Tuesday, July 7

A Brief Stay as the New James Dean

If you know who Christopher Jones is, you must really know your movie stuff.  He only made seven movies.  He was going to shuck it all after every one of them but didn't until he made the sixth and best of them all.  Then he said goodbye and most of the public heard nothing of him for 26 years when he came back for one more film.  Again he vanished and we heard nothing more until his death last year.  Who was this enigmatic creature?  Let's see what we can get into.

One of the most astonishing things about him is his physical resemblance to James Dean and he captured a few of the 1950s actor's other traits too.  I thought they looked so much alike they could have been related and I, in fact, took notice of Jones because he so resembled the earlier actor who I was so drawn to.  Jones agreed that he looked like Dean but he was told that he looked liked Elvis as well and he preferred that comparison.

He was born in Tennessee in 1941 to a grocery clerk and an aspiring artist.  The family lived in cramped quarters over the store in which the father worked.  His mother was a fragile soul who one day in 1945 put a gun to her husband's head because she believed he was cheating.  He reacted by putting her in a mental institution where she died in 1960.  Jones said he could remember her holding him once but could not recall what she looked like.

The father could not care for his sons.  He split them up and Jones went to live with an aunt.  A couple of years later they were reunited in Boys Town in Memphis where Jones would remain until he was 16.  One day before he left, a man in charge gave him a magazine which featured James Dean on the cover and told him how much he looked like the actor.  While Jones agreed, he was more impressed by the late actor's passion for hot cars and defying authority.  It was interesting that he was nearly a model kid at Boys Town, but that would soon change.

He went to see Dean in East of Eden and Rebel Without a Cause and it ignited a turbulence in him.  He became more smitten with Dean, he yearned to identify as a rebel and he fell in love with the movies and decided one day he would become an actor.

He reunited with his father for a spell and during that time Jones impulsively enlisted in the Army.  He realized within a day or two that he would never be able to tolerate the strictness or the regimentation and he went AWOL.   Stealing a car, he headed for Indiana and James Dean's family home.  The family had become accustomed to the knock on the door from strangers but when they saw Jones, they could scarcely contain their enthusiasm over the resemblance.  They allowed Jones to spend time in Dean's bedroom and took him on a tour of the property where various stories came spilling out about the young Dean.  They were thrilled that Jones wanted to become a big movie star.  The experience was one Jones would always hold near and dear.

He went on to conquer New York but a new friend talked him into giving himself up for his various infractions and Jones spent six months in prison.  When he got out, he lived for a while on the streets and took up hustling and any other task that might provide some money.  That same new friend introduced him to painting and, like his mother, he developed a life-long passion for it.  He began studying acting with a former actor, Frank Corsaro, who had also been a friend of Dean's.  Corsaro introduced Jones to classical music, just as he had with Dean, and it, too, became a passion.

One can only speculate how he got into the prestigious Actors Studio, a place that turned away far more people than it accepted.  Everyone told him that he had the looks and the potential to fill the large shoes of James Dean and that included, Susan Strasberg, daughter of Lee, the head of the studio.  Both Strasbergs had known Dean pretty well.  Jones and Lee Strasberg were completely wary of one another.  Strasberg thought Jones was undisciplined (a trait he could not, would not, endure in anyone) and a punk and Jones thought Strasberg had lost whatever he was supposed to have had to run a dramatic school.  Of course, Jones also hated being told what to do.

He landed a small part (with James Farentino) as the cabana boys for Shelley Winters' hotel in Broadway's The Night of the Iguana.  Winters, Jones, Farentino and another up-and-coming actor, Alex Cord, became inseparable.  Winters liked 'em young and Jones didn't have many sexual rules.

Actually, he didn't have too many rules... period.  And he resisted anyone's attempts to rein him in.  He began seeing Susan Strasberg more regularly and even though she was somewhat frightened of him and found him to be a daredevil and a showoff, the impulse to try and change him was strong.  He thought Susan looked a great deal like his mother from a picture of her that he kept.  When Susan discovered that she was pregnant, they got married.

By this time they were in California where Jones signed on with 20th Century Fox to star in a TV series about Jesse James.  He showed lots of promise and the part fit him like a glove but he was troublesome.  His opinions on how things should be done and how Hollywood was run by idiots knew few boundaries.  The series would last only one season. 

It got around town that Jones had more fan mail at Fox than any male actor since the popular Tyrone Power and that is a fact that could not go unnoticed.  Temperament be damned, he looked and acted like James Dean, on and off the screen, and all those suits Jones hated could see was money, money, money.

In 1967 he appeared in his first film, Chubasco.  Improbably, that was Jones's character's first name.  He played a young man who wanted to learn the fishing business and did so on the boat of his girlfriend's father, who despises him.  His wife played the girlfriend.  I saw it for the first a month ago and while it's appeal is strictly Jones, I didn't find it to be so bad.

By the next year, he and Strasberg were acrimoniously divorced and he was starring in Wild in the Streets, a film for which he is remembered well by those who were under 30 at the time.  A minor cult classic, Jones plays a social miscreant who gains political influence as the leader of a popular counter-culture band.  His objective is to get teenagers voting rights and to put everyone over 30 in a camp.  Shelley Winters was his mother.  His reputation as a weirdo, unappreciative of all that Hollywood had to offer, also applied to his costar, Diane Varsi.  Hollywood remained wary but Jones' popularity could not be denied.  Still, he gave interviews carping that moviemaking wasn't as fun as he thought it would be. 

