'Rebel Without a Cause' Screenwriter Stewart Stern Dies at 92

AP Images
Stern with actress Joanne Woodward in 1989.

The writer earned two Oscar nominations and an Emmy Award during the course of his career.

Rebel Without a Cause screenwriter Stewart Stern died on Feb. 2 at Seattle's Swedish Hospital after battling a brain tumor, the Writers Guild of America, West announced on Friday. He was 92.

A family statement cited by the WGAW said that Stern was "surrounded by the next generation of filmmakers and screenwriters he had mentored and inspired, as well as friends and family who came from all parts of the country for a two-week vigil before his death."

Stern earned Oscar nominations for Teresa (1952) and Rachel, Rachel (1969) and an Emmy Award for Sally Field's 1976 multi-personality hit Sybil. He was close friends with Rebel star James DeanPaul Newman, whom he fought to cast in 1956's The Rack; and Marlon Brando, for whom he wrote the WGA Award-nominated 1963 film The Ugly American. (Stern earned four WGA noms and one win, for 1978's A Christmas to Remember.)

When he first met the standoffish Dean, Stern bonded with him by mooing like a cow. Delighted, Dean mooed right back (which his character also does in the Planetarium scene in Rebel Without a Cause) in an impromptu competition to imitate farm animals. "That's what got me the job writing Rebel," Stern told THR for a 2013 article that explained how Dean wound up starring in the epochal film instead of Brando, who auditioned for it.

 

"Aside from being the most elegant, caring, giving and soulful man, Stewart was one of the most talented screenwriters in Hollywood," says director Dan Ireland, who discovered Jessica Chastain and Renee Zellweger and directed a 1998 uncensored version of Stern's Rebel script screened at the Sundance Screenwriters Lab that featured a more intense relationship between the Dean character Jim and Plato (played by Sal Mineo onscreen) than Warner Bros. permitted in the film. "It was incredibly intimate," says Ireland.
 
The key to Stern's character and influential achievement was his lifelong obsession with Peter Pan, on whom Dean's rebel antihero was based. "Natalie Wood is Wendy, Jimmy is Peter Pan and Sal is all the Lost Boys," Stern told THR. "All my scripts are in some way autobiographical."
 
Stern felt like a Lost Boy from the day he was born in New York, thanks to a cold mother like the one he wrote for 1973's Summer Wishes, Winter Dreams, which starred Joanne Woodward. His doctor father, who ran Paramount's medical department, felt defeated and overshadowed by his boss Adolph Zukor (Stern's mother's brother-in-law). In a chilling scene in Jon Steven Ward's 2006 documentary about Stern's career, Going Through Splat, Stern listens to a tape of his mother saying she had wanted to abort him because his existence would hurt her creative career.
 
He found more warmth in friendships with his fellow high-school art student Diane Arbus and his best friend and cousin, Arthur Loew Jr. Stern grew up playing Peter Pan on the estate of the movie theater chain-owning Loews and the fancier Zukor estate, where Mary Pickford, D.W. Griffith and Charles Chaplin often visited. It was cousin Loew who invited Stern to the 1954 Christmas party at Gene Kelly's house attended by Marilyn Monroe, Stanley Donen and — fatefully — Rebel director Nicholas Ray.
 
Though Ray cheated him out of a story credit on Rebel, so that he, not Stern, got the Oscar for it, Stern knew how influential their film was. "The '60s came out of that movie as much as anything else, in terms of the idea of finding one's own alternative family," Stern told critic Misha Berson in 1996. "I mean, what was the Woodstock Festival if not the old mansion that Jimmy and his friends retreat to in Rebel?" Stern was more supportive of young talent than Ray was: in 1957, he wrote The James Dean Story for ambitious, unknown director Robert Altman 
 
Despite his success and intimate connections with Hollywood, the angsty Stern was often unhappy there. "I was happier in the Army than I was in Hollywood," he told film historian William Baer in 1999. That is amazing, since the Army sent Stern to the Battle of the Bulge, where he won a Bronze Star, had to kill three Germans and suffered severe frostbite that hurt him for the rest of his life. "He was a troubled person," said Dennis Hopper, another Stern friend. 

"I grew sick to death of talking about nothing but movies and being part of a community where film was more important than anything else in life — and where the movies became more and more about other movies and less and less about real life," Stern told Baer. "Writing on assignment, with lots of money handed to you before you even began, got very scary for me," he told Berson. "My dread of not being perfect, something I got from a childhood surrounded by powerful, successful people, began to infect everything I wrote." He developed writer's block and quit accepting assignments.

At age 60, Stern found happiness by marrying Marilee Stiles, a ballerina discovered by George Balanchine. An analysand like the sensitive Stern, she suffered from dissociative identity disorder (the Sybil illness) and, like him,  dealt with her issues in art: The New York Times hailed her as "one of the most interesting of contemporary outsider artists to emerge in recent years."

When she got a job teaching at Seattle's Balanchine-inspired Pacific Northwest Ballet, the Sterns sold their Mandeville Canyon home and moved to Seattle permanently. "I'm happier here in Seattle because I'm involved in real things, like my work at the zoo helping the gorillas," Stern told Baer.

But Stern remained influential in movies, teaching writing at the University of Washington and The Film School, which he founded with Tom Skerritt, Warren Etheredge and Robert Redford protege Rick Stevenson, who cast Hugh Grant in his first film, Privileged. "He was my Yoda," says Stevenson of Stern, who taught more than 1,000 screenwriters in Seattle while continuing to write his own scripts. 

"Actors loved and depended on him," says Ireland, "smart directors loved him — apparently he drove a few of them batty with detail — but bottom line, he worked for the same people more than once. His legacy in this industry is celebrated with every viewing of one of his wonderful films."

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