Saturday, June 25, 2016

What Might Have Been: The Dean's List (Pt. III)

This brings us up to the '70s. Dean would have turned 40 in 1971; it's difficult to guess how he would have proceeded without knowing whether he'd have been a leading man or a character lead (Stewart Granger: "I never aged into a character actor. I'm just an old leading man").

A problem for Dean would have been the waning of rural American cinema: westerns and Southern melodramas/character studies a la Williams and Faulkner. The increasing suburbanized nation would curiously become more and more urbanized cinematically.

Clint Eastwood managed to survive this by updating the western formula to Dirty Harry. I have trouble seeing Dean as a gung ho cop – I actually think he would have been more comfortably cast as Scorpio (if you're saying “too old”, remember the role was intended for, I kid you not, Audie Murphy). Few of Eastwood's non-western roles would have suited Dean. One I can see him trying is Escape From Alcatraz, basically Birdman meets The Great Escape.

Warren Oates after The Wild Bunch had a brief period of leading roles. I can see Dean in most of them: Two Lane Blacktop, Bring Me The Head Of Alfredo Garcia, The Wild Bunch itself. But Oates could not maintain his stardom, which may tell us something of how Dean would have done in trying to be a character star.

Jack Nicholson has always struck me as the polished up Warren Oates:  not quite as eccentric, not quite as intimidating.  I think Dean might have been comfortable in a number of Nicholson roles – can't you seem him pushing lunch onto the diner floor in Five Easy Pieces?  I see Dean playing either role in the Nicholson-Brando The Missouri Breaks, but then it was a western. Dean might have worked well as McMurphy in One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest. Of course the character is a rebel, but not explicitly connected to youth angst. Nicholson isn't bad, but Dean might have given it more menacing unpredictability, in the manner of Warren Oates and his legendary L.A. little theater performance of 1966 (the theatrical production I most wish I could have seen). 

But I don't think Dean would have been comfortable in Chinatown. He just doesn't seem to fit as a cop/detective. Neither really did Paul Newman (with the partial exception of Harper) which may help explain the decline in his great film roles after the '60s.

I also can't see Dean in any of The Godfather roles, even Tom Hagen. I can see Dean in another Duvall part from that year, as the good-ole-boy heavy in the Clint Eastwood western Joe Kidd (which I actually consider superior to his Godfather performances -- it's one of the great western villains). Most of Duvall's other notable roles are too overbearing for the introspective Dean.

Could Dean have done Apocalypse Now? Not Duvall's role, the lead. It was offered to McQueen and Caan (among many others) before ending up with the less-than-ideal Martin Sheen. It would have been another Dean-Brando pairing, after The Chase ("Brando and Dean -- TOGETHER AGAIN!!"). 

Gene Hackman, one year older than Dean, finally achieved stardom in The French Connection, as a rogue cop. As I've said I don't think that sort of role would have been successful for Dean. The one Hackman part I can see Dean in is The Conversation – inner-directed and confused, instead of storming the streets busting heads.

Bruce Dern, like Warren Oates, had a brief period of leading roles in the '70s, but he never struck me as a leading man. Maybe Dean could have played unpleasant Tom Buchanan in The Great Gatsby (perhaps Dern's best role). Another possibility is Coming Home, as the career soldier who turns out to be more confused than committed. Note that both of these were supporting parts, not leads.

Last time we pondered Dean instead of Robert Blake in In Cold Blood. Dean could also have played the vengeful Indian in Tell Them Willie Boy Is Here (or maybe the Marshal played by Robert Redford – he couldn't possibly have been duller than the latter) or the motorcycle patrolman in Electra Glide In Blue –  a rare cop role that might have worked with Dean. Blake – described by Richard Boone in the early '60s as “the new Brando” -- would go on to his greatest success in the self-parody of TV's Baretta. Could Dean have ended up there?

