Stewart Stern had a enviable career in Hollywood for over a quarter century. He was the nephew of Paramount founder Adolph Zukor, and spent much of his childhood at Zukor's Mountain View Farm near Nyack, NY, where he played with his cousin, Arthur Loew Jr, who would later help Stern start his career in Hollywood. But Stern's childhood was far from idyllic; he had a difficult relationship with his emotionally distant parents, which would later shape much of his writing.
Stern wrote the screenplays for Rebel Without a Cause, Sybil, The Ugly American, and Rachel, Rachel, among others. He had unprecedented access as a screenwriter to the sets of his films, and counted some of Hollywood's biggest names - Paul Newman, Joanne Woodward, Natalie Wood, James Dean - among his friends.
In 1986, crippled by anxiety and insecurity, he walked away from Hollywood and his writing career and moved with his wife Marilee to Seattle, where he has continued to contribute to the writing community by teaching screenwriting classes at the University of Washington and The Filmschool, and by mentoring young screenwriters. Director Jon Ward filmed a documentary about Stern's life, Going Through Splat: The Life and Work of Stewart Stern.
With the 50th anniversary of Rebel Without a Cause and the death of James Dean, renewed interest in Stern's work has once again focused the spotlight back on him. On Friday, September 2, Northwest Film Forum will offer a special screening of Rebel Without a Cause, and Stern will be present for a Q&A following the film.
Stern very graciously agreed to be interviewed by Cinematical for this article. I was fortunate to be able to spend several hours in Stern's Seattle home, where Stern screened Going Through Splat for me, showed me some of his memorabilia and photographs, and talked to me at length about his life and his work. This two-part interview is a compilation of over three hours of conversation. Part One discusses Stern's career; Part Two discusses his personal life, his childhood, and his marriage.
CINEMATICAL: Can you tell me about how you met James Dean?
STERN: We were introduced at a party, and then left alone. And out of the blue, he said he could moo like a cow, and he did, and then I mooed back, and we did that back and forth. Then I did a flock of sheep, and so on, and we went back and forth like that. (Note: Stern later worked this initial meeting into the script for Rebel Without a Cause, when Jim Stark moos in the Planetarium).
CINEMATICAL: Let's talk about your career as a writer in Hollywood.
STERN: I don't think any writer had the opportunity to have the access I had, to be on the set and have a say in shaping their own work. Most screenwriters don't get to do that.
CINEMATICAL: Yet you chose not to be on the set of Rebel Without a Cause.
STERN: Well, yes. That's true. I couldn't be on that set. I knew I would have a conflict with the dialogue director. Jimmy (Dean) didn't trust Nick Ray (the director), and I knew if I was there, because we were friends, Jimmy would be coming to me all the time. At one point Jimmy ran away, just disappeared, and Warner was going to put him on suspension. Late one night, Jimmy called me at 2AM, mooing. He told me he had gone to New York to hide, and that he didn't know whether he should go back. He was just coming off the success of East of Eden, and he knew his next film needed to be great, and he wasn't sure Nick Ray was going to make a great film. I asked him why he ran away.
CINEMATICAL: And what did he say?
STERN: He was uneasy about Nick. He said, "I don't know if I can trust Nick - do you trust Nick? Do you think I should go back?" And I told him I couldn't make that decision for him, he had to decide for himself. And he said, "If I decide to do this picture, it's gonna be because of you".
CINEMATICAL: Do you think if he hadn't died in 1955, you'd still be close friends today, like you are with Paul (Newman)?
STERN: I think so, yes. I think we would have been even better friends today. Jimmy, it just all happened so fast for him. He desperately wanted Marlon (Brando) to like him. Like Marlon, Jimmy knew his impact; he could woo you, make you think you were his best friend, and then he'd disappear just when you needed him most.
Once, he took me and Arthur (Loew, Stern's cousin) to a screening. We asked him what movie we were going to, and he said, "Oh, just some movie". We get there, and he hops the rope onto the red carpet. I'm yelling at him, "Jimmy, you can't do that!" and he smiles and says, "Sure I can, and you're coming with me down the red carpet." It was a screening for East of Eden. But later, I found out that he did that with other people too, took them to East of Eden screenings, and no one ever knew it wasn't just them, and everyone felt special about it.
CINEMATICAL: What was he like?
STERN: Everyone wanted a piece of him, everyone wanted to be his best friend. Jimmy had a very "puckish" sense of humor: mischevious, sometimes even a little cruel. He shocked the old-time Hollywood actors - he was crude and foul-mouthed, had no table manners, wouldn't stand up if a woman walked in the room.
