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James Dean, the Actor as a Young Man: ‘Rebel Without a Cause’ Director Nicholas Ray Remembers the ‘Impossible’ Artist

In honor of the 61st anniversary of the death of James Dean, read legendary director Nicholas Ray’s moving essay about the talented, curious actor he once knew.

Alamy

Legendary director Nicholas Ray, who guided James Dean to an iconic performance in his signature film, Rebel Without a Cause, penned this evocative portrait of the young actor, which remains essential to an understanding of his brief life and career. Written with the assistance of Gavin Lambert (a critic for the British film journal Sight & Sound, whom Ray met while promoting the release of Rebel in England), James Dean: The Actor as a Young Man was originally published as From Rebel—The Life Story of a Film in Daily Variety on October 31, 1956.

The last time I saw James Dean was when he arrived without warning at my Hollywood home, about three o’clock in the morning. That evening, we had met for dinner. We had talked for several hours of many things, of future plans, including a story called Heroic Love that we were going to do. When he reappeared later, he had been given a Siamese cat by Elizabeth Taylor, and he wanted to borrow a book of mine on cats before driving home.

The first time I met James Dean was in my office at Warner Bros. studio, just after I had started preparatory work on Rebel Without a Cause. I didn’t know why he came into the office. I didn’t know what he had heard. But he was not going to take me, or anyone else, for granted. He had been in the room less than a minute when I thought: He’s like a cat: maybe a Siamese; the only thing to do with a Siamese cat is to let it take its own time. It will come up to you, walk around you, smell you. If it doesn’t like you, it will go away again; if it does, it will stay.

This is no more than a coincidence. Yet I like to think it is a coincidence of some meaning. A Siamese, even more than other cats, creates its own fierce laws of independence. There are times when it withdraws completely, the world seems too much to bear, and it becomes restless, morose and unassailable; there are times when it appeals, with an almost helpless docility, for sympathy and attention. Its actions suggest a creature that has never become truly domesticated, that carries atavistic memories or intuitions of a freer, less perplexing life. It is not really at ease with the world in which it has to live, sometimes it tries to reject it altogether—but it comes back, it must always come back, because there is no other.

I came to know James Dean as a friend through the film on which we worked together. Here again there is a coincidence. After seeing Rebel Without a Cause many people drew parallels between the character of Jimmy Dean and of Jim Stark. In the letters written to James Dean and, after his death, to me, the two are identified to an extraordinary degree. These letters . . . are not simply admiring demands for photographs and mementos. They are expressions of personal sympathy for someone who seemed to symbolize the aspirations and doubts of his generation; they are expressions of personal loss.

In these letters, Jim Stark and Jimmy Dean become one and the same person. In life they were, and were not, the same—but what allowed the actor to bring such a fine, intense perception to his role was that Jim Stark, like himself, was jealously seeking an answer, an escape from the surrounding world. Through a tragic irony, the escape that James Dean found was total and absolute. But he is mourned through the image of Jim Stark, whose escape was the one he really hoped for, constantly searched for—a full, complete realization of himself.

First, there was the revolver.

He kept a Colt .45 in his dressing room at Warners. He also lived there. When he came back to Hollywood at the age of twenty-two for East of Eden, everything that Jimmy Dean did suggested he had no intention of belonging to the place. He came to work; he would remain himself. Inside the studio, he found a sanctuary of steel and concrete, and at night he could be alone in this closed, empty kingdom. Perhaps the revolver was a symbol—of self-protection, of warning to others.

He rode a motorcycle. There were days when he did not shave. He dressed casually, untidily, which was invariably interpreted as a gesture of revolt. Not entirely true. For one thing, it saved time, and Jim detested waste. (It also saved money. This is a simple consideration, often ignored. Most young actors are poor: T-shirt and jeans for going to work, which later became a mannerism was originally a quick and comfortable habit that cut down the laundry bill.) In the same way he would forgo shaving because there was something more important to do.

