Everyone’s seen this East of Eden audition clip in which Paul Newman was trying for the role of Aaron, the older brother of Cal (i.e., James Dean‘s role). It’s clear who the more delicate and vulnerable actor is. Newman has that jokey-gruff streetcorner thing down as a covering mechanism while Dean is a bit more open to whatever. He obviously senses this, and so he throws Newman a line he knows will tap him off-balance.
You can see Dean’s idea beginning to happen around the eight-second mark. At the 14-second mark he says “kiss me” and Newman quickly says “can’t hear.” They both laugh it off, but it’s obvious that if Newman had been receptive Dean would have been the woman in the relationship. I mean that in a complimentary way.
A year or so later Dean had landed the role of Rocky Graziano in Somebody Up There Likes Me. Newman got the part, of course, after Dean’s car-crash death in September 1955.
The Robert Wise-directed boxing drama came out in December 1956. I saw it sometime in the mid ’90s. It hasn’t aged well. Newman’s dese-dom-dose accent feels conspicuously “acted” each and every second. The film has moments (the ones with Pier Angeli, the final fight scene) but it mainly feels too “scripted” in the then-popular vein of ’50s televised drama. It’s a little too sentimental, emotionally underlined, on-the-nose.
If Dean had played Graziano, though, it would probably have a more elevated reputation today. Who cares about this movie today?
Bottom line: in the mid ’50s Dean was twice if not three times the actor that Newman was. Newman found a more naturalistic, less-actorish groove starting with his legendary performance in Hud in ’63, and for all we know Dean, had he lived, might not have grown or developed as successfully. But in the mid ’50s Dean was the live-wire hare and Newman was…well, not a tortoise but a hare who hadn’t yet figured himself out.