He was immediately shoved into Three in the Attic, a silly bit of fluff about three young women who discover they are dating the same man and decide to keep him locked in an attic and teach him a lesson.  Jones and Yvette Mimieux seemed to have all the right stuff but the film was forgettable.

Someone decided it was time to put Jones in an important film.  It was decided John le Carre's spy novel, The Looking Glass War, was just the ticket.  I've never seen it although I have wondered how Jones fared alongside the likes of Ralph Richardson and a young Anthony Hopkins.  I do know the film wasn't the success that was hoped for.

With Anthony Hopkins in "The Looking Glass War"

The randy actor apparently enjoyed a brief liaison with costar Susan George and began a longer one with leading lady Pia Degermark.  At the same time, accompanying him on location was Pamela Courson, who was the girlfriend of The Doors' Jim Morrison.  Hey, it was the swinging 60s... pass the Lavoris-filled bong.  Light my fire.  Someone grab the munchies.  Cue the music.  Far out.  Who's around here to make love to?  Jones may not have loved the moviemaking process but he was not oblivious to the fine perks.

In 1969 he made his fifth film... are you counting?  It was A Brief Season, his least-known of all his first six films.  Filmed in Italy, it again costarred Degermark and was likely done to be able to spend more time with her.  He also spent some mysterious time in a hospital, delaying the film.  Apparently Jones found working with Italians no better than working with Americans.  Was there anyone in this world who could make a decent movie?  Was he destined to work with idiots?  I recall the film not well, rather unremarkable except that Jones gave a blazing performance.  Actually, I could say that about all of his work so far... varying degrees of so-so films but I could not take my eyes off him.  No doubt it was the bad boy thing but I never got much of a chance to find out.

After Degermark, he managed a love affair with the Romeo and Juliet actress, Olivia Hussey.  It didn't work out and she rushed off and married Dean Martin's son.  When he was questioned about why he was in and out of so many relationships, he responded with my manhood is my soul.

In 1970 he worked in what I consider to be a minor masterpiece, Ryan's Daughter.  There are some things about it that are simply perfect.  One of those is a director who was one of the best, David Lean, an expert in turning out visually-stunning films.  One thing that was not perfect was Jones.  Here he was in his best film and failed to give a performance worthy of it.  To say actor and director didn't get along is an understatement, although they had fleeting moments when it looked like they might become begrudging work pals.  Lean, however, could be fussy.  His endless takes and tinkering with things were regarded as pointless by some of his actors and he annoyed the hell out of Jones.  Jones, in turn, could be wildly disrespectful.

With Sarah Miles.... now this scene required acting

The actor also didn't get on with his leading lady, Sarah Miles.  To be fair, she wasn't always popular on film sets either, so the pairing was bound to be combustible.  Too bad they had to play adulterous lovers... but good for us.  I loved their scenes together.  She was the spirited wife of an older man (exquisitely rendered by Robert Mitchum in his most unusual role) on a rural Irish cliff side and Jones was a dashing but shell-shocked British officer.  Jones and Miles could have had better chemistry, however, an outdoor love scene I recall with utter clarity as we speak... um, write.

During the making of the film, Jones had a nervous breakdown.  Visiting him on the Irish coast was Sharon Tate, the wife of director Roman Polanski.  She and Jones began a hot affair and he would later claim that he loved her.  He didn't usually say that about the women with whom he was involved.  When her infamous murder occurred, Jones was so far away and he went a little bit mad.  Everything he ever hated about Hollywood could be summed up in the death of his girlfriend.  (He was equally devastated at the death of his friend, Jim Morrison.)  He always vowed to quit the movies... and now he would.

He would say in a 1996 interview... I had done three pictures in a row in Europe and had so many love affairs . I was exhausted.  I was tired, man

Maybe so.  But it's also possible, quite possible actually, that the movies quit him.  The James Dean-lookalike thing can only carry one so far.  He constantly disrupted film sets and badmouthed movie execs to anyone who would listen.  He was in a big picture for an important director and his acting did not impress.  It wouldn't be much of a stretch to suppose that Hollywood quit him.  But I've never seen that written.  It's gone down that Christopher Jones kissed the movie business goodbye.  Maybe so.

In his rather skewed view of live, he lived any way he could, mainly in squalor along the Sunset Strip.  He embraced drugs and sex and music until one day he apparently desired more respectability.  He took up painting with a vengeance.  Sculpting, too, and it's been said he made a living at it for the rest of his life.  I can see him puffing on a joint, classical music on the headset, wine on the table, brush to the canvass or molding the clay at his beach home.  After his daughter with Strasberg, he had six more children, four of them with his last partner.

In 1994 Quentin Tarantino offered Jones a small part in Pulp Fiction, but the former actor declined. Away from the limelight, he
apparently especially enjoyed being a father.  When a former coworker offered him a part in 1996 in a film called Mad Dog Time, surprisingly Jones accepted.  His was 17th billed.  I'd never heard of the film until I started writing this.

It would be 18 more years before Christopher Jones' name popped up again.  That would be last year when I heard that he died of cancer.  There would be no more James Dean... again.

Next posting:
A good 60s movie

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