Like the revolver, these habits were also self-protective. If you ride a motorcycle, you travel by yourself. Sleeping in a studio dressing room, you have complete solitude. He could leave, but nobody could come in. He shied away from social convention, from manners, because they suggested disguise. He wanted his self to be naked. “Being a nice guy,” he said once, “is detrimental to actors. When I first came to Hollywood, everyone was nice to me. Everyone thought I was a nice guy. I went to the commissary and I ate and people were friendly and I thought it was wonderful. I didn’t think I would continue to be a nice guy—then people would have to respect me for what I was doing, for my work.”

So the revolver guarded this world of self-respect. Then, soon after shooting on East of Eden was finished, he went to his dressing room and found the gun had disappeared. Without explanation, someone had taken it away. He was furious—but it was only the beginning. A few days later the studio authorities told him he could no longer sleep in the dressing room. (For one thing, it comes close to violating safety regulations, and Warners had had a couple of disastrous fires.) He refused to believe them until, that night, he was refused admittance at the gate.

There are names and number plates on the doors of the offices at Warners. Next morning Jimmy took them down, hung them from ceilings and fountains, caused general confusion. Then he rode away on his motorcycle, vowing never to make a film there again.

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The episode of the revolver, and what followed, was not my first experience of him. But it was when I first realized some of his needs. His eviction from the dressing room destroyed all possibility of a climate of tolerance at the studio; catlike, he had prowled around and found his own preferred corner. Then he was forbidden it. A wound to the pride of a cat is serious.

I had first heard Jimmy’s name mentioned by someone who knew him, a few weeks earlier at dinner with Elia Kazan and his wife. Kazan had been shooting that day, and came home late and angry. He was red in the face. When we asked what was the matter, he said something about Jimmy Dean. The boy was “impossible...”

Not long after this, when I had written the first outline of my film, Kazan invited me to see a rough cut of East of Eden in the music room at Warners. The composer, Leonard Rosenman, was there, improvising at the piano. Jimmy Dean was there, aloof and solitary; we hardly exchanged a word. It didn’t occur to me then that he was the ideal actor for my film. That he had talent was obvious, but I had too much respect for Kazan’s talent to draw many conclusions from it.

When I moved into an office at Warners adjoining Kazan’s, Jimmy came in and asked me what kind of story I was working on. I told him the idea, the approach; he seemed warily interested, but didn’t say very much. A day or two later he came in with a tough, dark-haired young man called Perry Lopez, whom he had met in New York. He told me that Perry came from the Lexington Avenue district. “You should talk to him,” he said. “You may be able to get some information from him.”

After a few more incidents like that, I decided he had to play Jim Stark.

But he had to decide, too. It was not a simple question of whether or not he liked the part. After the incident at Warners, neither he nor the studio could be sure he would ever make a film there again, regardless of contract. Also, after the success of East of Eden, agents and well-wishers were eager to advise him. It would be foolish, they told him, to appear in any film not based on a best-seller, not adapted by a $3,000-a-week writer, not directed by Elia Kazan, George Stevens, John Huston or William Wyler. He was not a person to take this kind of advice very seriously; but, intensely self-aware as he was, he could not fail to be troubled by “success.” If there were aspects of it he enjoyed, it also added to his doubts.

One evening we had a long, passionate discussion with Shelley Winters about acting and show business. “I better know how to take care of myself,” he said. This attitude lay behind his choice of work. He had no hard professional shell; lack of sympathy, lack of understanding from a director or any of his staff disoriented him completely. That was why, in his brief career, he had won the reputation of being “impossible.” He had a personal success on Broadway as the Arab boy in the adaptation of Gide’s The Immoralist, but during rehearsal he had quarreled with the director and, as a way of getting even, gave his notice on opening night. He quarreled with Kazan during East of Eden, but retained a respect for him and would have been flattered to work for him again. He should have been. Kazan is the best actor’s director of our time.

