LilFed’s #CBR5 Review #11: Live Fast, Die Young – The Wild Ride of Making ‘Rebel Without A Cause’ by Lawrence Frascella and Al Weisel


Anyone who truly loves classic movies in general, but limit themselves to genres, or seeking certain categories such as specific decades or eras that you feel are more informative to your own lifetime – well, you’re missing out on some cinematic masterpieces that transcend time, history and place, providing more pleasure with multiple viewings.

Mainly because of the ill-defined ‘innocence’ and crippling censorship that the Hayes Code imposed upon the big-time movie studios of yesteryear, and the meticulous, behind-the-scenes scrutiny given to what today could be considered the most chaste of character portrayals, ‘golly-gee’ dialogue, and avoidance of serious social issues and graphic visuals whose restrictions are most rightly associated with those first 27-30 years (post 1932) of the new, revolutionary art form of the cinema and the vast potential that seemed to be squandered away in those early productions, one really cannot be blamed for passing over classics they have seen thousands of different ‘clips’ from, filtered through the television and internet and other mediums in entirely alien concepts, and who have heard their plots and climaxes without ever seeing them. (‘It’s A Wonderful Life‘? Wait, Jimmy Stewart does redeem himself in the end? Bogie and Bacall actually break up at the end of ‘Casablanca’?)

But one exquisite example of subversive, and authority-challenging, 1950’s films that has stayed with this writer for nearly twenty years is a 1957 black-and-white movie called A Face In The Crowd, directed by Elia Kazan. It’s the story of the rise and fall of an unlikely radio, then- television personality named Larry “Lonesome” Rhodes, a drunken, crude, volatile ex-con drifter, played with underlying menace and deceptively off-hand charisma by Andy Griffith (!), who captures the attention of an ambitious radio producer (Patricia Neal) tape-recording ‘authentic’ southern, small-town people and their quaint visions of life for a radio program, after his arrest and jailing for drunken violence that leaves no doubt that this is one of many previous incarcerations for him. Anyone familiar with the gregarious, affable Sheriff Andy Taylor of Mayberry, which Griffith would eventually portray, is immediately taken aback from the very first closeup we see of him, being awakened from a drunken stupor and turning towards the camera with such instant rage that makes a ‘jump-in-your-seat’ moment as riveting and memorable as Anthony Perkins’ first appearance in the shower scene of Psycho or Anthony Hopkins’ Hannibal Lecter in Silence of the Lambs.

The movie itself is a revelation in cinematic history, presented in an uncharacteristically ‘modern’, media-savvy story, using actual television personalities of the time (like John Cameron Swayze and a young newcomer newsman named Mike Wallace): this ‘in-the-moment’ film, with provocative language we would blush at even today, such as Andy-effin’-Griffith shoving and calling one of his servants a “black ape,” or telling a prostitute in his hotel room to pick up some dishes and pretend to be a housekeeper when Patricia Neal’s character calls on him unexpectedly, is as original and exciting to watch as it probably was ‘shocking’ to the Eisenhower audience of the late fifties. Though nothing erotic or graphic is shown, the viewer, along with Neal’s character, is all-too-aware that the ‘housekeeper’ and Griffith’s character have spent the night together, which is obvious from Griffith’s suggestive looks and macho demeanor alone, which only arouses Neal’s character more – the scene could not be any more ‘graphic’ than the strictly-forbidden ‘man and woman in bed together’ ban in movies that had existed for years prior. To a then-twenty-something film lover just beginning to discover the old classics he had only read about previously, here was nothing any less shocking (or titillating) than William Hurt and Kathleen Turner burning up the screen in ‘Body Heat’ thirty years later.

But books like ‘Live Fast, Die Young’, carefully and enthusiastically disseminating the creation of classic movies that we only associate with iconic scenes in the ‘moldy, outdated’ films (Moses’ parting of the Red Sea in The Ten Commandments, Gable’s shocking use of the word ‘damn’ at the end of Gone With the Wind), are essential reminders of just how much subsequent generations have been missing out on – learning the various techniques, subversive approaches and desperate leaps of faith in the making of these ground-breaking films, along with all the various ‘offstage’ scandals and melodramatic events that were at times as much a factor in molding and distinguishing these films as the subjects they presented to us.

