"The Greening of Dean Stockwell,
or Married to the Job"
by Michael Dare
date of publication unknown (1988 sometime?)
If you've ever wondered what sort of films James Dean might have made if he'd only bought a Ford instead of a Porsche, take a took at the films of Dean Stockwell. They have nothing in common except the fact that he's in them, but he's such a strong spice to introduce into any stew that his simple presence usually permeates the whole picture.
From mop haired tyke to troubled teen to outrageous adult, nobody's career is as much fun to trace. Who was the son of Nick and Nora Charles in Song of the Thin Man (1947)? Who was the runaway kid that wanted to join the navy with Gene Kelly and Frank Sinatra in Anchor's Away? After a career spanning five decades, Dean Stockwell has just found his dream part, a comic extravaganza that finally allows audiences to laugh at someone they normally take very seriously. Mobster Tony "The Tiger" Russo in Married to the Mob is a rollicking hysterical tour-de-force in which, like DeNiro in Midnight Run, Stockwell proves that he was a comedian all along.
It took an adventurous director like Jonathan Demme to finally given him the opportunity to be funny. Stockwell has done comedy before, in Home Sweet Homicide (at the age of 8) and The Green Years (at the age of 11), but since then it's been a gradual slide from movie star to character actor. Now he's at the center of a film again and no one could be happier.
"Married to the Mob is a traditional, if not classic story done in a highly individual way," said Stockwell on the last legs of a publicity tour he's obviously enjoying. "Jonathan Demme took a real chance casting me. I wasn't the first person that occurred to him. He was going in a whole other direction when he saw a picture of me in Variety. I had put in a full page ad because I changed agents. Demme saw it while he was casting, and it changed his mind."
I wasn't with Stockwell for more than 30 seconds before he gave me that look, the one I'd seen dozens of times on the screen. It's mysterious and powerful, a sudden widening of the eyes, as though he's clearing his contacts or simply spacing out, but it feels like he's staring through you, like you just said something incredibly stupid or enlightening, and he's either impressed or stupefied that you could have said such a thing. It's a look that's frightening in it's implications and ultimately fascinating in it's ambiguity. Only movie stars can give you a look like that, and Dean Stockwell is still a movie star, as his work in Married to the Mob proves unequivocally.
Dean Stockwell was born in 1936 in North Hollywood to Broadway performers who put him on stage at the age of seven. Two years later, the cute little curly-haired tyke showed up in Anchors Away (1945) with Frank Sinatra and Gene Kelly, where he imagined the entire Tom and Jerry animated dance number. In two more years, he appeared as Gregory Peck's serious-minded son in Gentlemen's Agreement, where he got to speak the immortal line "Dad, what's anti-semitism?"
He emerged as a full blown movie star in The Boy with Green Hair (1948), a surreal exercise in anti-war sentiment. In it, he plays a serious and troubled lad who cuts off all his hair when it turns green. The film is pretentious and very bizarre, full of fantasy sequences and musical numbers, but there's one scene where some kids run up to him and ask if he wants to play. Stockwell says "I don't care," then turns to the camera and lets us know that he really does care. This ability to bare yourself to the camera without tipping it off to those within the film is the true essence of screen acting, and Stockwell unquestionably was a master of it when he was only twelve.
In the '50s and '60s he graduated to adult roles, including one of the kidnappers in Compulsion (1959), and the dark brooding soul of Eugene O'Neill in Long Day's Journey Into Night, where we get to watch him spend three hours observing the wretched emotional excesses of his hysterical family. No laughs here.
During the '70s Hollywood ignored him, so he spent his time doing dinner theater. His specialty in the '80s has been taking very small parts and intensifying the hell out of them. He's become the ultimate character actor, giving sly kinko twists to a wide variety of small parts in Beverly Hills Cop II, Blue Velvet, Dune, Paris, Texas, and Gardens of Stone.
Listen to his dialogue in To Live and Die in L.A. and you'll hear the sincerely mundane words of an honest lawyer. But watch Dean Stockwell's face and you know he's the lowest con-man, lying through his teeth. Listen to his dialogue in Married to the Mob and you'll hear a conniving murderous mafioso without the slightest hint of morality. Watch Dean Stockwell's face and you see a gracious heartsick jokester that you can't help but love. When you look at his later character parts, it's hard to imagine how anyone can exude such class and such sleaze at the same time. You're not quite sure about him, but you know you like him, despite the fact you're sure he's the bad guy. It's that air of mystery that makes Stockwell so suitable for such a wide variety of parts.
As Howard Hughes in Francis Coppola's Tucker and as Ben in David Lynch's Blue Velvet, he creates unforgettable characters out of mere minutes of screen time. I simply couldn't imagine how he was cast in such a strange parts. "I don't have this big stack of scripts to choose from," he explained. "I don't know how to pursue parts. The one's I've done are the ones that have come: It's a job and I do it. I feel very fortunate and lucky to have gotten involved in such interesting projects with these wildly divergent characters."
What about the pansexual druggie in Blue Velvet? "The whole script of Blue Velvet was surprising, but the part itself wasn't because there was no description of him. I just made it up. David said 'what do you think about doing Ben?' I had done Dune with David, and I felt that in some strange way I understood his vision. Apparently I do because I knew just where that character should go and I knew it would be to his liking."
His primary concern once they actually start shooting isn't communication with the director or the crew or even with the other actors. "It's the machine. The location of the lens, what kind of lens, where it's pointing, how wide or close the shot is, all of those technical things. That's really where movie acting is at. I don't like to use something that I don't need. I just stick with the way I've always worked, which is intuitive. When I was a kid, working for Elia Kazan in Gentlemen's Agreement, he had his own particular way of working, and I had this whole emotional thing I had to go through. I found myself forced to just stand there and nod, going uh-huh, uh-huh, and let him say whatever he had to say. Then I'd forget all that stuff and just do it my way."
"In Long Day's Journey into Night, we rehearsed the whole play for four weeks before we started shooting, because we were, in effect, filming a play. But I normally hate rehearsing films, and I avoid it like the plague. A decision has to be made as to how the actors are going to be situated physically in the location, how they're going to move, where and when they're going to move, whether the moves are furthering the action or whether they're superfluous, whether they're in synch with what the camera can capture, what's going to be expected of the camera, whether it's going to dolly or zoom or pan, where all the microphones are going to have to be, where there are going to be shadows, whether it's impossible to shoot in this direction if the actor moves there because you've got a mike shadow. A million technical things have to be considered when you give shape to a scene, and I don't mind going through that procedure at all. White it's going on, sometimes I find wonderful little nuances that I know I can put into the scene itself. For me, that's the rehearsal. But when it gets to the point that all of that is settled, if the director says let's rehearse it a couple of times, that's when I start yawning. I'm ready to go."
Evidently he's been ready to go for a long time. Stockwell was ready to do richer stuff, something with fuller screen time, and Married to the Mob gives it to him. "It's the favorite role I've ever done," says Stockwell. "I've never enjoyed playing a part more."