There were probably very few directors with whom Jimmy could ever have worked. To work with him meant exploring his nature, trying to understand it; without this, his powers of expression were frozen. He retreated, he sulked. He always wanted to make a film in which he could personally believe, but it was never easy for him. Between belief and action lay the obstacle of his own deep, obscure uncertainty. Disappointed, unsatisfied, he was the child who goes to his private corner and refuses to speak. Eager or hopeful, he was the child suddenly exhilarated with new pleasures, wanting more, wanting everything, and often unconsciously subtle in his pursuit of it.

Late one evening he arrived at my house. He was with “Vampira,” the television personality, and Jack Simmons—at this point a young, unemployed actor, who was to become a close friend of Jim’s and appear in a television play with him. (Jimmy would extend sudden affection to lonely and struggling people; he “adopted” several. Since he had few permanent relationships, his companion of the moment was most likely to be a new adoption or a new object of curiosity. He said later that he wanted to meet Vampira because he had been studying magic—was she really possessed, as her television program suggested, by satanic forces? “She knew nothing!” he exclaimed sadly.)

On entering the room he turned a back somersault, then looked keenly at me.

“Are you middle-aged?”

I admitted it.

“Did you live in a bungalow on Sunset Boulevard, by the old Clover club?”

“Yes,” I said.

“Was there a fire in the middle of the night?”

“Yes.”

“Did you carry a boxer puppy out of the house in your bare feet and walk across the street with it and cut your feet?”

“Yes,” I said.

He seemed to approve. Vampira had told him the story; he had come to find out if it were true.

Then there were the “Sunday afternoons.” I used to invite a few people round, we played music and sang and talked. Jimmy always came to these, and enjoyed them. It was, of course, exploratory on both sides. Was he going to like my friends, would he find their climate encouraging? Both of us had to know.

One afternoon he stayed late, after the others had gone. Clifford Odets came in to see me, and I introduced them. Jimmy was peculiarly silent. He stared, retreated to a corner. I went out to the kitchen to mix some drinks, and Clifford told me afterward what happened.

There was a long silence. The distance of the room lay between them. At last Jimmy said in a grave voice:

“I’m a son of a bitch.”

Clifford inquired why.

“Well, he explained, here I am. You know...in this room. With you. It’s fantastic. Like meeting Ibsen or Shaw.”

Naturally Clifford has remembered this as one of the most charming remarks ever addressed to him.

Jimmy approached all human beings with the same urgent, probing curiosity. “Here am I. Here are you.” At a new presence, invisible antennae seem to reach out, grow tense, transmit a series of impressions. Sometimes he had an extraordinary, uncomfortable tenderness. Two friends arrived at my house from New York—Michael and Connie Bessie, a married couple I had known for many years. After I had introduced them to Jimmy, Connie sat down on the couch. There was a cushion beside her. With an unconscious, mechanical gesture she picked it up and cradled it in her lap.

Jimmy watched her. After a moment he asked, very intent and quiet: “Can’t you have a child of your own?”

She was speechless. She left the room and I went out after her. She was almost crying, not out of self–pity, but profoundly moved by this perception. She and her husband had just adopted a baby.

In December he went to New York. Just before Christmas I also went there to interview actors. I visited his apartment, for there were things I had to know, too. Jim retained this apartment after he went to Hollywood, and never lived anywhere else in New York. It was in the brownstone district, on the fifth floor of an old 68th Street building.

There was no elevator. A fairly large, plainly furnished room with two porthole windows, a studio couch, a table, some unmatching [sic] chairs and stools; on the walls, a bullfighting poster, capes and horns; everywhere, piles of books and records, some neatly stacked, some precarious or spilling over. A door led to the kitchen and bathroom, another to a flight of stairs by which one reached the roof. It was evening. The only light came from the fireplace, scrap wood and boxes burning.