The authors of ‘Live Fast, Die Young’ have written a book that a true classic-movie lover/historian lives for: an in-depth, carefully-researched and detailed history of the making of the iconic James Dean film Rebel Without A Cause, so rewarding in its excellent mix of informative insight into virtually every single aspect of this film’s creation: its trio of iconic stars and visionary director, Nicholas Ray; and the battles, compromises and passionate dedication in bringing this story and the radical-for-his-time director’s vision to the big screen, along with the story of how a young, complex and dynamically intriguing and exciting actor named James Dean turned an unfocused, subversive story of teenage anguish into a film classic for the ages, and gave voice to a generation in search of validity and an identity that had yet to be defined (the word ‘teenager’ had only existed for a decade or so, but had never been of any notable importance in our language as more than a mere descriptor for statistical purposes).

The authors provide a thorough background story to Rebel‘s beginnings as a cautionary novel of ‘youth in revolt’, with a fairly generic approach, but no less unique in its thematic narrative, from the dynamic director Nicholas Ray’s introduction to such, that would come to be almost entirely re-written by the film’s finish, to suit not only his own aesthetics but more importantly conforming to the enigmatic, moody, self-destructive nature and independence of arguably the greatest actor who ever lived, a twenty-three-year old force of imprecise nature known as James Dean, that only his tragically-sudden death, after only three motion pictures, deprived him of reinventing (along with Brando, DeNiro, and others) the very foundation of motion picture performance in the following years. The story of the extremely complex relationship James Dean and Nicholas Ray shared throughout the production of Rebel is itself a student / mentor story, at times reversed and always fascinating in its dynamic.

But allow the ‘gossip-whore’ in me to assure all movie star and show business scandal/secret fanatics that this book delivers the goods big time. So much so that, revealing director Ray discovered his 13-year-old son in bed with his second wife Gloria Grahame, the very afternoon the boy had just met her after travelling 3,000 miles across country to visit his father from military school, unannounced, is not being near “spoilish,” as this Oedipal occasion is revealed in the first three pages.

The authors would have a quite satisfying, complete book with just the ‘making of’ story, which takes precisely 219 and 1/2 pages. The 20-page recreation of James Dean’s final days and subsequent reaction to his death gives the book even more gravitas, when it could easily have been dispensed with in a few pages without diluting the original premise. Upon seeing there were another 60 pages left to go, I was a bit wary of getting impatient with all the ‘afterwards’ to follow, and did get a bit restless with a rundown of all the enduring merchandising, subsequent worshiping and continuing popularity of Dean and Rebel product. But not to fear: upon realizing that the authors are telling an equally compelling story of the two surviving stars (Natalie Wood and Sal Mineo) and the very colorful Ray’s final years, I settled back in and enjoyed it just as much as I did the ‘making of Rebel‘ story.

Along the way, we are informed of many worthy-to-ponder psychological and behavioral (both domestic and worldwide) aspects directly influenced by both James Dean and Rebel even to the present time- consider a Chinese billionaire known as ‘The Biggest James Dean Fan’, who spent a few gazillion yen or yang to construct a monument in Dean’s tribute.

The obvious commitmment of Franscella and Weisel to this book is clearly evident, from its evocative reminiscences of scenes as they were being filmed, using very intimate and believable sources, both human and recorded through studio communications records, to the revealing story that may have vanished into obscurity had it not been so poignantly told here, of the African-American actress portraying Sal Mineo’s character’s nanny, a small but essential presence in the film who was all but forgotten in the overall discussions of the movie itself (and beyond).

Personally, I was struck by the incredibly short amount of time between James Dean’s filming of Rebel and his death from a car crash, while in between completing his third and last movie, Giant, with Elizabeth Taylor and Rock Hudson. Rebel‘s final day of shooting was May 27, 1955 – James Dean was killed on September 30, 1955, barely four months later, with only his debut film, East of Eden, having yet been released.