He loved pratical jokes. He'd take the sign over Jack Warner's office, and switch it with the men's room sign, so everyone would be parading into Warner's office looking for the toilet. (laughs) Warner wasn't really amused.
But then he could do really sweet things, too. (Composer) Oscar Levant had a little girl who was just in love with Jimmy. And Jimmy would show up at Levant's house at night, and ask, "Is she up?" And he'd go and visit her, and read her a bedtime story. That's the kind of guy he was.
CINEMATICAL: What did Brando think of him?
STERN: Brando, Montgomery Clift, none of those guys really liked him. He was a threat to them, this new, young star.
CINEMATICAL: The very last time you saw James Dean, you walked with him in a garden and talked. What did you talk about?
STERN: We were...we were talking about his mother. His mother, my mother, and how we got to be the way we were, the kind of people we are. We just talked about it all. That was the last time I saw him.
CINEMATICAL: And then he died.
STERN: (long pause) I was, I think, the third person to hear that Jimmy had died. He was filming Giant, had just about wrapped it except for a few dialogue scenes they needed to tighten up and an over-the-shoulder shot. Henry Ginsberg (the producer of Giant) called our house to talk to Arthur. Arthur was out, so I took the call. He just said, "The kid is dead."
I was just stunned, just in shock. A while later Arthur came home and I told him, "I'm not sure, I think I may have dreamed this, but I think Ginsberg just called and told me Jimmy is dead." And of course, it was true.
Henry and I went to Jimmy's funeral in his hometown. We stayed at his aunt and uncle's house, where Jimmy was raised; I slept in his room. We went to the funeral with his family.
CINEMATICAL: Nick Ray never gave you story credit for Rebel. Are you still bitter about that? (Note: the photo at right is of a page of Stern's original, handwritten script for Rebel Without a Cause)
STERN: I had screenplay credit, that was never the issue. But I wanted, and felt I deserved, original story credit - not alone, but with Nick Ray and Irving Shulman.
CINEMATICAL: In Going Through Splat, you talk about a letter you wrote to Nick, asking him to give you story credit.
STERN: I wrote the letter, but I didn't send it to him, I read it to him in a meeting. I was too emotional and nervous, so I wrote it out so I wouldn't forget anything.
CINEMATICAL: And what did he say after you read it?
STERN: He just said, "Kid, you're dreaming." He claimed he had notes showing that all the key decisions in the film were made by him. But they weren't - it was my screenplay. And then later, in France, they published a book edition that was my script, word for word, with Nick Ray listed as the author. Just Nick Ray, with my script, verbatim.
CINEMATICAL: You didn't think much of Nick Ray.
STERN: I never found cause to respect him as a man, though I did respect him as an artist.
CINEMATICAL: Were you friends with Natalie Wood and Sal Mineo?
STERN: I never really knew Sal; I wasn't on the set, so I never got to know him. Natalie and I became very good friends, but not until after Rebel. We got to know each other when my cousin Arthur (Loew) fell in love with her. They were engaged for a while.
Natalie was just so damn bright, so strong, so professional. I loved Natalie. I love RJ (Robert Wagner, Natalie's husband). Every now and again he'll call me up and say, "SS? This is RJ. I love you." And I'll say to him, "I love you too, RJ."
CINEMATICAL: Rebel was semi-autobiographical. Did you identify more with Plato or Jim?
STERN: Both. I had always had a Plato around me, and I had been a Plato to other people, people I looked up to. I think most people do.
CINEMATICAL: Was Plato a sociopath?
STERN: (considers) He might have become one. He was clearly unbalanced, he was inventing this friendship with Jim Stark that didn't exist.
CINEMATICAL: What would Plato have become today, if he was a kid now instead of in 1955? He shot a litter of puppies at the beginning of the film. Would he have hurt people eventually?
STERN: I'd like to think he would be in therapy, getting help. But if no one helped him, then yes, I think he could have been dangerous to others.
CINEMATICAL: Let's talk about Sybil. How did you come to be involved with that film?
STERN: I was just hired for it. They asked me to write it, gave me the book (by Flora Rheta Schreiber), and I read it. And I knew right away I could not write the script from the book. I told them if they wanted me to do it, I was going to have to start from the beginning, with Connie Wilbur (Sybil's psychiatrist). So I flew to Kentucky to spend time with her and talk to her about Sybil. She let me listen to all her reel-to-reel (audio) tapes of her sessions with Sybil, there were over 45 hours of them. She flew them out to the west coast in a foot locker.
Sometimes it was hard to even understand Sybil when she was panicked and agitated. She would dive under the piano to hide. You could hear her change as her personalities shifted, it was like hearing totally different people.
