Happy Birthday, Dean Stockwell

I’ve been paying tribute to him on his birthday for 15 years or something insane like that. I need to take a moment to reflect on my own “relationship” to him and his work. He was really important to me, not just as an actor, but in terms of my writing, and how – without meaning to, without trying – carved out my own lane in the crowded field of film criticism. He did that. Or, he inspired that. I didn’t write so much about him in ORDER to carve out my own lane, it’s just how it happened.

When Dean Stockwell died in 2021, I wrote the tribute for Ebert. I was upset, but I was ready. I had been preparing myself for it.

The Mystery Was the Point: On the Life of Dean Stockwell (1936-2021)

Normally I don’t link to pieces referencing MOI, but David Hudson – whose column The Daily over at Criterion is a daily pitstop – used my obituary as his organizing principle for his great roundup of pieces about Stockwell. I was truly touched. Thank you, David.

Here is the first piece I wrote about him, years ago, in the first wave of my obsession, for Matt Seitz’s blog “House Next Door”, now looped into Slant. I wrote a career retrospective (Matt set up a “5 for the Day” series, where you wrote about 5 specific roles in an actor’s career).

5 for the day: Dean Stockwell.

I was so pleased to write for the great Film Comment magazine an essay on Dean Stockwell’s wonderful and tormented performance in Compulsion. (My first time in the magazine proper.) The piece is not online, but here it is. Isn’t it pretty?

I miss knowing he’s still out there.


Here I am with him in Taos, at that party for him which I blatantly crashed.

Thank you so much for stopping by. If you like what I do, and if you feel inclined to support my work, here’s a link to my Venmo account. And I’ve launched a Substack, Sheila Variations 2.0, if you’d like to subscribe.

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14 Responses to Happy Birthday, Dean Stockwell

  1. Bob says:

    Dean was always in the background for me until you pointed him out. I LOVE when people do that. I had to re-watch all of his stuff, and such pleasures are rare in this life. Thank you.

  2. Jessie says:

    I watched Compulsion last night on the strength of your rec here, and I thought it was fab! Thank you! Just my kind of thing. I had a true-crime book when I was a kid and the L&L story always freaked me out. They always looked so insouciant in the photographs. And I’ve also read a little on queer cinema, and watched Celluloid Closest a bunch as a teen, and if Compulsion was ever mentioned I don’t remember it. Rope of course was. Is Compulsion a B movie in comparison? That music at the start! I thought it was going to be a horror movie about delinquent teens for a while there. But then they get home and Stockwell is just so intense and you can see that’s not what’s going on.

    I thought Stockwell was fantastic. He’s not playing repression, as such, which would be the obvious go-to — he’s conflicted but he’s not repressed, he’s just tightly wound. But he knows what gets him going, and he’s accepted it. I really missed him in the last third. I enjoyed Wells’s somnambulism of course but I wish there had been a little more follow-up on the relationship. You can tell that Stockwell is avoiding looking at Dillman, and there’s that moment when they laugh (they LAUGH!) together but really the whole thing is handed over to Wells.

    Anyway thanks for the rec!

    • sheila says:

      Jessie – so psyched you watched! It’s really an interesting film, isn’t it? I loved The Celluloid Closet but if I recall correctly this film isn’t mentioned – I would have to double-check. It’s really quite explicit for the time – the one scene that suggests at the sexual nature of their relationship (“would it help if I … ordered you to do it?” or something along those lines) – and Stockwell’s clear painful impotence with the female character. He’s so good!

      Definitely a B film in comparison to Rope! And love Orson Welles sort of strolling into the whole thing and taking over. Ha!

      L&L freak me out too – I read the book on which this film was based – “Compulsion” – and have a couple others too.

      // He’s not playing repression, as such, which would be the obvious go-to — he’s conflicted but he’s not repressed, he’s just tightly wound. But he knows what gets him going, and he’s accepted it. //

      Yes!! It’s really an “out” character if you think about it – and in his particular world, that is his tragedy. The script isn’t as explicit as it would be now – but Stockwell is playing it explicitly.