I have Rebel on DVD and will start watching it as soon as this review is finished. I saw bits and pieces of it on TV growing up, but without ever really experiencing the movie. As an example, I fell asleep during the first half hour of A Few Good Men on my initial viewing, before seeing the entire movie later under more ‘appropriate’ circumstances, and have watched it multiple times since – we’re not in the same condition or disposition to watch a movie with any sustained interest every single time.

I did not want to view this movie before I had reviewed the book, but I at least know that, whatever reaction I have towards the actual film, it will not change the the quality and page-turning fun of reading this true labor of love, that covers all the details.

lilfed #CBR5 Review #8: Born Standing Up by Steve Martin


Steve Martin is one of those comedian/actor/all-round indefensibly genius entertainers that reached superstardom in the late seventies, along with Bill Murray and —? — who survived through decades of ever-changing and evolving audiences of adoring fans who faithfully followed their careers through the rest of the 20th century, without ever losing an original admirer, even when they basically weren’t having a career at all. Just showing up on a late-night ‘Letterman’ show or making an appearance at some Hollywood event and doing a 2- or 3-minute monologue was enough to solicit instant thrills from people like me and many others who absolutely loved everything they did, no matter the circumstance. Unlike any other survivor of the ‘SNL’ glory years, like Chevy Chase or Eddie Murphy, their stars never dimmed, their genius and talent never questioned. If Bill Murray never writes an autobiography or appears in another classic movie, he has earned a lifetime ‘pass’ from the countless fans, both young and old, who will always come back to him and fall right into whatever ‘groove’ he happens to be in at the time, looking, laughing and listening to him as long as they’re around to entertain us once in awhile. They both made an occasional misstep, like their dramatic forays in film, ‘Pennies From Heaven’ (Martin) and the remake of ‘The Razor’s Edge’ (Murray), but those were quickly forgotten and forgiven, because we simply could not stop loving them, and they both left such indelible impressions on our younger lives that all but guaranteed their continuing, ‘legendary’ status, in whatever work they originally did, and continue to do.

The similarities pretty much stop right there. Steve Martin enjoyed a popularity that no other stand-up comedian had achieved prior to 1977. Unlike veterans such as Richard Pryor and George Carlin, who consistently made brilliant, award-winning comedy albums that forever cemented their legendary status, both before and after, Steve Martin the Stand-up Comedian had a finite career in that arena that eclipsed every other performer and set a new standard for just how popular a person standing on a stage and making people laugh could be. Martin himself defines the unique superstardom he achieved in Born Standing Up:

“Sixty cities in sixty-three days. Seventy-two cities in eighty days. Eighty-five cities in ninety days. The Coliseum in Richfield, Ohio, largest audience in one day, 18,695. The Chicago International Amphitheatre: twenty-nine thousand people… I played Nassau Coliseum in New York. How many tickets sold? Forty-five thousand… This lightening strike was happening to me, Stephen Glenn Martin, who had started from zero, from a magic act, from juggling in my backyard, from Disneyland, from the Bird Cage, and I was now the biggest concert comedian in show business, ever.”

It’s hard to define just how well-known and universally loved Steve Martin was back in those two to three years of ultimate 70’s ‘hipness’ – regular magazine articles and appearances on the cover of ‘Rolling Stone’, one with James Taylor and Linda Ronstadt, a triad of then-ridiculously famous stars; a debut LP, ‘Let’s Get Small’, the first comedy album to have advance sales of one million copies before it was even released; a feature-film debut just around the corner, ‘The Jerk’, an instant comedy classic that held its own against new blockbusters like ‘Star Wars’ and ‘Jaws’. Adults may have perceived him as silly, gimmicky and impossible to relate to, but there was no class, gender or ethnic group coming forward as actually disliking Steve Martin, so effortlessly inoffensive and original in front of an audience that the idea of any negative commentary holding any weight was non-existent, much as it remains to this day.