Burt Reynolds got one of the last great Southern roles in Deliverance, and then became a superstar by spoofing the character type in the Golden Age of Redneck Cinema. Burt's biggest problem was that when he jumped out of the saddle or the Trans Am, he seemed completely out of place.  Reynolds was perhaps the star hardest hit by the decline of the western. Previous stars such as  Glenn Ford, Dana Andrews and even Fred MacMurray had been able to extend their careers by 5-10 years thanks to westerns – but that career trail was no longer open to Reynolds. Once the fashion for Good Ole Boy epics waned, so did his time in features, and he ended up on TV with astonishing speed.

So many of Reynolds' films are self-parodying or self-referential (self, self, self; we're definitely in the Me Decade, and starting the Age of Irony)  that I can't see Dean trying them (or don't want to see it). I certainly hope he wouldn't have ended up in Cannonball Run, even in a cameo (or a Camero). Of course there's Deliverance  (in the Voight or Reynolds roles), but I can't see any others. Reynolds was a new kind of star. Not a comedian, but not to be taken seriously either.  That doesn't really jibe with Dean's extreme eartnestness.

And after the '70s, what? Would James Dean have aged into a character actor? I think he would have done it more successfully than Paul Newman, who was still a leading man, an old leading man, in his 70s. I can see Dean doing character leads and then straight character parts, occasionally returning to the stage. Perhaps he would have been Jor-El in Superman or The Joker in Batman, and cleaned up financially like Brando and Nicholson did. 

But we'll never know. James Dean died much too young, and we never got to see him grow as an actor. But then, we never saw him get fat like Brando or do Nike commercials like Dennis Hopper. In one sense, a thoughtlessly selfish sense, maybe that was a good thing.

Friday, June 24, 2016

What Might Have Been: The Dean's List (Pt. II)

In the 1950s Ben Gazzara seemed on the verge of superstardom after several New York stage successes. But Gazzara didn't repeat his Broadway performance as Brick in the film version of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (as we saw in Pt I), nor was he in the movie of A Hatful of Rain, an exploration of drug addiction written by Michaeel V. Gazzo (yes, Frankie Pentangeli from Godfather II). Fox insisted on casting contract player Don Murray, who is earnest but unconvincing as an Italian-American GI who gets hooked on heroin. Of course Dean was just as whitebread as Murray if not more so, but if he'd been cast maybe the ethnicity could have been modified (it's really irrelevant to the action anyway). It would have been interesting to see Dean go up against Tony Franciosa, repeating his stage role as the addict's long-suffering brother. He actually got an Oscar nomination for his performance -- I felt he was energetic but mannered, an accusation that could made against a lot of his performances. 

Gazzara did get to repeat one stage triumph on film. In 1957 producer Sam Spiegel (Bridge on the River Kwai, Lawrence of Arabia) of all people, brought to the screen The Strange One, from Calder Willingham's novel End as a Man, about various goings on among the cadets at a Southern military college. Under Willingham's original title the story had been dramatized as a workshop project by the Actor's Studio, and later had success off Broadway. While intended as an ensemble piece, the play and film were both stolen by Gazzara as villainous, decadence-personified upperclassman Jocko de Paris, who lounges around the dorm polishing his sword in a smoking jacket while puffing on an FDR-esque cigarette holder. The gay and even BDSM undertones (especially concerning a fellow cadet who gladly waits on Jocko hand and foot) somehow got past the censors. Jocko is a role I can definitely see Dean trying (think of the scene where Dean attempts to seduce Carol Baker in Giant), and if you feel he would have been too old, The Strange One is notorious for its overage cast: Gazzara was actually older than Dean, and Pat Hingle, cast as Jocko's crony, was pushing 35. An actor named Arthur Storch, who plays a sadistically abused underclassman (and is horrifically bad in the role) looks like he's about 50. 

Looking at the later career of Montgomery Clift, a major influence on Dean, I see few films Dean might have played. The car crash hardened Clift's face into premature middle middle age, which Dean would not have been suited for at the time. The only real example would be The Young Lions, as the Jewish draftee who deals with prejudice in the army. The role is mostly a lot of wide-eyed suffering, which Dean would have had little trouble with. Dean probably could have handled Clift's cameo in Judgment at Nuremburg as well. 

