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.