But Steve Martin’s unique stature could not be consistent for any length of time, and he was more aware of this conundrum before the rest of us fans were. His second album, ‘Wild and Crazy Guy’, which tripled in sales compared to his first LP, already peaked his popularity while at the same time inaugurating his inevitable decline in the stand-up career he had carefully and meticulously crafted through years of polishing and testing on countless television appearances, as varied as Merv Griffin and Mike Douglas’ daytime variety programs to the ‘plateau’ acknowledged by every performer in show business as the ‘Tonight Show with Johnny Carson’ – if a comedian was successful on Carson’s show, they had nowhere to go but down, and very few of them experienced that circumstance when Carson was the King of Late Night, virtually the only program that a stand-up comic could be seen by millions of viewers in one night.

This reviewer was there, all of 18 – 19 years old, and I had nearly worn out my copy of ‘Let’s Get Small’ when ‘Wild and Crazy Guy’ was released in 1978. The recorded evidence could not be ignored by even the most generous fan: it happens at approximately 30 seconds into the beginning of side two, when an another familiar, intimate comedy club act is abruptly cut into a screaming, disorienting blast of enthusiastic stadium noise from an obviously huge, young and overly-familiar crowd of teenagers and twenty-somethings that are anathema to what any comedy-seeking audience should be. Steve Martin is literally reconstructing his entire performance, adjusting his rhythm, timing and delivery to suit an auditorium that is entirely too large and noisy to risk throwing out a punchline too early for the back rows to hear and too late to achieve any kind of spontaneous, complete reaction that a reasonably small club full of people would provide for the enclosed acoustics of a single microphone, where everyone hears the same thing at the precise same time. Steve Martin was indeed “the biggest concert comedian in show business” – the only problem was that there was too big a concert audience to collectively appreciate the fundamental experience of hearing a joke or routine that could elicit any organic response to the comedian himself, absent of having to react along with the multitude of others who all hear the ‘funny parts’ at split-second intervals apart.

Born Standing Up delivers exactly what Steve Martin means to explain, the life, the inspirations and the practiced efforts that any comedian would identify with in their pursuit of being a successful stand-up comic. It is not an instructional text, but neither is its purpose in doing anything more than merely describing his singular process in how his act, his persona, was conceived and practiced. But in spite of this initially disappointing fact, he still makes it a somewhat fascinating journey through his own life and experiences, and this is what makes the book an interesting read even for those who are not aspiring to a career in stand-up comedy.

He sprinkles tidbits of his complicated relationship with his father, whose approval of Martin’s vocation was never given, and you realize early on that this is a particularly important matter of unresolved preoccupation throughout his life. He maintains consistency in both his personal biography and the various dynamics and revelations that inform his craft, surprisingly honest and straightforward as to the actual inspirations and origins of his most iconic humorous trademarks – the arrow-through-the-head gag he seemingly forgets is even there; the self-deprecating of his own talents even while he’s bragging ludicrously about them; the incorporation of complex philisophical studies as filtered through a clueless thought process. It’s all there for any aspiring comic to gain insight from, and while this makes for an informative study of how a comedian can reach beyond the generic set-up and punchline, how to achieve laughs throughout the dialogue instead of saving it all for the end means, Born Standing Up cannot be recommended for anyone aside from the truly knowledgeable and adoring fan of Martin’s work; there are poignant and almost uncomfortably-recounted familial incidents near the end of the book that are both heartbreaking and satisfying for those who would really just like to get inside this man’s head, if only briefly.

In summary, I rate this book an ‘A-‘ for hardcore fans, and a solid ‘B’ for those who are still familiar with most of his work and want a little history of his life outside of it. If you’re one of those who do not go out of their way to experience every facet of Steve Martin’s long rise to stardom and how he (wisely) chose to abandon stand-up comedy completely, it would be hard to recommend this book.

In closing, I cannot help but quote some of the jokes he lists as having to abandon in order to streamline his act but still loves anyway:

“I think communication is so firsbern.”

“I’m so depressed today. I just found out this ‘death thing’ applies to me.”

“I have no fear, no fear at all. I wake up, and I have no fear. I go to bed without fear. Fear, fear, fear, fear. Yes, ‘fear’ is a word that is not in my vocabulary.”


“I just found out I’m vain. I thought that song was about me.”