I took notes extensively, and eventually I just took a "core sample" right through the middle and used that to write from, and ignored the rest. I had to, there was so much. Sally Field later heard the tapes, and I gave her a written compilation of what Sybil was saying and which personality was talking. Sometimes you had to slow it way down to understand her. For the film, I whittled down her 16 personalities to five, although you saw all 16 at the very end, when she became a whole, integrated person again. Connie Wilbur, she was a maverick. She had the imagination to be so creative; she was just wide open to what was being shown to her.
CINEMATICAL: How much of Stewart was in the script for Sybil? At the end, where Sybil breaks down and is raging about her mother - how much of that rage was your rage?
STERN: Well, Sybil was abused and violated, I never was. But her rage, yes - I could identify with that.
CINEMATICAL: Did you ever actually meet Sybil herself?
STERN: I never met her in person, no. I have spoken to her on the phone several times, and she has helped me at times.
CINEMATICAL: How did Sally Field come to be hired for the part of Sybil?
STERN: Natalie Wood wanted very badly to play Sybil, but I felt we needed someone who wasn't that big of a star. Natalie was so hurt and mad, she didn't talk to me for a year-and-a-half. The producer wanted Audrey Hepburn, but she turned it down, and then they cancelled the project. I was so depressed.
I went over to Paul (Newman) and Joanne (Woodward)'s for dinner, Paul was cooking cheeseburgers, and Joanne took one look at me and knew something was wrong. I told her Sybil had been cancelled, and she asked if I thought it would make a difference if she agreed to play Dr. Wilbur. I said I didn't know. She called the producer and offered to play Dr. Wilbur, and he said okay, if you'll do it, we're back on.
CINEMATICAL: And then Sally Field was hired?
STERN: Well, no. We auditioned lots of actresses, every actress in Hollywood wanted that part. Susan Sarandon, her career was just kicking off. She came and auditioned and she was prepared with 16 different ways of breathing for each character, really just amazing. Marsha Mason, a bunch of others. Finally it was almost lunch, and then we realized we had one more to go, and Sally walked in. I didn't want the Flying Nun, but we had to let her audition to be polite.
At first she was drab and I took off my glasses and started to doze off. All of a sudden, I realized there was someone else in the room, and I hastily put my glasses back on. I thought I'd slept through Sally's audition, and there was someone else auditioning now. But then I realized was Sally - she had become Peggy (one of Sybil's personalities). And we all knew that was it, we had our Sybil.
That night I got a call from Connie. She asked when we were going to start casting, and I told her we had already started. "I know who has to play Sybil," she said, "at least...I don't know who, but Sybil does." And she went on to tell me about how Sybil had called her that very day and told her it had to be Sally Field, that she was the only one Sybil felt could play the Peggy personality. After that we all knew we had to have her, except the director, Anthony Paige, who wanted Vanessa Redgrave. He was the only one who didn't buy into Sally for the part.
Eventually the director was fired; he always liked the book better than the script, and his directing was reflecting that (Daniel Petrie eventually directed the film).
CINEMATICAL: What's Sally Field like?
STERN: Sally is just amazing, incredibly professional. She had her boys on the set, and she was taking care of them, being a good mother, and never missed a mark, was always on top of her part at the same time. She's a wonderful person.
CINEMATICAL: What questions have you never been asked in an interview?
STERN: I've never been asked whether Natalie (Wood) had affairs with Nick (Ray) and Dennis (Hopper). I've never been asked if Nick and Sal really had an affair, or if Jimmy was really bisexual.
CINEMATICAL: Were any of those things true?
STERN: Well, there were constant rumors all the time about Jimmy being bisexual, and Sal being gay. I personally didn't know that Sal was gay, or that Jimmy was bisexual - if he was. But I don't think Jimmy believed in labels, he was curious about everyone and everything. Nick supposedly did have an affair with Natalie.
CINEMATICAL: If you were starting your career today as a young man, do you think you would have become an independent director, so you could have more control over your own work?
STERN: Well, I could have been a director back then, if I'd wanted to. But I was afraid of screwing up and people laughing at me. I was a good writer, a good dialogue director, I gave good feedback; but to be the one in charge, the one who did it? I just didn't feel enough confidence.
CINEMATICAL: Do you have that confidence today? If you wrote the perfect script today, a script you just had to see made into a film, could you helm it?
STERN: (long, thoughtful pause) My...my heart goes very fast when you ask me that question. But I think I could, yes. I think I could trust that I could be open and honest with my crew, that I could surround myself with the right people who know what they are doing, and that it would be okay if I didn't have all the technical knowledge, if I had the right people around me. So, yes. Yes, I think I could.