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“Whoa, what a change this character went through: Brando to Dean, man to teenager,” says former LA Times film critic Sheila Benson, who studied acting with James Dean, a close friend, before he was cast as a Brando type in 1953’s East of Eden and in 1955’s Rebel.
Did Brando, in 1947 a 23-year-old stage star awaiting his movie break, nearly get the same role that made Dean immortal?
“No,” Rebel screenwriter Stewart Stern tells THR. Stern, an Emmy winner and Oscar nominee who now teaches at The Film School in Seattle, explains that the script Brando read from has nothing to do with the eventual Nicholas Ray film with Dean. “It’s oranges and apples,” says Stern. “I heard that there was a test that Marlon did, but Nick had no interest in that.”
In 1947, when Dean was still scaring cows in Fairmount, Indiana, by chasing them on his first motorcycle, a Czech Whizzer, and starring in high school plays (including the role of Frankenstein in Goon With the Wind), Brando did the screen test for Warner Bros. The studio had bought a 1944 book by Robert M. Lindner, Rebel Without a Cause: The Hypnoanalysis of a Criminal Psychopath, about hypnotizing a Lewisberg, Pennsylvania penitentiary inmate named Harold, who under hypnosis said he’d seen his parents copulate when he was less than one year old. Lindner thought this caused his hatred of his father, transferred to hatred of society. People thought this helped explain the brewing youth revolution. Besides, as THR reported in 1946 (when Warner optioned the book), with Hitchcock‘s Spellbound breaking box office records and hits like Leave Her to Heaven and Lost Weekend, “Everyone in Hollywood is on a psychopathic binge.” Writers including Peter Viertel and Dr. Seuss tried to turn Lindner’s book into a script. Brando did the screen test for the film version but turned down a $3,000 a week offer from Warner’s Hal Wallis. (Later, he turned down roles in Lawrence of Arabia and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.)
“I had read Lindner’s book before, because it was interesting to me to read about all those kids,” says Stern. “It was named Rebel Without a Cause for one chapter of the book. It has nothing to do with the film that came out of it. The only reason the movie had that name was that when Nick came up with the idea to do a story about troubled youth, the studio told them they had this book lying around. It was a nice title, why not use it? They just slapped it on because they liked the sound of it. The book itself just went down the tubes, because that’s not what Nick wanted to do.”
Other actors reportedly considered for the Rebel lead roles include Tab Hunter, Jayne Mansfield, Carroll Baker, Debbie Reynolds and Lois Smith.
What would Rebel Without a Cause have been like if Marlon Brando had been the star? Would Stern have written the part differently? “It’s unknowable,” says Stern.
“Screen tests are usually such awful indicators of…anything,” says Benson. “But it’s so interesting to see in this one how well theater-trained Brando adapted to the small shifts in emotion that a camera could pick up. He lets it see his thoughts change, as his mind does, and he gives it time, he doesn’t rush. The funniest thing is after the scene, as Brando is asked about his stage experience. Check out that quick roll of his eyes when he says he was in Eagle Rampant with (his eyes go upward) the voracious Tallulah Bankhead. Volumes.”
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