Bill Murray is a funny guy as soon as he walks into a room – Steve Martin is too, when he wants to be. But there’s too much talent inside of him to leave it at that.

lilFed’s #CBR5 Review #1 – In My Life: The Brian Epstein Story by Debbie Geller, Edited by Anthony Wall

EpsteinAs an entertainment phenomena of the 20th Century, none is more famous and instantly recognized on this planet than The Beatles, an artistically significant and enduring influential presence in music history alone for half a century now, not to mention a charismatic collective of four insanely young boys whose widespread appeal encompasses young and old, male and female, and multiple musical genres. While many would offer the same attributes to other legendary icons, such as Elvis or Frank Sinatra, highly influential artists who successfully crossed over to simultaneous motion picture popularity, The Beatles’ ever-evolving image and sound was solidly entrenched and maintained in a consistently successful level throughout the group’s entire 7 1/2 year recording career, with only very minor fluctuations in their popularity throughout. Sinatra, though adored by millions, was volatile in personality and too controlling of others to be properly ‘managed’, despite his publicist’s and agent’s most strenuous efforts to keep him out of the gossip columns and tabloids of the time, and in some instances put his own belligerent behavior in circumstances that left him no choice but to humble himself to the public and the industry due to his stubbornness to employ proper career management. On the other end of the spectrum, the young and eager-to-please Elvis had the ubiquitous Colonel Tom Parker to manage his career- straight into the abyss, with musical (and thus, artistic) control dictated by his stern insistence of using only substandard music and lyrics as vacuous as the plots of the assembly-line movies Parker could effortlessly exploit his wholesome young southern boy with, using the cheapest hack songwriters and movie-makers to maximize his own 50% lifetime commission, leaving Elvis no choice but to continue arduous touring that had demands well beyond his physical capability, up to the end of his life just to avoid bankruptcy.

Brian Epstein wasn’t an overly-gifted visionary; a somewhat privileged and pampered child who had few friends his age and was a social outcast mainly by virtue of his over-protective mother, he worked retail in his family’s businesses but never quite grasped the import of economics in successfully operating a truly thriving business that he hadn’t much emotional investment in, he was drawn to the entertainment business early in life, particularly in the realm of Shakespearean stage acting. Though Brian yearned to be a part of the show business community, he was uncomfortably Jewish, inconveniently homosexual in a very repressed early-60’s British society, and aspiring of artistic talent he did not possess. But in this book, there is ample evidence that, but for Brian Epstein’s unnatural persistence and singular determination to produce his own idea of the greatest entertainment entity conceivable, The Beatles may very well have achieved no more than a footnote in pop music history, as so many other bands following in their wake were to be destined for. This idea is not nearly as outrageous as one might think, considering the extraordinary effort he devoted to turning an adequate bar band into a polished performing act that otherwise would never have been able to get the opportunities such compromises required in the days when appearance and professionalism were considered more ‘acceptable’ than simple talent alone.

The facts are as follows: this shy, yet petulant, vainglorious, slightly effeminate, overly- sensitive, occasionally pretentious and previously directionless young man overcame his well-cultivated reserve from an overwhelming erotic fascination and curiosity to express his absolute devotion to a grimy, greasy-haired, leather-clad, hypnotically sexual group of slightly younger Liverpool boys in the only capacity allowable – he molded and refined this undeniably powerful musical force, ‘cleaned them up’ and dressed them in smart suits to help them gain access to a wider audience, teaching them stage mannerisms and behavior that would define their live act for all time; personally visited every single record company to play his boy’s demo tape and try to convince the highly skeptical, stuffy British executives that this ‘beat group’ was going to be the next big musical trend, with countless failures; inadvertently became the most powerful manager in entertainment history, charting a meticulous, previously unthinkable course of world-wide concert and television appearances that dwarfed any other entertainment act in sheer exposure alone; and in the process became so formidable a force that he could have left The Beatles entirely to focus on his own ‘industry’ of musical acts and independent stage productions (his recurrent passion), becoming an indispensable enterpreneur in Britain’s, and the world’s, entertainment industry. All of this before he had yet turned 27 years old.

