Interview: Peter Winkler on James Dean

Posted on August 26, 2016 at 3:54 pm

Copyright Chicago Review Press 2016
Copyright Chicago Review Press 2016

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 research in old movie magazines and archives and picked one Dean performance that is his favorite.

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.

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