Stewart Stern—it seems to go almost without saying—is best known for writing the screenplay to the seminal American classic, Rebel Without a Cause. This iconic film has overshadowed the rest of his output, which included collaborations with Nicholas Ray, Paul Newman and Marlon Brando (above, with Stern and Bea Lillie), as well as an Emmy for writing the 1976 TV miniseries Sybil. “He gets tired of talking about Rebel,” filmmaker Jon Steven Ward told me. And Ward should know: he produced and directed Going Through Splat, shooting hours of interview footage with the now 84-year old Stern that covers the writer’s life-or-death ordeal as an infantry leader at the Battle of the Bulge; his clashes with Nicholas Ray over Rebel re-writes; the early loss of James Dean; and the slow descent into writer’s block that effectively ended Stewart’s screenwriting career.
Determined not to be one of those reporters who can’t see past Rebel Without a Cause, I arrived at Stern’s house armed with questions about his scripts for Rachel, Rachel and Summer Wishes, Winter Dreams. Over mugs of herbal tea, we spent the morning talking about flying in a harness around and around the wings of Seattle’s Intiman Theatre (he has done this, on his 70th birthday, no less), and of the “overripe sense of reality” that, as a young actor, he brought to the role of Bloody Clifford in a production of Henry VI, where his homemade “severed head of the last Plantagenet I killed” drew both gasps and raves. I did manage to ask some of my prepared questions, yet in a roundabout way, Rebel, as you’ll see, won out.
I do want to say this about Rachel, Rachel: I got a chance to see it on the big screen at the 2002 Port Townsend Film Festival, and in the Q&A Stern had afterwards with Robert Osborne, I learned that this odd, quirky little movie, an ongoing interior monologue that’s at once sun-dappled and dusky, was, in the summer of 1968, number one at the box office for three consecutive weeks. It was disheartening to think that if Rachel, Rachel were made now, it wouldn’t be number one at the box office. The movie, about a repressed schoolmarm who owes most of her repression to her mortician father, probably wouldn’t get made now at all. “Warners didn’t want to make it then,” Stewart corrected me, thus deflating whatever fantasy I harbored about enlightened studio executives in the ’60s.
It’s also worth remembering that Renata Adler (writing in the New York Times, and still the sharpest film critic ever employed there) praised Rachel, Rachel as “…the best written, most seriously acted American movie in a long time. The screenplay by Stewart Stern…has a fantastic ear for cliché: the cliché of the classroom…the cliché of manners…and the dreadful formula witticisms …that are the social interchange in a certain milieu in a town of a certain size.”
Although Stern more or less stopped producing scripts after adapting Sybil, he actively teaches screenwriting. He’s been a regular, for several years, at Sundance workshops, critiquing the early drafts of anxious newcomers. Ira Sachs, director and co-writer of the excellent Forty Shades of Blue, chose Stern as a mentor, describing him as “Very unsentimental while being sensitive. Clear-minded, but has a sense of the poetic. His criticisms showed us that we needed an internal resolution driven by psychology, not by screenwriting, not by something external to the characters.”
Going Through Splat has spent the last year or so on the festival circuit. It’s now mired in rights issues, and may yet receive distribution, pending clearance of all the film clips used. Splat, which dishes up Old Hollywood, the hell of combat, and a fair amount of deliberation on self-doubt, on “the art that you can’t not make,” deserves to have its day. Toward the end of the movie, Stern defines “splat,” or what happens in comic strips when unsuspecting innocents meet immovable objects: “Our lives are made of splats. The ways our personalities are shaped are the ways in which we approach splat: the way we go through it; the way we found to go around it; the way we found to pretend to have gone over it, but haven’t; the way we hide our apprehension about what splat is. And on the other side of that, the feeling of completion…and self-approval. It’s heaven, that’s what it is.”
Stewart Stern: It’s strange about this documentary…the response is incredible, almost embarrassing, because viewers want to get intimate right away. Women who are my age—widows—will come up absolutely wrecked after the film, and say that they lived with their husbands their whole lives, and their husbands had been veterans of World War II, but had never spoken of the experience. And they just are so grateful to hear some eyewitness to what happened. So that’s always emotional. And then a lot of people who are stuck in their writing take the optimism from the film in some odd way.
