Wednesday, October 01, 2008

James Dean/Paul Newman Screen Test

Screen Test with James Dean and Paul Newman for "East of Eden"

When I woke up on Saturday, my roommate informed me that Paul Newman had died. The news rattled me quite a bit. My room is decorated with pictures of Steve McQueen, James Dean, and Paul Newman. While James Dean is my favorite actor, Paul Newman comes in a close second. I first saw Cool Hand Luke when I was in eighth grade, and was mesmerized by those blue eyes and that attitude, like millions of women before me. I saw many of his other films over the years.

In this rare screen test from East of Eden James Dean had already been cast as Cal Trask, but Warner Brothers was still searching for someone to play Aaron (Cal’s brother) opposite Dean. Dean and Newman are asked to look at the camera, as well in other directions, in order for the casting director to obtain a better sense of how they look together. The most notable moment in the screen test is when Dean asks Newman to kiss him. Newman’s response can be interpreted in two ways. One is “can’t here,” as in Newman would be willing to kiss Dean, but not in front of studio executives, or “can’t hear,” as in Newman could not understand what Dean was asking.

Dean and Newman had known each other at the Actor’s Studio in New York, and when both of them were at Warner Brothers, they resumed their friendship. The situation became a bit complicated when Dean, who was bisexual, indicated that he wanted his relationship with Newman to be more than a friendship, at which point Newman, who was heterosexual and hated the idea that anyone would think he was homosexual, put on the brakes. I do not know at one point during the relationship the screen test was conducted.

To me, the screen test represents a classic James Dean moment. He was always pushing people, and trying to get a reaction. Dean delighted in shocking people, and in 1954 there was few things more shocking then the idea of a homosexual couple. Even the slightest hint of a same-sex relationship in scripts made studios nervous, and openly gay actors did not exist.

The screen test represents two young actors, at their physical prime. It is a feast for the eyes, and provides a host of what-ifs. What if Dean and Newman had co-stared in East of Eden? What if Dean had survived the car crash and Newman had not received his big break replacing Dean in Somebody Up There Likes Me? However when all of the speculation about what might have been is done, what we are left with is the history. One young man was a shooting star, seen only briefly but talked about for decades after. The other was a steady presence, a star that was always visible in the night sky, and then suddenly disappeared. Newman left behind a body of work that will be remembered for decades, and a legacy of charity work that will provide an inspiration for many.

RIP: Paul Leonard Newman 1925-2008

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