Cleansing the doors of cinematic perception... for a better now

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Happiness is the Birthday of Dean Stockwell!

In honor of Dean Stockwell's birthday, some musings on my two favorite Dean performances (so far):

1. Dave in PSYCH-OUT (1968): 

For me, PSYCH-OUT is the best film ever about what it means to be a drugged-up hippie in a band in the Haight-Ashbury in 1968. Mind you, I wasn't in the Haight in '68, but I was born March 2nd in 1967, three days before Dean's birthday - and became a hippie musician while at school in Syracuse in '86 - which had then (and maybe still does) a huge hippie-deadhead counterculture, so dyslexics and the very very high will appreciate the similarities, which don't end there: As the "Syd Vicious/Barrett"-acid casualty bassist of my band (The Mexican Mud), I played the calm voice of artistic "integrity" to my practical band leader /rhythm guitarist Dave. Imagine my delight in finding my onscreen representation in PSYCH-OUT is named Dave, and played by a young Dean Stockwell wearing a gaudy Native American headband / hair wig (probably the closest thing he could find in the AIP costume closet) and playing the psychedelically enlightened no-longer-in-the-band shaman / Syd Barrett / Brian Jones / Pigpen / me to Jack Nicholson's fame-crazed lead guitarist, Stoney.

We first find Dave living inside a shed on some random downtown roof, where he sits in stoic contemplation of the patterns of light beaming through the box cracks. Free of desire and fear and money is he, hey immediately he starts coming onto Jack's deaf girlfriend, allegedly, the pretty tourist Susan Strasberg. She's come to town to find her brother (Bruce Dern), an early prophet of the sugar cube, lost in the candy-colored clown throngs of the Haight. Stony lays his rap about her brother on Dave, but Dave just keeps his eyes trained on the girl. She's what's important, and we dig the sublime way Stockwell manages to be sincere and moving while hip and disaffected at the same time. Nicholson never could handle that sort of duality, even back then, and his sneering disaffection hangs heavy on him in a straight hippie role. You can feel his revulsion towards it-- that's actorly "conflict" - but Stockwell is resolved --believably beyond pairs of opposites.

Later, after their band's first gig at the Fillmore, Dave shares his drink, liberally spiked with the chemical drug known as STP, with the broken-hearted Strasberg (Stony's left with another woman). Little does Dave know that she's not "experienced" and doesn't realize what she's in for! STP is the advanced master class to LSD's kindergarten, which itself is a master class for any first-timers, and Strasberg's never even taken aspirin! Man, in Corman's THE TRIP, Dennis Hopper knows a chick who takes it all the time, man. Can you believe that? I took it once in the nineties and it damn near killed me... okay I'll tell the story..

It was a sweltering 4th of July afternoon in midtown Manhattan. The street asphalt was melting and sticking to one's shoe. I spent a tiny bit of STP's legendary sixteen hour peak at a party with a guy I swore was Francis Ford Coppola. He thought I was nuts! Nuts like a snail... crawling along... the edge... of a straight razor... Later I beheld the sad soulful eyes of what I thought was an old portly Native American shaman woman, a blob of flesh and white braids poured into a prime real estate balcony fireworks watching chair like she herself was a massive bean bag or half inflated balloon. We shared a deep look and I thought I was some great shaman healer, so I touched the center of her forehead, hoping to activate her third eye with my waves of STP-fueled compassion. She grabbed my hand all of a sudden and yanked me forward and started making out with me! I ran off --in terror --to my host's bedroom --where the ladies' son, a then-relatively well-known lead singer for a white boy funk band (then all the rage) who'd just been signed to Mercury. I didn't know whether to taunt him with it, or just keep my mouth shut... if you know what I mean.

So "ahem"- yeah, no way a newbie like Strasberg could handle it and soon she's on the streets in a fit of hallucinatory insanity, trying to find her LSD-drenched brother Bruce. Before she can get hit by a car Dave gives up his life to save her and later casually notes, "I hope this trip is a good one," right before croaking.

He was some kind of a man.

For Dean Stockwell, at any rate, yes, it's been a hell of a good trip. This man's been in pictures since he was the baby of Nick and Nora Charles!

Here Stockwell was a mere 26 (which lets you know, incidentally he was over 30 in PSYCH-OUT), but he holds his own against Kate Hepburn, Jason Robards and Sir Ralph Richardson as Eugene O'Neil's uber-dysfunctional family of Irish drunks, junkies and theater folk.

Luminous and gorgeous throughout, Dean's the vulnerable core of the film, holding back in group scenes, his eyes glistening with patient love or bewildered acceptance, but emerging in his tet-a-tets with the other family members as O'Neil's character, the young man whose own recently diagnosed tuberculosis prevents his willingness to pretend nothing's wrong, to look the other way at his mom's slide back into morphine abuse or his dad's miserliness. Stockwell projects an impressive mixture of tenderness and impatience, love and disgust, changing on a dime, and the poetic duality-transcendence to bind them all. It's the transcendence that comes as a reward to adults whose childhood was spend growing up around chronic dysfunction. They should show this movie in rehabs!

You can see Stockwell was profoundly influenced by James Dean, in only the best of ways, by which I mean he captures Dean's softness, his playful, gentle spirit and ability to method act from cuddly kitten to brawler on a dime, but adds it to his own lexicon. Stockwell's not the sort of actor to imitate via the superficial trappings (jacket, hair, knife), or to fall into the sway of even the acting titans he shares the JOURNEY stage with. Here he's like James Dean in that you sense the sweet inner child that the veneer of disaffected coolness protects, alternating in doses that show behind the character is the actor and behind the actor... genius.

I could of course go into detail why his role here reminds me of my own life too, but it's less glamorous than with PSYCH-OUT, and hell, well, there you have it. A toast of STP-laced Kool-Aid, to Dean! Happy birthday, magical survivor of the Hollywood grist mill, you perennial Midsummer Night bloom on the tempest-toss'd rosebush of the stars! See you "In dreams!"

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