On Rebel without a Cause: A Conversation with Stewart Stern

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Stewart Stern was raised in New York City, and after graduating Phi Beta Kappa from the University of Iowa he served in the U.S. Army during World War II. After a stint on Broadway and a beginning in Hollywood he returned to New York to write for live television before resuming his screenwriting career. The first of his Hollywood screenplays was Fred Zinnemann's Teresa (1951), for which he was nominated for an Academy Award, and his next feature was Nicholas Ray's Rebel Without a Cause (1955) starring James Dean and Natalie Wood. His subsequent films, all marked by his characteristic emotional and psychological intensity, include The Rack (1956) starring Paul Newman; The James Dean Story (1957), a documentary co-directed by Robert Altman; The Ugly American (1963) starring Marlon Brando; and Paul Newman's Rachel, Rachel (1968) starring Joanne Woodward, which also received an Academy Award nomination for screenwriting. He also wrote the Oscar-winning short Benjy (1951) directed by Fred Zinnemann, and the highly regarded teleplay Sybil (1976) starring Sally Field. No longer writing for film, Stewart Stern has lived since 1986 in Seattle, Washington, with his wife, Marilee.

BAER: You always felt that it was a party at Gene Kelly's house in 1954 that helped you get the writing assignment for Rebel Without a Cause.

STERN: That's right. At the time, I was living in New York, and I'd come out to L.A. for Christmas vacation and was taken to Gene's party by my cousin Arthur Loew, Jr. Marilyn Monroe was there, and Nick Ray, Stanley Donen, Adolph [Green] and Betty [Comden], and others. The usual Gene Kelly crowd. At one point that night, as they were planning to play charades, Nick Ray, whom I'd never met before, came over and said that he'd seen my first film, Fred Zinnemann's Teresa, and that he liked it very much. Then he said, "Maybe you'd like to come out to the studio and talk some time?" Or something like that. What I didn't know was that Lenny Rosenman, who'd done the score for East of Eden, and who was a friend and roommate of Jimmy Dean's in New York, had talked to Nick about me because Nick was having script problems with Rebel-which Irving Shulman was writing at the time. I also didn't know that Jimmy, whom I'd only met a few days before the Kelly party, had also talked to Nick about me. So Nick got interested, screened Teresa, and decided to approach me at the party. Eventually, I went to Warner Brothers, talked things over with Nick, and was given the job.

BAER: Rebel had a long studio history before you came on the project. The title came from an actual case study of a disturbed young man written by Dr. Robert Lindner in 1944. Three years later, Warner Brothers bought the screen rights, and Marlon Brando was contracted to play the lead. The studio, however, never followed through. But after the box office success of The Wild One, Warners' approved a completely different project about ` juvenile delinquency" that was suggested by Nick Ray and given the title of Lindner's book. When the novelist Leon Uris wrote an unsatisfactory screenplay, Irving Shulman, the author of The Amboy Dukes, was hired to do a second version. But Ray was still dissatisfied, and he made up his mind to "get a young, beginning writer," and you were hired to do a brand new script. Apparently, you never read the Uris script. Was the Shulman version very useful?

STERN: It wasn't useful until it was clear that I didn't have to use it. The reason is that Irving and I had very different sensibilities. At the time, I was in my eighth year of therapy, and I was "hot" with it. Everything seemed psychologically motivated to me, and there was very little of that kind of psychological approach in Irving's script. I also couldn't identify with the kids in his script; they seemed awfully macho to me, and I was always afraid of the macho guys in high school. So I had a very different perspective, and I wanted to go in a different direction. …