The role of the white convict in The Defiant Ones was allegedly turned down by many major stars (leading to a classic but definitely non-PC joke about Robert Mitchum, Marlon Brando, and Kirk Douglas all making demands about the script, which I won't reprint here). Dean could have played the part, and probably given it a sense of pre-Deliverance redneck menace that Tony Curtis, ever- focused on likeability, never tries for. 

A few years later Curtis played Ira Hayes, a Pima Indian who was one of the Iwo Jima flag raisers, in The Outsider. It's a grimly serious story of Hayes' fall from hero to alcoholic martyr. Dean would have had to makeup in "redface" for the part, just as Curtis did, but I doubt it would have been worth the effort. (The same year Lee Marvin played Hayes in a TV play called "The American". It's still extant and has been screened in NYC within the last few years.) 

In 1958 Budd Schulberg wrote a film called Wind Across The Everglades, about turn-of-the-century bird poachers (plumes for ladies' hats were a big fashion craze) in Florida, and the game warden who sets out to stop them. It sounds like it would be an Elia Kazan project, but was in fact directed by Nicholas Ray (although Wikipedia claims Ray was eventually fired and replaced by Schulberg himself, who also oversaw the editing). The committed hero is something Dean never tackled, though to be fair Christopher Plummer is less than totally convincing in the role. The significance for us is that it would have reunited Dean with his favorite director. I don't see Dean being very successful in the part, but with Ray's collaboration who knows what might have happened. 

After his success as a recording star Bobby Darin moved on to movies and showed quite a bit of talent, even getting a supporting Oscar nomination for Captain Newman MD in 1963. Earlier Darin had played the lead in Too Late Blues, an expose of the music business directed by John Cassavetes, trying to infiltrate Hollywood after his prestige success with Shadows. Too Late Blues can't decide whether it's sleazy exploitation or cinema verite, and the attempt to mix genres doesn't really work. A Dean-Cassavetes pairing is intriguing, and Darin's role as a jazz musician willing to do anything for a break would seem perfect for Dean, though he might not have been as sympathetic as the breezily affable Darin. 

Darin had an even better role the next year in Pressure Point, as a pre-WWII American Nazi being treated by a black psychiatrist (Sidney Poitier; the film is based loosely on a true story). Despite Poitier's presence this is Darin's film all the way, and he makes the most of it, from Bund meeting rabble rousing in flashbacks to cat-and-mouse sparring with Poitier in the doctor-patient scenes. Once again Dean could have handled the role, but lacked the charm of the actor who eventually played it. He probably would have relied on his gift for vulnerability to gain audience empathy. 

There was such an age difference between Dean and Burt Lancaster that few of the latter's roles would have suited him. The one possible exception is Birdman of Alcatraz, in which we first see the title character in his early 20s. As so often in Hollywood,  a problematic real life person is made over into a misunderstood rebel. That was never so true as in Birdman, where convicted murderer Robert Stroud becomes a world-renowned expert on birds. The real Stroud was a monster, telling his parole hearing that he needed to be released because “there are still people I need to kill”. You never see that in either the script or Lancaster's performance, which goes from persecuted anti-hero to self-taught scientific crusader to grandfatherly sage. I can see Dean as the young rebel of course, and even perhaps the old man. But could he have done the middle section, Stroud as Pasteur the unyielding researcher for Man's betterment?

Dean and Steve McQueen were near exact contemporaries, and both were nicknamed "King of Cool". But the title wasn't really accurate for Dean: he was demonstrative, vulnerable, struggling for understanding. Their onscreen personas had little in common, and only a few McQueen vehicles would have been suited for Dean.

The Cincinnati Kid is essentially The Hustler moved to the poker table. Like Fast Eddie, The Kid is a prodigy searching for adult guidance, and like The Hustler, The Cincinnati Kid's star is too old for his role. Dean, a year younger than McQueen, is really too old for it as well, but probably better casting than McQueen as what is not a "cool" character, despite McQueen's attempts to make him one. 