He began playing the phonograph, changing record after record, and I had an impression of crazy sounds. Where did he first hear them? I wondered—African tribal music, Afro-Cuban songs and dances, classical jazz, Jack Teagarden, Dave Brubeck; then Haydn, Berlioz...Many of the books were on bullfighting. I remember, on the table, Matador and Death in the Afternoon.

No doubt two things attracted Jimmy to bullfighting. There was the ritual, the matador’s inescapable endurance test, the challenge of proving himself, and there was its physical grace. Jimmy had an instinctive grace of movement, and developed it by attending Katherine Dunham’s classes. Already in East of Eden, the bitter, slouching, uncertain awkwardness of adolescence that he so exactly captured was the result of a practiced control of his body. He had an immediate response to vital rhythms; the flick of a matador’s cape, the percussive insistence on African dance, the tension of driving at high speed. He gave himself up to these experiences as if to the magic promises of another world. Each of them—bullfighting, jazz, racing—had the dominating, obsessive quality of a search. Did they, like the analyst he went to for a time, hold out hope of an answer?

In New York, I introduced Jimmy to my son Tony, wanting to know whether they would get along together, to see him through his own generation’s eyes. Tony stayed in New York after I returned to Hollywood. He told me later that he saw Jimmy several times, mainly at “parties”—at the Sixty-eighth Street apartment or the rooms of one of the half–dozen young actors and actresses who were his most frequent companions. The same group was always there. Nobody ever wanted to go home. There were bongo drums, which Jimmy played; a Negro dancer did calypso and imitations of Gene Kelly; conversation ranged from new plays and movies to (as dawn broke) Plato and Aristotle; they read stories and plays, going right through 27 Wagon Loads of Cotton once, while people took turns to sleep.

Jimmy also went to more orthodox parties. These were larger, given by people he knew less well. Here it was different. He didn’t like crowds, they seemed to make him insecure. Ignoring the games and the talk, he would find his own melancholy corner.

He swerved easily from moodiness to elation. The depression could lift as completely and unexpectedly as it arrived. Once it was cured by going to see Jacques Tati in The Big Day. Unshaven, tousled, wrapped in a dyed black trench coat, glasses on the end of his nose, he was morose as he entered the theater. Within ten minutes he was laughing so wildly that nearby members of the audience complained. He ignored them—there was nothing else to do, the spell of laughter and delight grew more and more irresistible. Before the film was over he had to leave, making his departure a series of hurdles over the ashcans in the aisle. Outside, in the street, he stopped at a pastry shop. Then, down the sidewalk, an éclair in his hand, he turned into Tati’s postman, with a brilliant recreation of the elongated, slightly Grouchian walk and the inquiring, bulbous-eyed face.

Another time it was an umbrella. On a sad, gray, rainy New York day he decided to buy one. Umbrellas were everywhere in the store, rack upon rack. But which? Finally he let Tony choose one for him, an ordinary three-dollar umbrella. He seized it as if it were the umbrella he had been looking for all his life, playing with it as a child with a new toy, exploring all its movements, flapping it open and shut and twirling it above his head. In the street, suddenly exhilarated and brilliant, while the rain poured down, he became Charlie Chaplin.

His gift for mime was profound. A friend wanted to do an audition for The Actors Studio, and Jimmy offered to direct the scene. He chose a fairy tale, with a fight between a little prince and a fox. Almost at once he concentrated on the fox, with a ferocious longing. It was clear he wanted desperately to play the fox.

He played it, of course—and his imagination winged. He became a human fox. No doubt many actors have studied animals, but Jimmy used his knowledge in his own way. He didn’t imitate; the stealth, the beauty, and the menace of the animal seemed to enter into his body. He was the fox.

Like the fox he was wary and hard to catch. In the minds of many people their relationship with Jimmy was complex, even obsessive. For him it was simple and, probably, much less important. He was still intensely determined not to love, not to be loved. He could be absorbed, fascinated, attracted—by something new or something beautiful—but he would never surrender himself.