N.P. Thompson: What do you tell them?
SS: Well, it’s funny; they don’t ask me. They say, “Oh, God, just to know that somebody else had to go through that,” and they came out and they were able [to write again]. Nobody seems to get that I still have writer’s block. They think that’s all done. That I really went through splat—the final splat—which I never did. And I’m always amazed when people find hope in the picture, instead of absolute black despair… [And then he quickly adds] So that you end up teaching cows how to read the movie reviews. (There’s a brief clip in Going Through Splat of Stewart doing precisely that.)
STERN MAY WELL HAVE the largest private collection of Peter Pan books and memorabilia in North America. At one point in the documentary, as home movie footage of a 10-year-old Stewart playing pirate swashbuckles across the screen, the adult Stewart muses about the connection between J.M. Barrie’s play and Rebel Without a Cause: “Natalie is Wendy, Jimmy is Peter Pan, and Sal is all the lost boys rolled in one.” Shortly thereafter, he describes the yearning of the fatherless Plato character (Sal Mineo) for Jim Stark (Dean) as this: “Somebody’s gonna take me away from here and teach me, and their courage is gonna come in through my skin.”
I brought up that observation, telling Stern it reminded me of a similar description in Jonathan Caouette’s Tarnation, that is the sort of hunger within adolescent boys for a combination role model and savior. Stern hadn’t seen Tarnation, so I related a bit about Caouette’s recurring dream of a tall blond boy, a mythical figure whose function was to lift him out of the quotidian, away from pain, abuse, and uncomprehending relatives. And I asked Stern if he thought this was something that all male children go through.
SS: In reading what my students write, and I have them write their most ecstatic dream, many of them are dreams of flying. But they seldom have another figure in them, and most of the ones who write that dream are women, which surprises me. I think it has to do with…something much more than mentoring. It’s wanting to be in someone who is all enveloping and all protecting, and part of the protection, for boys, is the instruction—and it’s true with girls, too. They get these crushes, girls do, on older girls. It’s romantic love, and it may not ever be made sexual, but the romance in it is very, very deep, and the attachment… It’s all the things you aren’t—in somebody else—that you want to snuggle up to. And be embraced by, be taken in by, and be exclusive to.
A lot of boys, and I certainly went through it as an early teen, and I think aspects of it never left: the sense of being close, closer than anyone else is, to a movie star, to be the favored one to a movie star who, you feel, has all the qualities you don’t. And it seems like a miracle that they’re paying any attention to you. You can never give yourself credit for their need, for whatever the reverse of all that is, to have somebody who really looks up to them, and whom they know the admiration comes from nothing except love, loyalty…that this is someone who doesn’t want anything material or doesn’t want to take advantage of their fame.
During World War II, because of the closeness of some of the relationships that were formed, and you know, the song [that was popular then], I thought of that one day, and I looked up on the Internet what the lyrics were.
NPT: The song?
SS: “My Buddy.” It’s a love song. It’s as romantic as any song ever written. “Nights are long since you went away, I think about you all through the day, my buddy…I miss your voice, the touch of your hand…” That was in a musical that someone wrote, but it certainly reflected the feeling of what life was like in the trenches for a lot of those kids, on both sides. And it was definitely there in World War II. I couldn’t find it in Platoon; maybe in Black Hawk Down there was some of that feeling of closeness, of absolute responsibility for each other. So when I wrote Rebel Without a Cause, it was so much about my own yearnings as a kid to have my hero, whoever it was, be my exclusive friend. The pride, the sense of safety, and the love.
New York, in the late 1940s, was like a village in the sky, because you could look across the rooftops of the low buildings. All the brownstones were only five stories, and then the sky would be punctuated by a tall apartment house. Most of my friends lived on the West Side, and most of them lived in tall apartment houses. Diane Arbus lived on the corner. I could see the windows of her apartment from mine, if I went to the front. If I went to the back, I could see the windows of my fellow sufferers, who were on the same quest I was. We did one another no good, because we all needed heroes. But we were close because we had our misery in common.