Dean could have done McQueen's parts in The Great Escape and Nevada Smith without too much trouble, and would have been fairly comfortable in the Horton Foote country of Baby The Rain Must Fall. Uncertainly adapted from Foote's 1954 play The Traveling Lady (done for live TV with Kim Stanley in 1957; this production survives and copies are floating around the internet). The McQueen character, an ex-con country musician returning to his small Texas hometown to reconcile with his estranged wife and child, is beyond McQueen's range, and not very consistently drawn anyway. Dean would have done more with the role, and it would have been fun seeing him sing with a country band. 

The next year Hollywood made another journey to the Horton Footehills with The Chase, another prisoner homecoming -- this time about an escaped convict named Bubber Reeves, whose imminent arrival in his hometown threatens to blow the lid off various affairs and double dealings of assorted denizens. Sam Spiegel had tried for years to make The Chase with Brando as Bubber, but by the time the project was greenlighted Brando was too old, and so was shunted off to another role as the sympathetic sheriff (previously a supporting part, but here beefed up into a lead). Brando's replacement as Bubber, Robert Redford, looks less like an escaped con and more like he just stepped out of a Pepperdine frat house. It's not so much that Dean would have been more convincing as Bubber than Redford, it's that even trying his hardest he would have found it difficult being less convincing. But even with a dream teaming of Brando and Dean, The Chase probably wouldn't have worked. The script by Lillian Hellman is terrible -- she seems not to have even heard of Texas, much less have any insight into how Texans act and speak. And to compound the disaster, Spiegel nixed Texas locations in favor of shooting on a Hollywood backlot. Arthur Penn couldn't or wouldn't give it any sense of reality. This perfect storm of script and exteriors make The Chase one of the phoniest looking and feeling films ever made. 

The little-remembered Bus Riley's Back In Town explored similar territory, as a Navy vet returns to his Midwestern home. Written by William Inge (Picnic, Splendor In The Grass) from one of his plays, he had his name removed from the credits after his script was rewritten. To be honest I haven't seen Bus Riley in many years, but I recall it as studio-bound soap opera. Dean would probably have been too old for it anyway. The actual lead, Michael Parks, was part of a wave of Dean clones, exemplified by Christopher Jones on the TV series The Legend of Jesse James, which openly exploited the Jones resemblance to Dean in its advertising (if you want to see a really obscure Dean imitator, check out one J. Robert Porter -- yes, that's how he is billed -- in the Jimmy Stewart western Firecreek In some shots the resemblance is downright eerie). 

The most successful of the Dean wannabes, Warren Beatty, had trouble building on his debut in Splendor In The Grass. He took his turn in Tennessee (Roman Spring of Mrs Stone), then tried misunderstood youth in All Fall Down and tragic love story in Lilith. Nothing connected with audiences. His mannered performance in the excrutiatingly pretentious Mickey One might have destroyed another career. But Beatty, while not very interesting as an actor, is acknowledged as a brilliant behind-the-scenes Hollywood maneuverer. He somehow came across a script about two obscure depression-era bank robbers, and using his legendary shmoozing abilities was able to talk Jack Warner, no less, into backing it. Arthur Penn, still reeling from the twin disasters of Mickey One and The Chase, came aboard as director, intent on making, not a study of depression desperation, but a tribute to '60s film techniques. Bonnie & Clyde initially failed to find an audience, but thanks to some very enthusiastic reviews (especially that of Pauline Kael) it was rereleased and became not only a box office hit but a symbol of youthful rebellion. Beatty himself was his usual mannered self (think of the initial scene where he awkwardly leans against the pole chatting up Bonnie; what Mitchum could have done with that bit), This is one case where Dean would have brought more charm to a role than the actor who played it. 

