Hollywood Screenwriter Stewart Stern at the International Rome Film Festival

For fans of film director Nichloas Ray who attended the showing of Francesco Zippel's documentary Hollywood Bruciata: Ritratto di Nicholas Ray on Day 2 of the Rome Film Festival yesterday evening were most likely expecting an evening of respectful homage to a Hollywood legend. Whilst Zippel's interesting, if rather pedestrian documentary reconfirmed the given portrait of him as a brilliant, difficult man, the audience were in for quite a surprise when special guest Stewart Stern, legendary screenwriter of Nicholas Ray's most famous movie Rebel Without a Cause, spilled some less savoury beans about the director's sometimes unscrupulous working methods. Refused an original story credit for the movie, the eighty-nine year old writer has clearly never forgiven Ray for this slight. When asked by hosts Antonio Monda and Mario Sesti about the director's popularity with European audiences, he admitted that he thought such high regard was unwarranted. According to Stern, Nicholas Ray may have aspired to being as great as European directors such as De Sica or Pasolini, but simply wasn't of the same calibre. He did have high praise, however, for Ray's ability to capture the spirit of the times, and in particular, his representation of a postwar generation, which found itself either fatherless or unable to communicate with its traumatized father-figures, adding that Ray had been passionately driven to make Rebel Without a Cause to expiate his own guilt about his inadequacies as a somewhat absent father to his own children.

Stewart Stern's warmest recollections were reserved for some wonderful anecdotes about his first meeting with the iconic actor James Dean, full of those tiny, yet intimate details that bring memories colourfully to life, such as the fact that Dean gave him a strange half smile because he was actually missing his front teeth at the time, or the way that he spun around in the revolving arm chair in which he was sitting, watching his own reflection in a glass window. Fans of Rebel Without a Cause will remember the moment when Jimmy Dean's character Jim Stark moos during the planetarium lecture. What is less known is that this idea came directly from the first time that the screenwriter and actor actually met, when to break the awkward silence Dean let out a moo, and then Stern replied with a bigger, better one of his own. When he retold the story last night, to the delight of the audience, we were also treated to his amazing impressions of a flock of sheep and, finally, three different pigs feeding in a trough together, that he had also shared with James Dean at that first meeting!

Soon after Dean took Stern to a special screening of East of Eden and not since seeing Brando on stage had he seen such inspiring work from an actor. His lasting admiration for James Dean's enormous talent was palpable.

A handful of admirers approached him after the talk and he graciously chatted to us, even signing autographs for the lucky few who were able to get one before the staff rather rudely interrupted us and whisked the star away. The evening was over far too soon – a fascinating raconteur, I could personally have listened to Stewart Stern talk for hours.