Then on Diane’s side, looking further to 72nd Street, to a building called the Oliver Cromwell, on the 17th floor was where a hero of mine lived. He wore a porkpie hat, which was really fashionable, and gray sweater vests under his jackets. He somehow had a kind of smoothness about him that nobody else had. But if we were on the same subway car, and reached 72nd Street at the same time, I would wait. It would be too much emotionally to walk up to him to say “Hey!” on the way home. There were so many times when I walked on the other side of the street, as he headed for Central Park West and I went to 75th, because I was too uncertain of myself and probably afraid that he would run away from me, if he felt that much need coming at him.
I knew what that felt like. And I knew what I would have felt like if I’d been Plato in Rebel, who’s so desperate for something more than a childcare check from his father, and who had no man in his life to build anything on. This romantic looking kid comes in from somewhere else [the Dean character] like a gift from the sky, and Plato gathers whatever little strands of assertion and aggression that he has, enough at least to sit behind him in the planetarium and make some contact with him.
Originally, the scene after the “Chickee Run” [the drag race that ends in the death of Buzz Gunderson, played by Corey Allen] when Plato winds up in Jimmy’s backyard and starts asking him to come home and spend the night, that was end of that scene. But it was altogether different. Plato followed Jim’s car, and Jim had Judy (Natalie Wood) and Plato pulled in next to Jimmy’s car after he saw Judy leave. And they start laughing. They’re so full of hysteria over this tragedy that Jimmy starts saying, “Where are you—where are you going?” “Well, I’m going home, but nobody’s at home. My father—I never see him, he’s in the China Sea or something, and my mother’s away.” “Where’d she go?” “She went to Hawaii.” “What’s she doing in Hawaii? Going boing-boing with the coconuts?” And the worst lines that Jimmy comes up with—and the boys are hysterical with laughter until they’re not, until it gets them what just happened. It’s out of that that Plato asks, “Would you come home with me tonight?” Because here’s Jimmy going into a house with a family. It’s twice as moving, I think, this strange solicitation.
So everybody says, “Is Plato gay? Is Plato gay?” I don’t know if he’s gay. I don’t know if it matters.
NPT: I don’t think it does.
SS: And if they went to bed together, that wouldn’t matter either. It’s an incident, and it would just be out of…whatever that is. So that was kind of conscious [in writing the screenplay], because I had discovered that in the war, that this affected so many men—this fierce emotional possessiveness, jealousy, and alertness to the integrity of the relationship. You had to not only not shame yourself in front of your buddy; that was somebody you wanted to have live. And you didn’t want a stranger taking over that half of the shelter, the pup tent that you were in. We all had to button onto each other; it was almost the design that created—each one carried half of a double bed—the canvas with buttonholes and buttons, and it wasn’t a tent unless you had someone to button your half to. Then it was so small and so low, and the weather was so cold; you couldn’t have been any closer to anybody, except for the thickness of the sweaters you both wore.
I think that was one of the messages of Rebel. I think a lot of guys who worried about themselves found relief in that film. Not so much from Plato, but from Jimmy’s attitude.
AT THE END OF our meeting, after the tape recorder was switched off, with so many questions still unasked—about Brando, about any number of bygone places and times—Stern opened the double doors behind the chair where I had been sitting, and inside this closet were rows upon rows of neatly placed screenplay manuscripts. He said not a word about them, instead producing a pen and ink drawing made by his childhood friend Diane Arbus, when she and Stern were 16-years-old and in high school art class in the Bronx. Although I’m not an admirer of her photography, I nearly died and went to heaven on seeing this drawing, which was somewhat in the style of a New Yorker cartoon, only the faces were much more interesting and more alive—mildly disturbed but not grotesquely so as in her later, famous work. But you know how you’ve listened to a bunch of astringent music by (say) Hindemith or Schönberg, and then all of a sudden you hear Mozart? Well, it was kind of like that—this light on the past coming up, illuminating both the innovations of its time and the ones to come after.
N.P. Thompson lives, writes, and photo-blogs in the Pacific Northwest.