Another pair of real life criminals had their story filmed in 1967. But while Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow had had grabbed headlines during their crime spree, Perry Smith and Dick Hickok were small time thugs whose one try at a “big score” left them with empty but bloody hands. This latter pair would have been totally forgotten (except by the family and friends of their victims) had not Truman Capote, desperate for something to write about, seen a small news item about the murder of a Kansas family named the Clutters. Capote would spend years on the story of Hickok of Smith, taking special interest in the latter, whom he portrayed as misunderstood rather than inhumanly psychotic. When In Cold Blood was finally published in 1966 it became the literary event of the decade, with only a few questioning Capote's tendency to invent events. Richard Brooks quickly made a film of the book, his literal-mindedness matching up with the perfect source material. Throw in the brilliant cinematographer Conrad Hall and you have a sort of masterpiece, even if it's almost as much a historical travesty as Birdman of Alcatraz. Brooks was unable to cast stars in the leads (at one point Elvis Presley was offered the role of Perry Smith) so unknown Scott Wilson and former child actor turned eccentric supporting player Robert Blake, close lookalikes for the real killers, would back into their big breaks. Dean could really have played either role: garrulous Dick Hickok, charmlessly trying to be charming (some of Dean's TV roles, such as “The Dark, Dark Hours” opposite Ronald Reagan, show this side of him), or brooding misfit (as Capote portrayed him) Perry Smith.

We'll see more of Robert Blake in Part III, as we look at James Dean in the '70s -- and beyond?

Thursday, June 23, 2016

What Might Have Been: The Dean's List (Pt. I)

James Dean is one of the great what-ifs of film history. When Dean wrecked his Porsche Spyder on September 30, 1955 he left behind less than a handful of starring films. Many fans have wondered what his career might have been like, and what roles he might have played.

We actually have a something of a rough guide to the film career Dean might have had, and his name is Paul Newman.

Newman tried out for East of Eden -- he and Dean actually filmed a screen test together. After Dean's death Newman inherited not one but two film roles planned for Dean. Looking at Newman's subsequent career, as if Dean was still living and up for the same parts, is a temptingly convenient way to hypothesize about the career Dean himself might have had:

Somebody Up There Likes Me was one of the two Newman films originally planned for Dean. I can't really see Dean as Rocky Graziano -- but then I have trouble seeing Paul Newman as Rocky Graziano, and not only did Paul play Rocky Graziano, it's the role that made him a star. Newman's dese, dem, and doze routine is never especially convincing -- his saving grace here is his comic, almost mocking portrayal of the cliched street tough seeking redemption, a trope that goes back at least to John Garfield and The Group Theatre. Dean had yet to show any sort of comic ability, so I can't see him bettering Newman here, not that that's saying much for Newman.

I wonder why Ben Gazzara didn't play Rocky. When SUTLM was filmed he was the toast of Broadway in Tennesse Williams' Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. Gazzara claimed to have turned down several star-making film roles, though I don't know which specific roles he was referring to. Newman ended up in the film version, as a drunken, sexually ambiguous ex-Ole Miss jock who is dominated by his father Big Daddy and scheming wife Maggie the Cat. For all the decadence on display the role is essentially a conventional male lead, which makes me think Newman was better suited for it.

The other film intended for Dean that was made with Newman was The Left Handed Gun, a "method western" about Bily The Kid directed by Arthur Penn. Adapted by Leslie Stevens (future creator of The Outer Limits) from the 1955 TV play by Gore Vidal, it stresses even more than usual the surrogate relationship of Billy and big-brother figure Pat Garrett (with Vidal's name in the credits, some inevitably saw a gay subtext), and that's the problem: at no time does Newman come across as a confused juvenile (or its '50s variant, the sensitive juvenile delinquent) -- he's just too mature for the whole business. He's playing a lost, struggling character, but always seems determined and sure of his course of action. This is one film I think would have been better with Dean -- loss and abandonment were things he did as well as anyone in Hollywood. Penn certainly allowed Newman to method around to his heart's content -- it would have been interesting to see how Dean took to such actor oriented direction.

