Peter Winkler’s new book, The Real James Dean: Intimate Memories from Those Who Knew Him Best, collects the memories of friends, family, and collegagues who remember the star who played just three lead roles in films but remains one of the most beloved and influential movie stars of all time. Elizabeth Taylor tells a story she would not allow to be published until after her death. Winkler found (and, when necessary, annotated) essays by Dean’s high school drama teacher, his male and female lovers, and his close friends, and one autobiographical high school paper written by Dean himself. In an interview, Winkler described his
The most touching and, in a way, revealing essay in the book is the one James Dean himself wrote for a high school assignment. Where did you find it and what do you think we should learn from it?
Fortunately, Dean’s autobiographical sketch was saved and later published in a couple of the books written about him. It’s also available online. One thing we learn from it is that the trauma the nine-year-old Dean suffered when his mother died continued to haunt him as an adult. The other takeaway from his autobiography is his prophetic prediction, “I think my life will be devoted to art and dramatics.”
Which is your favorite Dean performance and why? Which do you think he was proudest of?
My favorite Dean performance is in Rebel Without a Cause. “Rebel Without a Cause” still feels contemporary today, whereas East of Eden and Giant feel like period pieces. The story and the characters’ situations remain relatable, and director Nicholas Ray’s film sense surpasses Elia Kazan and George Stevens’s. Dean is at his best in “Rebel;” it contains his most fully developed performance. He is immensely attractive. When he changes into his jeans, T-shirt, and red windbreaker, it’s as if a butterfly has emerged from his chrysalis: he suddenly becomes the iconic James Dean whose image has launched a million pieces of merchandise.
Dean never ranked his performances when he was alive: he had acted in only three major motion pictures at the time of his death but he was looking forward to making many more. If he ever thought about it, I think he would might been proudest of his performance in “Rebel Without a Cause.”
Which director do you think understood him best?
Nicholas Ray was on Dean’s wavelength and granted him the greatest amount of creative freedom he would enjoy in his brief film career.
What resources did you use in collecting these essays and photos, and in your editorial clarifications and amplifications?
Most of the photos were provided by Photofest, a commercial photo archive that is available online. The rest of the photos came from my personal collection.
I obtained copies of decades old issues of Modern Screen, Photoplay, and other periodicals from eBay. Additional material was gathered from Ron Martinetti’s excellent website American Legends and from the Academy of Motion Pictures’ Margaret Herrick Library in Beverly Hills, California. The autobiographies of Dean’s colleagues were loaned from branches of the public library. I then photocopied the sections containing their recollections of Dean.
The information contained in my footnotes and editorial comments are the result of having read just about everything about Dean’s life and career that is available in English, as well as my knowledge of his colleague’s lives and of Hollywood history.
Was there one that was particularly difficult to find or surprising?
Dean’s girlfriend Pier Angeli gave an exclusive interview to the National Enquirer in 1968. I had a hard time tracking down a copy of the issue of the Enquirer containing her interview. The Enquirer is intended to be a disposable newspaper; very few people collect them, and libraries don’t subscribe to it. I was finally able to purchase a copy from a seller on eBay.
I think that the excerpts from Ron Martinetti’s biography of Dean will surprise more than a few readers. They reveal just how important Dean’s live-in relationship with a gay advertising executive was to the advancement of his career.
How do you think Dean’s difficulty with reading affected his preparation for roles?
Dean drove his fellow actors crazy at rehearsals. He would put his head down and mumble incoherently because he couldn’t read the script easily. He needed a great deal of time to learn his lines.
Do you think he was an “existential pencil?”
James Dean told his friend John Gilmore that he was an “existential pencil” because he felt nothing when his girlfriend Pier Angeli jilted him and married singer Vic Damone. I don’t think Dean was being honest when he said that to Gilmore. Maila Nurmi (a.k.a. Vampira of Plan 9 from Outer Space fame) said that Dean was heartbroken by Angeli’s decision. I can’t decode what Dean meant when he called himself an existential pencil. Perhaps he wanted to sound profound. Existentialism was in vogue in the ‘50s and Dean wanted to be thought of as an intellectual.
What do you think fueled his fascination with matadors?
Dean’s hometown minister, Rev. James DeWeerd, showed the teenage boy home movies he had taken of bullfights. Like many young men of his time, Dean read Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises. Hemingway’s equation of masculinity with the physical courage of the matador was more fashionable then than it is today. The idea of testing yourself in the ring against the possibility of instant death appealed to Dean. It was part of the brinksmanship he engaged in in every area of his life.
How reliable would you say the fan magazine pieces are?
Except for Elia Kazan, William Bast, and John Gilmore, none of the other people who recalled their experiences with Dean in magazine articles or in their autobiographies were writers. They undoubtedly worked with ghostwriters to translate their memories of Dean into coherent narratives. Without access to the ghostwriters’ original notes or tape recordings of their interviews with the credited authors of the pieces, it’s impossible to know how credible their stories of Dean really are.
Who, in your opinion, was Dean most himself with? (My guess, from the book, is Vampira.)
