The Woman Who Made James Dean a Star

Six decades have passed, yet his legend remains as vital as ever. Something else has happened too: his work has endured.
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Sixty years ago this week, James Dean died in a car crash on a stretch of highway near Salinas, California. At 24, he had shot three pictures, but only one had made it into theatres. In March 1955, East of Eden, Elia Kazan's adaptation of John Steinbeck's novel, was released to rave reviews proclaiming Dean Hollywood's new star. He died just as he finished shooting Giant, George Stevens's Texas epic starring Elizabeth Taylor and Rock Hudson. A picture he had finished some months earlier, Rebel Without a Cause, was scheduled to be released in October.

Dean's death made headlines across the country, as I document in my new portrait of Dean, Being James Dean, although he was still widely unknown to the general public. That changed with the release of Rebel Without a Cause. As reviewers gushed over Dean's electrifying portrayal of Jim Stark, the ultimate troubled teenager, they struggled with the reality that the brilliant, enigmatic young actor who had created such an iconic performance was already dead. Audiences were infatuated with Dean. Teenagers lined up to see the picture. In no time Dean had become a cult hero. His mystique was only enhanced a year later when Giant was released to glowing reviews and legions of fans eager to see his final performance.

Six decades have passed, yet his legend remains as vital as ever. Something else has happened too: his work has endured. He may have made only three pictures, but his performances were so innovative in their style and so perfect in their execution that Dean is considered to be as important as actors with much larger bodies of work. But Dean may not have had the career he had -- he certainly would not have made the pictures he did -- if it had not been for one woman, Geraldine Page.

They were both members of the Actors Studio, but they became close in late 1953, when they were cast in The Immoralist, Ruth and Augustus Goetz's adaptation of Andre Gide's novel. Billy Rose, the show's producer, hired Herman Shumlin to direct. To appear opposite Page, a rising star on Broadway, Rose cast Louis Jourdan. The two stars could not have been more different: Page was a student of Stanislavski, Jourdan a matinee idol. Then again, the conflict may have actually helped the play, since its plot centered around newlyweds Michel (Jourdan) and Marceline (Page), who, unable to consummate their marriage for two months, go on a honeymoon to Algeria. There, Michel is seduced by an Arab houseboy, played by Dean, and afterwards, consumed by guilt, finally has sex with Marceline, who becomes pregnant, locking the couple in a loveless marriage.

From the first day of rehearsal, December 18, 1953, there was trouble. Page and Jourdan clashed, while Dean was rattled by insecurity and fear. "Jimmy was very nervous and frightened," recalled Salem Ludwig, an understudy and the show's Actors Equity Association representative. "He overcame his fear by pretending to be a tough guy. He was young, and this show was a big step in his career." Indeed, Dean's only other Broadway credit, See the Jaguar, was a flop that had closed after five performances.

Shumlin indulged Dean, who began to make breakthroughs in his character. By January 9, however, when the company moved to Philadelphia for tryouts, Shumlin couldn't figure out how to stage the homoerotic scenes, so Rose fired him. The new director was Daniel Mann, who fixed the staging but failed to recognize Dean's paralyzing terror. The young actor's lack of confidence caused him to act out, demanding attention from those around him. The situation reached a breaking point one day during rehearsal when Mann, fed up with Dean's behavior, told him to shut up. Stunned, Dean seethed. The two men stood on stage, toe-to-toe, until Dean finally spun around, retrieved his jacket, and stalked out of the theatre. Rose, who watched the episode unfold from the empty auditorium, decided to fire Dean.

There was only one problem. Page wouldn't stand for it. "My mother," Angelica Page said, "told the director and the producer, 'You're letting pure gold walk out of that door. If he's not in this show, I'm not in this show.' She meant what she said, too. If Jimmy was not going to be there on opening night, she wasn't either."

Rose must have believed her: Dean was not fired. But Page still had to make sure Dean didn't quit. "I got a call from Geraldine that Jimmy was in her room," Ludwig recalled. "I went up and there was Jimmy sitting there, furious, ready to kill someone. 'Jimmy, what happened?' I said. 'I didn't want to get in a fight,' he said, 'so now I'm packed and ready to go.' I said, 'You can't do that. Nobody will hire you in the future.' He said, 'I don't care. I'm leaving.'

"Then I said, 'Jimmy, there are six blacklisted actors in this show who haven't worked in a long time. If you walk out and the show closes, they're out of a job,'" Ludwig said. "There was a pause. Soon tears started to flow down Jimmy's cheeks and he said, 'I'll do it.'"

Dean did well in the Philadelphia tryouts, but he hit his stride in New York previews. Elia Kazan saw the last preview and sought out Dean after the show to offer him a lead role in East of Eden, complete with a Warner Bros. contract. So, on opening night, after turning in a stunning performance, Dean handed Rose his two-week notice. None of this would have happened, of course, if Page had not put her professional reputation on the line and threatened to quit the show if Rose fired Dean. Otherwise, Rose would have -- that was certainly his style.

When the conflict with Dean developed, Rose may not have realized the situation had both professional and personal implications for Page. Starting around the time of the first rehearsal and continuing into the play's New York run, she and Dean had been having an affair. The attraction was obvious. Beautiful and captivating, Dean projected a powerful sexual appeal, while, with her classic leading-lady looks, Page radiated her own allure.

As if to create mementos of the affair, Dean made freehand drawings for Page, which he did only for those people about whom he cared deeply. A talented amateur artist, Dean enjoyed drawing informal sketches on the backs of napkins and sheets of paper. Page cherished the drawings, putting them for safe keeping in a small, white envelope on which she wrote: "Please save these masterpieces for me by Mr. James Dean."

"According to my mother, their affair went on for three-and-a-half months," Angelica Page said. "In many ways my mother never really got over Jimmy. It was not unusual for me to go to her dressing room through the years, obviously many years after Dean was gone, and find pictures of him taped up on her mirror. My mother never forgot about Jimmy -- never. I believe they were artistic soul mates."

In Being James Dean, I note the affair ended when Dean went to California to shoot East of Eden. Dean's talent might have taken him to Hollywood anyway, but if Page had not kept him in The Immoralist he would not have gone there when it did by landing the part in East of Eden. As it happened, not quite 18 months later, he would be dead, having created a small but memorable body of work that has made him an enduring icon.

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