      • Jessie says:

        The “would it help you if I….ordered you to [rape her]” scene is DEFINITELY a stand out. Thanks, Artie, that actually kind of does help! So messed up. But the moment is electric the way they play it.

        I am pretty sure The Celluloid Closest doesn’t mention it. But it’s almost for the best really, because CC is kind of limited, and I am sure it would end up in the category of “negative depictions of queers” when, as we have just discussed on the other thread, that kind of analysis is ultimately inadequate. It serves an important purpose for catastrophically unrepresented/misrepresented groups (I am thinking of the great discussions about transgender representation that are happening at the moment) but there has to be a stage when we move past it.

        • sheila says:

          My friend Alexandra Billings wrote an amazing post for the Huffington Post about Jared Leto – and she was also #5 on a poll at Indiewire as “transgender actresses who could have played Jared Leto’s role”. She’s a great great old friend of mine and is really on the front-lines of the transgender argument going on right now and I am super proud of her. She has been bombarded with hostility after that Huffington Post article – but she is standing strong.

          Her criticism of his performance is spot-on. Not to mention his clueless awards speeches where, to him, playing a transgender character was all about getting a bikini wax. Dumbass.

          There are a lot of problems when we “write off” certain things in the past because they don’t line up with our more “enlightened” sensibility. You know, dismissing the movies of the 30s because the portrayal of blacks is so patronizing. Yes, but it was a different time, let’s move on, let’s not write off those films entirely.

          For 1959, Compulsion is not only pretty explicit – but also rather compassionate. Yes, the guys are murderers. But I didn’t find that the gay-ness of them was explicitly pointed to as “the reason” for them being murderers. Silence of the Lambs was worse in that regard than Compulsion was!!

          • sheila says:

            You may have already read it, but just in case – here’s my friend Alex’s piece in the Huf Post


            She’s one of my dearest friends. She is beautiful, and a hell of an actress.

          • Jessie says:

            I remember reading that when she posted it! Spot on.

            You can’t write “less enlightened” old films off. At the very least, aside from any other merit of old films, to do so gives you a false sense of security about the progressiveness of our current media. “Oh, it was bad back then, but it’s fixed now.” Well, no. Every image is a site of struggle. It’s just easier to pick when we look back. Don’t be so quick to let yourself off the hook!

            Your friend is very cool and sensible and has the fortitude of a champ. “What are you complaining about, you got a movie with a transwoman character, that’s something at least.” Don’t throw me crumbs and call it caviar, assholes!

  3. Harriet says:

    Sheila–Have you been watching Enlisted? It’s a new comedy on Fox, and in the latest episode I was surprised and delighted to see Dean Stockwell as a guest star! I never would have known who he was if it weren’t for your wonderful year of Stockwell obsession.

    • sheila says:

      Oooh!!! Exciting! I don’t know about the show – so excited to hear he’s guest starring! He’s the best!! So glad I’ve passed on the good word about him!

  4. Sue says:

    Happy Birthday Dean!!

    Hi Sheila,
    I’ve been lurking on your site since the 5 for the day for dean. I really enjoy your writing.I too am enthralled by him.

    • sheila says:

      Sue – I love that it was the 5 for the Day that brought you here! Ages ago! I so appreciate you sticking around.

      He really is such a special actor. It’s my favorite kind of career.

  5. Carolyn Clarke says:

    ICYMI, they are playing several of Dean Stockwell’s movies on TCM today.

  6. Mez Lucien says:

    I love Dean Stockwell. Happy birthday Dean. I believe Dean Stockwell should receive an honoury Oscar for a lifetime achievement of work. He deserves it. Dean has been in the film industry for over 70 years. More than most people. His body of work speaks volume. Are you listening Academy. Give this award to Dean Stockwell while he is still with us. Bless you Dean.

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