Elia Kazan's Private Letters: James Dean 'Has Balls'
This story first appeared in the April 18 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
As he told John Steinbeck, who wrote East of Eden, Kazan struggled to find a male lead for the film adaptation until he saw the then-unknown Dean. Kazan wrote his wife Molly at the same time that "he takes to movies like it was his medium. Like he owned it."
To John Steinbeck
I looked thru a lot of kids before settling on this Jimmy Dean. He hasn't Brando's stature, but he's a good deal younger and is very interesting, has balls and eccentricity and a "real problem" somewhere in his guts, I don't know what or where. He's a little bit of a bum, but he's a real good actor and I think he's the best of a poor field. Most kids who become actors at nineteen or twenty or twenty-one are very callow and strictly from N.Y. Professional school. Dean has got a real mean streak and a real sweet streak.
I had an awful time with the girl. Terrible. The young girls are worse than the young boys. My god, they are nothing. Nothing has happened to them or else they're bums. Abra is a great part. I hope you don't die now. I want to use Julie Harris. Do you think I'm nuts? The screen play depends so on her last scene with Adam and on her strength, that I have to have a real, real actress. I couldn't find one aged twenty. They're nothing. Proms, dresses, beaus and all that, but nothing for my last scene. Finally I made a photographic test of Julie and she looks twenty when her face is in movement, I think. I'll just have to keep her face in movement. She's a marvelous actress. She is not Abra the way we saw her, but jeezuz I was stuck.
One pro thing. She and Jimmy Dean look fine together. They look like People, not actors. I'm real pleased with that part of it. Two people. Dean has the advantage of never having been seen on the screen.
Excerpted from THE SELECTED LETTERS OF ELIA KAZAN, edited by Albert J. Devlin with Marlene J. Devlin. copyright © 2014 by FrancesKazan published by Arrangement with Alfred A. Knopf, An imprint of the Knopf DoubledAy publishing group, A division of Random House LLC