playing charades or Greta Garbo sitting casually on the edge of the Kellys' kitchen sink. Blair remembers the tall, handsome, seductive Ray with great fondness. "He was always lively and iconoclastic and full of serious opinions," says Blair, who calls him "a Melville hero" for the way he chased dream projects and battled against the confines of the studio system. Blair knew Ray to be a compulsive womanizer, gambler and drinker, although "never a sloppy drunk." But one night in July 1951, after their weekly party broke up, Blair and Kelly looked out their front window and encountered a bizarre sight.
"There was a little slope in front of our house," says Blair, "and I remember Nick leaving and instead of getting into his car, he sank onto the grass, just sort of lying there. I was ready to go out and get him. But Gene said, 'Let's see if he gets up again.' And so we waited, fifteen to twenty minutes. I think Nick was actually planning to lie there all night. Eventually, we did go out and get him." Like everyone else in Hollywood, the Kellys knew that Ray had just filed for divorce from his second wife, the quintessential film noir blonde, Gloria Grahame, after a stormy three-year marriage, but they had no idea what precipitated the separation. "We didn't know in the beginning what had happened," says Blair, "just that they were fighting and breaking up and that he was desperate. And then, when I found out, it was hard to believe." The real story behind the breakup was shocking even by Hollywood standards.
Earlier that summer, everything seemed to be going well for Ray. In June 1951, he signed a lucrative contract with RKO Pictures, negotiated by his powerful new agents at MCA, making him RKO head Howard Hughes's right-hand man. That year, with the red-baiting McCarthy hearings getting under way in Washington and the Rosenbergs on trial in New York, having a protector like Hughes gave Ray -- who had a history of leftist affiliations -- a security and stability he rarely felt in his peripatetic career. Hughes kept him busy that summer doing uncredited patch-up work on such potential RKO disasters as The Racket and Josef von Sternberg's Macao.
One afternoon late in June, Tony, Ray's thirteen-year-old son from his first marriage to journalist Jean Evans, unexpectedly appeared on the doorstep of the Malibu beach house Ray was renting next door to his close friend, producer John Houseman. On vacation from military school, Tony had made the three-thousand-mile journey from New York all by himself, without telling anyone he was coming. Ray was not home when Tony showed up, so Grahame, who had met Ray's son only once, when he was ten years old, invited him inside. When Ray arrived home later that afternoon, he walked into the bedroom and stumbled on a sight almost too outrageous to believe. . . . Read more here