But his overall makeup was of a lonely, sensitive soul so insecure, so deeply in love with his ‘lads’ and the vicarious pursuit of comparable admiration, that by August of 1967, barely four years after ‘discovering’ them, his reckless abuse of pharmaceuticals to contain emotional extremes and paranoia over the discovery of his “deviant” homosexual activities, along with his lifelong lack of self-worth, had convinced him that The Beatles’ decision to stop touring and abandoning live performances would somehow make him inconsequential to their further advancement, even to the point where he feared the group would fire him for his own perceived irrelevance to any future business prospects. The Beatles, to a man, had never even considered such a scenario, and indeed feared for their own professional future without the all-encompassing security and business acumen that they had always depended on Brian to provide for them.

In My Life is unique merely for its existence: there are precious few insightful biographies dealing specifically with Epstein, a closeted person in more ways than just his sexuality, and Geller’s book has the advantage of actual passages from Brian’s personal diary. However, the most sincere, authentic remembrances are provided by the actual people that knew him. Literally tons of written history on The Beatles has been available for decades after their dissolution in 1970; while the majority of these source’s contributors recognize Epstein as a critical component of The Beatles’ eventual success, much is also tainted with sensational posthulations on his ‘secret life’, conjuring images of a shameful ‘queer’ obssessed with anonymous (and dangerous) sexual encounters with sailors on shore leave and other ‘rough trade’ men, as was termed at the time, creating a sordid image that overshadowed his many brilliant accomplishments. In stark contrast with such portrayals, the contributors presented in this book, giving probably the most accurate and informative insights into this man that we are ever likely to get, are almost without exception in their shared fondness, empathy and support for this unique individual.

With careful, thoughtful editing by Anthony Wall, of interviews and reminiscences by such intimates as his brother Clive and their mother, the group themselves, George Martin, their press manager Derek Taylor, and many others, deeply intimate quotes compiled by Geller, what finally emerges is a satisfactory acknowledgment of how revealing Epstein’s life and the memories shared about this ‘complex’ man truly are, underneath the artifice and veneer he himself was so consistently successful at maintaining in the unscrupulous, cutthroat world of contract negotiations and merchandising agreements that had not yet existed on such a monumental scale. Many, including The Beatles, felt Brian had been pitifully unprepared for such huge business dealings and gave up untold millions of dollars in potential merchandising. In this book, we get a better understanding of a man who knew the power that managing The Beatles gave him; however, his own unique sense of decency and fairness in dealing with this power truly made Brian a stellar exception in the music and entertainment business – it was impossible for anyone to totally dislike him, something Tom Parker, Allen Klein, Robert Stigwood and a host of other music managers could never lay claim to.

Film projects on Epstein’s life are in development – but they should have been done years ago.

This story is as compelling and unique as other peripheral ‘behind-the-scenes’ films of people such as fringe directors like Ed Wood and William Castle, or performance art individuals like Bob Fosse, not to mention scheming, slimy managers like Allen Klein or the Colonel himself – all exploiting artistic mediums, for love or profit, they never had any true understanding of. Parker saw Elvis as a sideshow curiosity whose popularity was fleeting and always on the verge of dissipating overnight, and guided his career accordingly; a man with the vision and commitment of a Brian Epstein could have elevated Presley’s career, and legacy, to heights of artistic excellence beyond imagining.

Brian Epstein was genuinely loved, by so many people and despite all of his human faults. Perhaps the saddest part is that he didn’t leave this world knowing that his own sense of shame was not only recognized by so many, but readily accepted and ultimately inconsequential to those who knew and remember him, both during his life and to this day.

Lennon and McCartney could be absolutely vicious towards Brian at various times, even taunting him in song – they delighted in mischievously changing the lyrics of ‘Baby You’re a Rich Man too’ into ‘Baby you’re a rich fag jew’ at the fadeout as their own private joke – but they were always fully aware of his genuine love in them as people, and his unwavering belief in their talent and potential, even at the beginning when no one else could. And they loved Brian unconditionally in return, much more than he ever realized..

In My Life: The Story of Brian Epstein is required reading for music historians, dedicated Beatles’ fans, and every would-be publicist, agent and aspiring show business manager who sees that the true reward in his vocation is the support he gives, and the affirmation he receives from, the talent he nurtures in the artist’s complete fulfillment of their dreams.