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?

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