Involvement was out of the question because—he was convinced of this at the time—it risked pain. The pain that can come out of human relationships was a risk he was not prepared to take: safer to love a fox, to be a fox, or Tati, or Chaplin. He became other people with obvious passion and relief. “If I were he,” he would say. This was a great part of his magic as an actor.

When he was poor and unknown in New York, he had reason to be grateful to several people for food and companionship. Yet it seemed this was not enough to create trust. When he returned to New York after East of Eden, he sometimes used his success not to be vain or distant but to be cruel.

A young photographer he had known quite well in the struggling days wanted to buy a Rolleiflex camera. He asked Jimmy to go halves with him—the price was twenty-five dollars. Jimmy took the suggestion as a personal affront. “Why should I go and buy a secondhand camera with you? I can get all the new stuff I want now.”

He accused others. “They bum meals from me,” he said. One day, in a restaurant, he grew depressed. He asked: “Where are my friends?” Four of his closest ones were sitting at the table with him, but before anyone could answer he got up abruptly and walked out.

“I don’t want anything seventy-thirty,” he liked to say. “Fifty-fifty’s always good enough for me.”

The idea symbolized something for him. He came back to it often. “I don’t want to have to give anybody seventy, I don’t want anybody to give me seventy. I want fifty.”

The drama of his life, I thought after seeing him in New York, was the drama of desiring to belong and fearing to belong. (So was Jim Stark’s.) It was a conflict of violent eagerness and mistrust, created very young. It lay embedded in his own personality, with its knife-sharp awareness and inquiring spirit, and when he was a child events had intensified it. The early death of his mother, whom he deeply loved, who idolized him and Lord Byron (she gave him Byron for a middle name), involved years in which true parental contact was lacking. Very soon he learned the difficulties of hope and affection that could not be anchored anywhere, and the loneliness that follows.

Because he was not self–pitying, he looked at the same time out from, as well as into, himself. Every day he threw himself hungrily upon the world like a starving animal that suddenly finds a scrap of food. The intensity of his desires, and his fears, could make the search at times arrogant, egocentric; but behind it was such a desperate vulnerability that one was moved, even frightened. Probably, when he was cruel or faithless, he thought he was paying off an old score. The affection he rejected was the affection that had once been his and had found no answer.

It seemed that anything interested him. There was a story that he became fascinated by a parrot in a restaurant and studied its behavior for an hour. It is probably true. It is like his sudden curiosity over my boxer puppy rescued barefoot from a fire, or the woman who cradled a cushion in her arms, or the umbrella that turned him into Charlie Chaplin.

In art this kind of touch is usually called “significant detail.” Jimmy’s life was significant detail. The night before I went back to Hollywood, we had dinner together, as we had done each night of my visit. It was at an Italian restaurant, and he had ordered the food with great ceremony, taking pride in his knowledge of obscure dishes. By now I felt he trusted me. I felt even that he would like to do the film—though, if he wanted to, other difficulties lay ahead—the situation with the studio and the objections from those who were beginning to hitch their wagon to a star—and, though I knew what I wanted in the story, I only had thirty pages of script.

I was thinking about this when he looked up at me, something in his expression that suggested he was about to impart a confidence. He was a little restless, not in his usual way, but as if some unaccustomed problem had come up.

“I got crabs,” he said. “What do I do?”

I took him to a drugstore. Outside, in the street, we parted. He thanked me for my help, smiled, then said: “I want to do your film. But don’t let them know it.”

I said I was glad. Then we shook hands on it.

Originally published on the first anniversary of the film’s release in October 1956, “James Dean: The Actor as a Young Man,” has just been reprinted in The Real James Dean: Intimate Memories from Those Who Knew Him Best, a vital collection of firsthand recollections from dozens of the actor’s friends, family, and colleagues. Edited by Peter L. Winkler (with a foreword by George Stevens Jr.), The Real James Dean (Chicago Review Press) has been hailed by Library Journal as a “fascinating compendium.”