The Hustler made Newman a superstar, though again he's really too old and mature for it. By this time Dean might have been a little too old for it himself, but the character of Fast Eddie seems to be in his comfort zone: swaggering but insecure, uncertain of which older authority figure to follow. There's little-to-no humor (Newman's one advantage over Dean) involved, so this is another I wish Dean could have done.

Sweet Bird of Youth, a return to the land of Tennessee, is another Williams decadence-fest directed (like Cat) by the very literal-minded Richard Brooks (as we see the title in the opening credits, there's a flock of birds in the background). It isn't much of a film and the male lead (originated by Newman on Broadway) plays third iddle not only to the washed up movie queen but also good ole boy politician Boss Finley. I can't really see Dean doing much with the role (for his ake, I hope he would have turned it down).

Hud is notable in Dean-might've-been discussions for the fact that Dean had already played something of a dress rehearsal for it, as Jett Rink in Giant. The difference is Jett is dead serious while Hud Bannon is full of snarky put-downs. In other words,it's a role that exploits a comic touch, the one area where Newman is clearly superior to Dean. It's intriguing to think about what Dean might have done with the character (and under an actor-oriented director like Martin Ritt), but I can't see him playing it as successfully as Newman. (Re Hud: I am convinced that novelist Larry McMurtry based the character of Hud, as least in part, on the what-the-hell screen persona of Robert Mitchum [as it happens, the original choice to play Jett Rink --funny how these things work out, isn't it?]. But by 1963 Mitchum was too old for the part -- oh to have seen him play it in 1953...).

The Outrage is a terribly misjudged western remake of Rashomon, with Newman hilariously miscast as a Mehican bandido. I don't know if the role was originally offered to Brando, but he couldn't have been worse than Newman, who seems to be doing an imitation of Alfonso Bedoya's Gold Hat in Treasure of the Sierra Madre. I hate to think that James Dean might have somehow ended up in this disaster, so let's not talk about it anymore. Forget I said anything.

I mention Harper only to mention that there's really no point in mentioning it. The Chandleresque private eye is almost by definition a somewhat middle aged figure -- old enough to have lots of regrets. Dean in my opinion wouldn't have been ready for such a role at the time. Even more, most of Harper is played for laughs -- especially by Newman, whose frequent mugging might have given Jerry Lewis pause. William Goldman's script (from Ross Macdonald's novel The Moving Target) seems almost afraid to be unironic, unsure how 1966 audiences would accept a straight private eye movie. He needn't have worried. Audiences loved the old genre in the new style, and Harper started a private eye revival that in the '70s led to the form taking over from the western as the action format of choice for network TV.

I can see James Dean in Hombre. He would have had to tighten up (using Newman's own categories of "tight" and "loose" characters) his usually demonstrative acting, but I think he could have done it. I don't know if he would have been as good as Newman (IMHO this somewhat neglected western has one of Newman's best performances), but Dean's interpretation of the character (perhaps a bit more emotional?) would have been interesting.

Newman's other great role in 1967, Cool Hand Luke, seems to be right up Dean's causeless-rebel alley. But it's a part that depends enormously on Newman's sly charm -- this is pretty much stated at the end, when we see the brief montage of "that Luke smile o' his". Could Dean have played it? It really depends on how much light touch he'd managed to hone.

Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid was Newman's final great role of his superstar run. I think Dean could have been in it - though not necessarily as Butch. What if, in this alternate universe of ours, he'd teamed up with Newman and played Sundance? I've never thought much of Redford as an actor, and a whole posse of jaspers were offered the role before him: Brando, Steve McQueen, James Garner (my personal choice), James Coburn, and even Warren Beatty. To a large degree Sundance is a reactive role (Garner's specialty -- think his classic teaming as Rockford with Tom Selleck's Lance
White). Perhaps by this time Dean could have played it, with Newman nearby to handle the charm.

Pairing Dean with Newman in Butch Cassidy brings us full circle from their test together for East of Eden. This little game has actually been an interesting exercise, which we'll continue next time, as we look at roles played by actors not named Paul Newman that James Dean might have played.