Dean was very guarded and found it hard to open up with others. He was always afraid they might use it against him. Elizabeth Taylor gave him emotional support and became his confidant when they filmed Giant.
I think he enjoyed similar relationships with Eartha Kitt and Maila Nurmi. He felt comfortable enough with them to drop his armor and reveal himself to them. They were kindred spirits.
What do you want people to learn from this book?
For all his personal failings and foibles, James Dean’s central animating energy compelled him to dedicate himself to becoming the best performing artist he could become, and by so doing, stake a claim to immortality—and he succeeded beyond his wildest dreams.
Coming to theaters this January — get your hankies ready, because this one is a cryer.
People who make movies know that we are eager to see couples falling in love. If they throw in a chirpy pop song over a montage of the highly attractive pair walking on the beach and laughing together at a street fair, we are happy to believe that they are in love and we can move on to the (short-term) complication before the happy ending.
“Southside With You” is a rare movie that shows us what it is really like to fall in love, over the course of an all-day first date. It would still be utterly witty, charming, and captivating even if it was not based on the real-life beginning of the romance of Barack and Michelle Obama. The historical context is primarily significant because we start off with information the characters do not have. We know what they will do and who they will become. But it also is especially meaningful as we come to the end of the Obama administration, and only the most partisan opponents can fail to appreciate their graciousness, elegance, and family values — and the true partnership and romantic spark that is evident in their relationship.
We begin with the amusing contrast of their preparations for the date. Michelle Robinson (Tika Sumpter, who also co-produced) is put together so meticulously that her father (Phillip Edward Van Lear) teases her: “Can’t you at least run a comb through your hair?” She insists to her parents, as she will to Barack, that this is not a date. She is just accompanying the law student she has been assigned to supervise for the summer to a community meeting.
Then there is a glimpse of his “preparation” for the date — smoking and reading a book. And losing track of the time. “You’re late,” she says when he arrives at her home. “I was hoping you wouldn’t notice.” She points out that she is his supervisor and she has noticed his lateness at work as well. She also notices, but does not mention, that the floorboard of his car is rusted through. One of the pleasures of this film is listening in as two extremely intelligent people uncertain about where they are going but certain they want to improve the lives of the people in their communities, getting to know one another through a thoughtful, thought-provoking, and above all honest conversation, especially as we see the growing pleasure each of them feels in finding someone who can both understand and challenge them.
Their first stop is an art show. As they look at paintings by Ernie Barnes, Barack asks Michelle if she ever watched the television show, “Good Times.” She says the Robinsons were more of a “Dick van Dyke Show” family, and we can tell she is a bit defensive. Perhaps some of her Princeton classmates assumed that “Good Times,” set in the projects of Chicago, was based on families like hers. But then he tells her why he asked, and we can see her relax and start to appreciate his curiosity, depth, and knowledge. Despite all of her insistence that this is not a date, we can see her begin to get captivated. Each kindly, if not gently, pushes the other, she on his bitterness toward his father, he on her joining a corporate law firm rather than pursuing her goal of working for the community. Each bristles at first at being pushed, but then we see both of them genuinely grateful for being able to engage so honestly.
The talk is superbly written and performed. But some of the moments where nothing is said are just as moving, thanks to the superb performances of Sawyers and Sumpter, who do not impersonate the First Couple but give portrayals of great sensitivity and wisdom. The POTUS and FLOTUS we see on television are more polished and self-assured than they were in their 20’s. Sawyers shows us a Barack Obama who was a long way from the understanding and forgiveness toward his absent father he would convey in his book. And yet, when he gets up in front of the community group, people who are disappointed after a setback and ready to give up, we see for the first time some of the cadences and mannerisms and ability to inspire that are so familiar to us now. Sumpter is lovely, with an exquisitely calibrated performance, first less, than more, then much less reserved. She is careful, and professional, and then she gets up to dance with a group performing in a park, and she shows us how despite her resolve, she cannot help being drawn to Barack.
This is a movie that understands that love is a conversation you never want to end, with someone who instinctively understands you and unreservedly supports you but who doesn’t let you get away with being less than you are capable of, someone who earns your absolute honesty. As we see them fall in love, dropping their defenses, allowing themselves to be hopeful, moving together toward a life of service, it renews our faith in love and purpose as well.
A PERSONAL NOTE: The First Couple met when they were both working in my dad’s office, and characters loosely inspired by my parents appear in this film. While I completely support the decision of writer/director Richard Tanne to create a scene with an interaction that is a bit awkward and uncomfortable, in real life my parents are far cooler (and more attractive!) than the characters in the film, and the interaction was warm and supportive. My parents and the Obamas became good friends.
Parents should know that this film includes smoking, brief strong language, drug reference, and some discussion of family dysfunction.
Family discussion: How did the difference in Barack’s and Michelle’s relationships to their parents affect their perspective? What did each of them say to change the other’s mind? What did Michelle learn about Barack at the community event?
If you like this, try: “Before Sunrise” and “Medicine for Melancholy”